The preparations for going away occur as a sequence in ‘Ben’s Munro symphony’. They start in low key, several days before take off and then rise – in a crescendo of activity – till the eve of departure. It begins like the tinkles from percussion instruments, with a gentle suggestion that something is afoot. This is characterised by visits to the back of my van which has been foreign territory since our last Munro trip. In the next piece the strings play in harmony and I like this part very much. Here my food is topped up and my treats made ready. Bottles of beer find their way, mysteriously, into the passenger well. My bowls and B’s crockery are introduced together with, my blanket and B’s sleeping bag. Other assorted twin sets are also assembled. The final movement is a full blown wind section, with trumpet and horn giving it wellie, to salute the night before the big departure. In packing up my van, this means the last minute essentials are squeezed in: maps, routes, rucksack, boots, GPS and all those digital essentials, newly charged. By this time my van is full to the gunwales and I am a nervous wreck.
An overnight sleep settles me a little and, if I’m lucky enough to bump into my pal Oscar – during my morning walk – I can expend all of that pent up energy in play and then my equilibrium is restored. As the year goes by I get more accustomed to the routine and so, when we set off on 30th August, I was more at ease than on the previous two occasions. Unfortunately, I have had to get used to another regular feature of our travel, known as the bottle neck. In my bottle today I was hemmed in by four wheeled things of all persuasions, some of them giants towering over me in a v. v. v frightening fashion. Yet again, none of us were going anywhere soon. The world and his dog were out – en fête – to witness the opening of the ‘Queensferry Crossing’ – the bridge over the Forth estuary near Edinburgh, newly opened today. This spectacle has been called the biggest infrastructure project in Scotland for a generation.
Initially, the Queensferry Crossing is going to have a 40 mph speed limit and all traffic will cross it, with cyclists and pedestrians using the much quieter, original, Forth Road Bridge. I can tell you there wasn’t a need for any law enforcers to keep an eye on unruly motorists today. The idea is that work will take place on the old bridge, that me and B used last year, to complete its transformation into an active travel corridor. Once complete, public transport will use it and the Queensferry Crossing will then become a fully functional motorway with a new speed limit of 70mph. I have this utopian vision of me and B getting to the Munros without a go slow around Edinburgh, every time we venture north; pipe dreams possibly, whatever the heck they are.
I can’t tell you how nervous I was because… the last time I had cast my eyes on this bridge it was incomplete, if you remember. My van would have to complete an Olympic long jump to get across the gaps. Putting my paws together I prayed v. v. v hard, to the god of modern engineering design called, in this case, Ramboll, that hey had got on with the job. Then, oh my golly gosh, me and B saw this in the Edinburgh Evening News. It told us there was a ‘completely safe’ 14 inch gap in the middle of the bridge such as the one on a modern bridge in Lisborn. Can you even begin to imagine the consternation this caused the butterflies in my tummy, who haven’t got a clue about speed limits.
At this point in our journey, the acquaintance between B’s foot and the accelerator was as rare as the acquaintance between her mouth and a cup of tea, at 8.30pm on a Saturday night. We covered the formidable distance of 7 miles in 1.5 hours. But then, in the next 1.5 hours, we travelled just short of 90 miles and rolled up in the car park at the Bridge of Tilt, close to Blair Athol, which was to act as welcome host for my van that night. The contrast was mind boggling with only five vehicles for company. Their owners came back – sporting walking boots, or riding mountain bikes – after their long day on the hills. This was my sort of place, my sort of people; a place where I could put my head down in tranquillity, before starting on the Munro project tomorrow.
Oh my dog, what a mess my head space was in as I tucked up for the next instalment of our adventure.
A big, big welcome to my new cousin who is lucky enough to reside on a narrow boat. I bet a young puppy like you can get into all sorts of trouble of one of those. I can’t wait to meet you Bobby and for us to have fun and games together. Perhaps you might be able to persuade your person to do the Munros with B. Then we could be best buddies together.
We have returned from my last Munro weekend this year and I was very confused because we passed the turn off for home and came straight down to the caravan, which has some v.v.v welcome soft furnishings. Apparently, I’m on holiday here for two weeks. It’s hard for me to get an internet connection here, so I won’t be able to post all my latest adventures until I get home again but, rest assured, I will be busy writing them up in long paw.
What I can tell you for now is that we are back in one piece and did complete Munro routes every day, with 6 more now in the bag, bringing the total to 46. Please touch wood for me now, prior to reading the next sentence. My van did BRILLIANTLY. I now have a nice picture in my head of all my fans touching wood together.
In the meantime, look what Arnold Clark have up on their wall at their head office. It was designed in house by James Speed and then updated by Charlotte Hepworth. Aren’t they very clever artists?
Just as I posted my last blog – recording the highlights of our first two weekends of Munro bagging – it seems, we might be off again; destination and summits unknown. This doesn’t do anything to settle the anxiety juices that start doing a twist and shake, prior to a full blown tango, when packing commences. And, packing my van takes a v. v. v long time.
We are going to being doing a lot of that playing it by ear thing, which isn’t good for me. Not least because I can’t begin to think what it means. We are ranging about the south eastern Cairngorms and the south east highlands, taking us where the weather is finest. After such a horrible wet and windy spell we are just hoping we can do just a bit more before hanging up our boots for the year. Though, I have it on good authority, that B might be going off on some high ridges without me later on. I’m trying not to listen to that.
I’ll spill all the beans when I get back but I’ll need a lot of zzzzzzzzs first.
I don’t think the large glass of malt whisky that B poured, when she got back from the pub last night, was a particularly good idea. Drowning your sorrows after failing to bag a Munro is one thing but – when you have to get up at 5.30am to do another couple the next day- a fuzzy head isn’t a great start. I could sense that there wasn’t going to be much in the way of stimulating conversation during the drive, so I kept my head down and caught up on a bit of lost sleep. Then, before my watch chimed 8.00, B was looking for a lay by just south of Crianlarich to begin our walk. Unfortunately, we had gone too far so had to do a big wheelie, drive a bit further back the way we had come and then park up. I showed off my stile crossing technique, in a perfectly synchronised: hop, hop, up and over; hop, hop, down, as if I had a black belt in this art form. We spent quite a long time rummaging about to find a railway underpass, one of the more obvious navigational features you might think. Well perhaps ordinarily so but not, it seems, when you have parked in the wrong lay by and gone over the wrong stile. So, it was back to the car and back to Crianlarich to try again. This time, B cottoned on to the facility of using the route she had planned on her GPS to make sure we started out at the right place! We had only lost an hour in the process but still, it’s all learning I suppose.
The weather controller hadn’t decided what way to cast the day yet and so the cloud played a game of hide and seek with the sun.
Assiduously following the route from the wonderful, A rated, Walk Highlands website, we knew we needed to pass through two gates and then turn right onto a faint footpath up the hill. Before passing the first gate a nice farmer passed us in his Land Rover. I knew he was a nice farmer because, although he waved at B, it was me he was looking at with that big broad smile on his face. We went through the first gate and then on and on waiting to come upon the second. I guessed something was up when we started going downhill. Even I knew we couldn’t have done a Munro already. B checked the GPS and the little pointer was bang on the route so we carried on but… it definitely didn’t feel right, especially when the track petered out. It didn’t look right on the map either, surely we shouldn’t have gone such a long way beyond the tress on the other side of the river. We got the GPS out again and oh dearie me, we were still on the route… except, B realised, it was the route back! We were doing a circular trip and re-joining the route out at the second gate – where ever that was. Just now we were exactly where we should be in approximately five hours time.
It was black hat time again as we retraced our steps to see if there was a path by the gate we had passed through (regardless of where that elusive second gate was). The mist had stubbornly seen off any lingering shades of blue and the wet, wet, wet above was a forgone conclusion. Additionally, we were much later than planned and we had no idea of our route to the top. We also had the long journey home to consider; despondency gate-crashed our hearts. The thought of ascending into bad weather yet again – with the not unlikely possibility of withdrawal for safety reasons on the cards – was soul destroying. However, to give up at this stage was also unthinkable. One uncompleted route from the weekend wasn’t great but two was totally unpalatable. Is it really better to try and fail, we wondered.
Back at the gate, some thirty minutes later, there was indeed a faint path and so what could we do but follow it and, as B said, “play it by ear”. Sometimes I just haven’t got a clue what she is going on about. We started off plodding uphill through boggy terrain and it wasn’t long before B’s rucksack was much lighter because half the contents were protecting her against the wind and rain. It was a long hard trudge up and, signs that the spherical sun was indeed fighting a loosing battle behind the density of grey cloud, could have transmuted heartsickness to homesickness and a throwing in of towels. However, in spite of it all, there was a certain magic in these atmospheric conditions. If yesterday’s walk, on Ben Vorlich, had been conducted to the accompaniment of a persistent chorus of raucous walkers then today’s was a totally silent symphony that wrapped itself around the hills and hugged us in an invigorating embrace of splendid isolation. Once on the ridge we joined the joyfully meandering path across the flanks of the aptly named TwistinHill.
Up here the going became easier for a while and the contingent of woolly things, strung out all along the path, heralded a fast and furious supply of my favourite mature cheddar. The flock never diminished so that – by the time we reached the next point of steep ascent – my commodious tummy was something of a burden. This was a little inconvenient, particularly when the stonier, wet path required a nimbleness of foot work that would have been more easier accomplished by a slimmer version of Ben! As we climbed the ambiance became bleaker, even more mysterious, while visibility shrank to a few metres ahead. We were right in there with Kuo Hsi, painter and essayist who pre-empted us nearly 1000 years ago, during the Sung dynasty, when he said, “…haze, mist and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what human nature seeks.” I didn’t rate him that highly though, because he omitted to say woolly things are what canine nature seeks. Sadly, haze, mist and haunting spirits did little to give my portrait, at the top of An Caisteal, the definition it deserves.
If nimble toes were needed for the way up then firm and secure paws were the order of the day on the way down. A sharp descent on unforgivably saturated rock needed v. v. v close attention. Trying to watch my step while, at the same time, not pulling too hard on the lead required a degree of concentration that made my brain hurt. Despite the conditions we made it safely down to the col where the cloud had thinned a little. From here it was a very clever path that found its way through the rocky escarpment on the south west face of Beinn a Chroin. Eventually though, it needed to take a near vertical ascent, as we turned north east. Normally, scrambling is when I need to do very big jumps up and B is left behind looking for hand and footholds to haul herself up behind me. However today, because of the slippery rock, I got up OK but kept sliding back. The butterflies – that had lying dormant since our journey north – had more room to dance about my expanded paunch as I did lots of desperate doggy paddle movements to try and secure a purchase, but to no avail. Luckily B had her hand on my bottom and just kept pushing and pushing. While we worked our way up in this manner I was a little concerned because there was no one behind to push B’s bottom up if her boots lost their grip.
Thank goodness we averted disaster and so, before long, B was doing a bit of a dance around the summit of Munro number forty. Meantime, I was squirming in embarrassment and so, so pleased that we were on our own. If you have ever seen B dancing you will know exactly what I mean.
Next, we had to start making our way downhill and – having just had the experience of sliding down wet rock – I was beginning to worry about what the big descent from over 3,000 feet up, to the River Falloch, would involve: how steep, how slippery, how often would we fall over, could B carry me if I broke my femur; could I be the best buddy in the world if B had a nasty fall; doing the Munros is not a restful experience.
As it happens, almost miraculously, the path wove it’s way down several thousand feet in a graceful serpentine that put even my butterflies back to sleep. Down near the river-bed we assumed we had done the worst. Never, ever, let a small thing – like being on the flat – lull you into a false sense of security. For the next half hour or so, we ploughed our way across a bog like none we had ever come across before. Submerging our feet in soggy acres of moorland, our procession went – foot-in-foot – with squelching, slipping and sliding, while making surprisingly slow progress. Having survived the mud bath (just), I was weighing up the damage from today’s acquaintance with the hills: legs OK – though aching; furry coat saturated; tummy matted with horrible peat; head space a mess. I needed the sanctuary of home and to be reacquainted with the civilising influence of the soft furnishings. Eventually we found a nice big, solid track and – guess what – this is where we were over five hours ago, when we had gone the wrong way.
Suddenly, back on Terra-ferma, a mood of jubilation took hold. With the two Munros – we were so uncertain of completing – safely in the bag, I got to wondering again about the missing gate from this morning and the nice farmer. With the confluence of those two thoughts I had one of those things they call a light bulb moment. Could it be that the farmer, knowing he was shortly returning, had left a gate open and me & B had gone through without noticing it. Right enough, close to the start of our walk there it was, a huge gap in the fence, big gates pinned back against masterly fence posts, which B hadn’t noticed. For all the 40 Munros, she’s not getting much better in the navigation department, is she?
Back at my van, we were very wet, very hungry and very euphoric. Despite yesterdays blip we had still conquered 11 Munros this weekend. B hugged me in celebration which made me, and the butterflies in my tummy, go all warm. Then: we got an hours shut eye in the back of my van; B made use of the h & c facilities in the loos at Crianlarich and we set off for home. I caught up on some more much needed shut eye.
Exhausted as I was, I still learnt something else new that night – which Millie hadn’t told me about. Humans do that leaning thing too. As soon as we got into our living room – the one with the nice soft furnishings – B did the leaning thing on David, which got her a v. v. v big glass of wine, as a treat.
You just wouldn’t believe the number of zzzzzzzs I have done since then.
Look at the poem David posted in response to my last blog. The one where I was drifting off into sweet dreams. This poem was first published in a big fancy magazine called ‘This England’ and, the second time, is on my blog. How cool is that?
Copyright belongs to David Carroll not Ben, but I hope to profit – in the shape of nice juicy treats – as a result of any reproduction fees.
What do dogs dream of I wonder,
As they shuffle and twitch by the fire;
A rabbit, perhaps, or a cat in the hedge,
Or a moment’s unbridled desire?
Are they chasing the wheels of a lorry,
Or hearing their dinner bowls clang,
Or recalling that moment an hour ago
When the telephone noisily rang?
Do they dream, like their master and mistress,
Of luxury cruises and cars,
Of jetting off to the West Indies
And propping up tropical bars?
Perhaps they’ve become rich and famous,
Their privileged lives one long treat,
Reclining in gold-lame` baskets
And dining off choice cuts of meat.
But when they awake from their slumbers,
And find their toys strewn on the floor,
They know in their hearts that life’s simple
Pleasures are what above all they adore.
Friends, collies and in memory of my coach and mentor, Millie Porter-Brown,
I am so sad to lost have my dear friend who gave me such wise advise, helping me to get a constant supply of food from my people. Her wisdom will live on as I live the dream.
While I might have had a good reason to divert from my walking blogs last time, to discuss the rights and wrongs of wild camping, I was also putting off reporting our next walk. By the time me and B got back to my van, on day three of my second weekend, we were finding it difficult to shift the black hats we had donned. Things hadn’t started well when B – getting her boots – noticed that driving along the last bumpy, minor road had caused our water container to leak all over the back of my van. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this but, a little water goes a long way. Well, this was a lot of water going a v. v. v long way, including all of B’s bedding, though stopping short of mine (hee, hee). The time spent mopping up the worst, on top of our travel time, made us nearly two hours later in starting than we would have wished. Setting off into hills that were clothed in cloud didn’t do anything to raise the already dampened spirits (another pun in this blog, I’m really getting the hang of it). Today I began to realise that me and the de ja vue person, who hung about so many of our walks, were never going to be best friends.
Early on our walk we had to negotiate three wooden stiles as our path crossed boundary fences where gates were locked and, I must confess, I had never mastered the art. At the first B sort of hauled me up and pushed me down and my reunion with the path was anything but graceful. For number two B thought it might be best tackled by sprawling down and crawling, crab like, under the gate; this did nothing at all for my dignity. By number the three I was determined to prove myself, showing I could learn the technical manoeuvre of up, up and over. I was so taken with my success that, without warning, I flew over straight into B’s arms, nearly toppling her in the process. I hadn’t yet learnt that the two planks on the other side of the fence require equally nifty down, down footwork.
We were heading up hill on a decent track at a reasonable incline though, looking into the mist we could see the faint outline of much steeper things to come and, of course, a renewed acquaintance with the wet stuff. At this point our walk was punctuated when B put on her nice comfy waterproofs so that we could plough on regardless. I used this opportunity to try out one of Millie’s ‘let’s get food’ strategies. I have got the hang of the doleful eyes, as the picture at the top of website shows. Now I was going for the cuddling up and leaning in tactic. It seems there is still a bit to learn about this plan of action. As a means of suggesting how sweet I am, and therefore how worthy of just another little treat, it works wonders on the flat. However, the weight of my body doesn’t seem to go down to well on a gradiant of 1 in 3. I don’t think they can have many steep hills like that in Norfolk because Millie hadn’t warned me about this. Having nearly floored B a second time, I though it better to stick to the pleading eyes routine.
Ben Vorlic is one of those very steep sided hills clustered around Loch Lomond and Crianlarich. As we got further up I found that B was trying to copy the four legged position, which comes so naturally to me. It was wet. It was windy. We couldn’t see a thing. Yet there it was, bold as brass and half the price, the trig point at the summit. Our bag now had the number 38 on it in big letters. We walked south to the cairn and then continued on a grassy path that got narrower and narrower. Realising we had gone wrong we did one of those u turns politicians are so famous for. OH my galligaskins, on return there were about 20 youths parading around the trig point. This brought on an extravagance of cheese to keep me happy and, though I was enjoying it mightily, I was wondering about the sustainability of supply at the this level of chain feeding.
Now, here things go a bit pear shaped I’m afraid. The map is a bit of a disaster area in the wind, especially while trying to keep me from the young people and, of course, the glasses have steamed up. Also, the GPS went in for a slice of bad timing too. Change my batteries was the last thing that B wanted to see. Well actually, not quite. What she really, really, really didn’t want to see was droves of young people coming up the narrow path, to join their fitter friends above. There were a continuous dog leg of them (if you’ll pardon the expression), for as far as the eye could see and, the ones on all fours at the back were not happy; it was a noisy and frightening experience. I lost touch with my concerns about the later availability of Primula, threw caution to the wind, and took every bit that was offered, to try and maintain a facade of control. We had come down away from the summit and were sitting off the path while B tried to change the batteries in the GPS, to work out where we had gone wrong. Apparently, trying to control an anxious dog with a constant squeeze of Primula while, at the same time, trying to keep the back of the GPS dry when changing the batteries in pouring rain, is v. v. v hard work. This became apparent when the GPS case went tumbling down the steep east face of Ben Vorlic, along with the supply of new batteries.
B was fairly sure we had come way too far down the mountain but all that awaited us, if we managed to haul ourselves back up, was a marauding troop of angst driven, hormonal teenagers, now swollen to about 40. The prospect didn’t appeal to B and, with my concerns about how far one tube of Primula can go, neither did it to me. We reluctantly decided against that course of action. This was no small matter. Though we had achieved one Munro it was no good without the other. Ben Vorlich would have to be done again, in order to bag Stuc a Chroin. Damn and blast are two words that describe our feelings at the time. These weren’t the words that issued forth from B’s lips. As an innocent in the world of expletives I tried to put my paws over my ears and convey a glass half full mentality, against the odds, as we continued retracing our steps downhill.
Sadly, while we were both trying to cope with our despondency, a fellow walker past on his way up, with an acrid smell of smug self-confidence, and I just couldn’t help myself; I had held it together far too long and B – in the act of trying to keep herself upright on steep wet scree – was a little slow with the Primular. Fury got hold of me and I did lots of barking, lunging and grabbing of trousers. I feel bad about this because he was a nice man and said it was OK but, we’ll never know if my big incisors did a v. v. v bad thing with what looked like quality trousers. At this time jet black describes the colour of the hats we were wearing.
We tried hard to get it all in perspective and pretended we could just post photos of trig points – because they all look the same – and pretend we had done lots and lots of Munros. With such duplicitous thoughts our spirits lightened a little and when I thought of the soft furnishings at home, that I would revisit tomorrow, I was able to put my yellow hat on. From sunny optimism I went for a red hat to test out my gut reaction. Immediately we were perched on a wet rock, munching something tasty, and the world was suddenly a much better place for it.
Finding ourselves on the outward track again meant three stiles to cross on the way back to my van and I was very impressive – even if I say so myself. The rhythm of up, up – over – down, down, was pure canine poetry in motion. Our retreat was concluded by a drive back to Comrie where we could sleep in a car park in the road appropriately called, Field of Refuge. I found a handy spot where I could lift my leg and spent a long time relieving myself but, apparently, that wasn’t a very good idea.
B learned 3 very important lessons that day:
Don’t rely on the GPS. Batteries are known to do a roly-poly down hills.
Only apply your black hat when you need it to keep you safe. Always end the day with a yellow hat and NEVER, EVER go to bed with a black hat on.
The toilets in Comrie – only having cold water – aren’t a patch on the H & C facilities at the ski centre on the A93.
B ended the day with a very elaborate yellow hat. She knew exactly how she was going to keep her spirits up. She left me to it and was off to the pub where she had two LARGE glasses of wine and a hot bar meal. I wore a much cheaper yellow hat because I just curled up and put my head down, hoping for a better day tomorrow and, in the meantime, hoping for sweet dreams.
After yesterdays 9.5 hour walk all we were good for was a quick bite to eat and lots of sleep; B was in no condition to drive far. We made it the few miles down Glen Shee, to what had become our favourite lay by, and mentally adjusted the time we would start our walk tomorrow to allow for the travelling time that we hadn’t managed today.
In the inevitable way that time passes 5.30am came around with indecent speed and the equally inevitable movement, coming from the body next to mine, started in earnest. If I could talk I would have said, “B, I’m so tired and every bit of me hurts’. Mind you, given the time and gyrations it took for B to get from sleeping bag into clothes, I think the same could be said of her. She must have had pleasant dreams though, and woken up with her happy yellow hat on, because she reassured me that we would waken up, and loosen up, once we got going. I wasn’t at all convinced but – being the buddy I am – I resisted the temptation to down tools, turn a cold shoulder and go back to sleep.
We headed South on the A93 and then west to Crieff, passing the wonderful Scone Palace en route and in just a few more miles we had saluted Comrie and were on our way to Loch Earn. It seemed, as we drove along the minor road south of the loch, that half of Glasgow had emigrated to tents on shores of the water. The widening of restrictions on wild camping – by Loch Lomond & in the Trossacs – had clearly missed the attention of those who had enjoyed the most fabulous vista, while stoking their barbecues and swigging their beer last night.
These limitations have given rise to heated debate on both sides, with each camp (hee, hee, clever pun eh!), having credible arguments to put forward. It looked a mess, some people were probably very noisy and very drunk late into the night and a number of vehicles had parked in passing places. On the other hand, if you live in a city – perhaps in cramped housing conditions, or a high rise flat – and can’t afford traditional holiday accommodation like posh hotels or even meagre B & Bs, why shouldn’t you escape for the odd night to witness the truly awesome experience of sleeping out under the stars, watching the moon light up the loch and cast reflections of the hills into it’s translucent waters. And, so what if you are young and high spirited. Whose land is it anyway. B’s sympathies, on the side of the campers, was finally decided at the end of our walk when we saw the face of privilege stare blatantly at us in the form of a fabulous palatial house, situated high about the loch. It’s acres of manicured lawns stretched out from a large semi circular forecourt fronting the mansion. 3 new 4 x 4s and a top of the range sports car were parked here completing a glossy photograph you could expect to see on the cover of Country Life magazine. Why shouldn’t everyone have access to the opportunity of experiencing the stunning landscape in which this loch was set, by whatever means you could afford, thought B.
My own decision about which side of the argument to pitch in with (another pun, I’m good aren’t I) was a bit more complex and ultimately, left unresolved. Now I could see the advantage of palling up with the great danes, on thick fur rugs in front of a glorious log fire, replete after a nice dinner of sirloin steak. Yet, I could also smell the scent of those wonderful barbecued pork sausages and they were very tempting too. But, with all that booze knocking about – crystal tumblers of malt whisky at the big house, or bottles of beer and wine cooling in Loch Earn – would the humans remember to feed their four legged companions? What I really couldn’t work out was, which faction would be most likely to let a young knave like me share their supper. I know what B thinks and I bet you know too by this time, but I wonder what you think. It would be lovely, lovely, lovely, if you dropped me a line with your opinion to help me solve my conundrum.
Back at our van, after a very wet day, all the campers had gone home and not left a scrap of litter. Nor had they left me even a morsel of the scarred remains from their barbecue. There is much more to be said about this important question of rights, land ownership and feeding dogs, if you are interested, you can read more about it here: