Friday, 5 February 2016

Take the Vale

The Bush Inn is described by some as the best pub in Wales. Maybe that’s why it’s so busy on Sunday, when I pop in for a pre-lunchtime drink with Chris and his father. I soon realise, however, that it’s full of local men who’ve escaped their womenfolk for a Sunday pint, so I decide to make an escape of my own. An excellent decision, as it turns out, for the village of St Hilary offers up a lovely walk taking in a treasure trove of a church and the surprise discovery of an eco-retreat. 

Round the bend

Tucked away off a footpath round the back of the village, the Roundhouse Project is an alternative home built by archaeologist Dafydd Wiliam, modelled on a Celtic roundhouse. It has a timber framework, mud walls and a thatched roof (made from water reeds donated by the National Wetlands Centre in Llanelli) and it has taken Dafydd and three friends four years to build. Inside it’s open plan and cosy, thanks to the addition of glazed doors and double-glazed windows. The project aims to demonstrate the concept of low-impact and low-cost development, using only locally sourced materials – a wow factor that has been educational as well as enchanting, with hundreds of schoolchildren visiting the site over the years.

It can also be flat-packed and moved

I walk on to St Hilary’s little church, which dates back to the 14th century, and was restored in the 19th by that master of Victorian Gothic, Sir Gilbert Scott (St Pancras and the Albert Memorial). The church is surrounded by a leafy, tranquil graveyard, while the stained glass inside is elegantly restrained. I notice the Basset family tomb – the Bassetts used to run things around here – as well as the armour-clad effigy of Thomas Bassett, who died in 1423, his face a strangely haunting sight in the silent gloom of the church’s interior. 

Knave's in the hood

It's all in peaceful contrast to our excursion the previous day, to Nash Point lighthouse on the the Vale's south coast. The skies were the brightest blue, but the ice-cold, gusting winds almost blew us off the cliffs and into the Bristol Channel. This time, when someone said ‘I’m off to the pub’, I was only too happy to follow.   

Perfect conditions for photography...

...but not for staying out of doors

Friday, 8 January 2016

Rock hopping

When you wake up to swirling mists in the Spey Valley it's always worth checking the Cairngorm ski area webcam for the bigger picture. Sure enough, the hills are out of the fog and bathed in bright sunshine. 
We decide we've got just enough time to do the Chalamain Gap circuit, a gentle climb to a rock-filled gorge, a descent down to the Lairig Ghru pass on the other side, and a return to the road along the shores of Loch Morlich.
We set off from the Sugar Bowl, a bend in the ski road where the path begins and we're very soon high enough to see the fog-filled valley behind us. 

Aviemore fogbound
Extra-terrestrial clouds
The clouds are making extraordinary shapes and it's frosty, too, with streams swirling under thin lattices of ice. Across the Glenmore valley, the sun picks out the gentle curves of one of our family's favourite hills, Meall a' Bhuachaille (we grew up beneath it, at the Glenmore Lodge outdoor education centre). 

Frozen contours
Sunshine on Meall a' Bhuchaille
When we reach the gorge the kids bound ahead, hopping from boulder to boulder like mountain goats. Looking up at the figures silhouetted at the top of the gorge makes the Chalamain Gap looks more difficult than it actually is. 

Going through the Chalamain Gap
Once there, we follow a great stone-lined path – an impressive piece of volunteer work – down to the Lairig Ghru, then turn right into the forest for the long walk out – but only after a reviving picnic of savouries… and a swig of my sister's raspberry gin.

The path follows the Lairig Ghru to Braemar

Thursday, 31 December 2015

North Sea breeze

A festive catch-up with our Elgin cousins takes us an hour north of Aviemore to the Moray coast. We have a family tradition of meeting and walking along the beach at Lossiemouth, a stunning stretch of sand backed by high dunes. Lossiemouth was once an important fishing town, though now it's better known for its RAF operating base. 

Clan gathering

The weather is always milder here due to the Gulf Stream, and as we step out along the sandy shore the deep snow of Boxing Day feels a world away. 

Enjoying milder weather up north

The beach east of the old harbour is about three miles long and looking out to sea, I realise that the next port of call must be Norway. The only sight to interrupt the view is the odd container ship crossing the horizon.

Next stop Norway

The recent assault of Storm Frank has thrown up all sorts of flotsam, as well as interesting pieces of driftwood. We discover that one creative local has collected a bundle and fashioned into beachfront art. 

Study in flotsam

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Mountain high

This year, all the family gathers for Christmas at our place near Aviemore in the Highlands – we make a noisy crowd, crashing around the forest for the family walk on the day. Later there are 18 of us round the table. 

We rise on Boxing Day to sunshine, blue skies, and a liberal dusting of snow over the hills. Craving some high-level adventure, we get the teenagers winter-suited and booted and meet in the car park of the Cairngorm Mountain ski area. This is Scotland's premier ski resort and everyone has been watching the sky for signs of snow. So it's busy. But most of the crowds are heading towards the funicular railway for the journey up to the Ptarmigan cafe at the top. We're walking – well… it's more than a tenner each way! 

Trekking up the poma track

We set off, trudging through deep snow up to the Coire na Ciste ridge. Spindly wooden fences – a Cairngorm trademark – do a great job of stopping the snow and gathering it into powdery drifts.  

Taking a breather

Some skiers pass by on their way down, but we can hear the cracks as their skis hit stones just under the surface. The breeze picks up as we get to the top of the ridge. We make shapes against the low winter sun, buffeted by windblown snow. 

Throwing shapes
Cold and blowy on the ridge

At the top, before we recharge our batteries with hot soup and chips, we take in the view north – all the way to the sea… 

Looking north – a perfect sky

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Off the wall in Edinburgh

Edinburgh isn't particularly known for its street art, but its Leith neighbourhood boasts a clutch of outdoor murals. Strung together they make a most rewarding and thought-provoking walk. Three have been around since the 1980s, but because they're tucked away, around unsalubrious corners, I'd never seen them –despite the Michelin-starred restaurants along The Shore, the world of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting alive and well, just a stone's throw away. 

On a recent visit, I take my own Leith mural tour, starting in Bonnington (formerly Bonny toun) Road with the Swanfield Mill mural (1986), by David Wilkinson, a tall, majestic work that references the old Swanfield Flour Mill, of which only one building survives. 

Swanfield Mill mural

I almost miss the Eduardo Paolozzi mural (2014) by Russell Ian Dempster, a splendid backdrop for anyone waiting at the bus stop on Henderson Street. Pop artist Paolozzi grew up nearby, in a flat above his Italian parents' ice cream and confectionary shop.

Eduardo Paolozzi mural

Another of the original murals was painted alongside the Leith Social Work Department building, now gone. As part of an environmental project in 1984, residents of Links View House were asked to choose the subject matter and Tim Chalk and the Artists' Collective got to work creating a sea view with gulls and a variety of flags. The goalposts were added later, I reckon. 

Links View mural

On to the Leith Dockers Club in Academy Street, where Tom Ewing was commissioned to paint a tribute to Leith and the club. The mural is entitled Sunshine on Leith and depicts Leith Walk, the old docks and other landmarks of the area, including the former seaman's mission, now the Malmaison hotel. It was unveiled by Trainspotting author, Irvine Welsh, in 2014.

Leith Dockers Club mural detail

Round a few more back alleys, I find the Leith Aquatic Mural (2013) by the Blameless Collective at the end of Halmyre Street. This wonderful seascape features elements based on the memories of residents of the Port of Leith Housing Association's Jameson Place. Central to the mural is the Leith-registered steam trawler SS Explorer, and weaving in and out are visual references to fishwives, the Proclaimers' Sunshine on Leith and, of course, Trainspotting

Leith Aquatic mural
Leith Aquatic mural, Trainspotting reference

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Sunshine and Leith

You catch plenty of glimpses of the Water of Leith while ambling around Edinburgh but not many people realise there's a walkway that follows the river's entire length – 24 miles from its source in the Pentland Hills, through the heart of the capital, to the Firth of Forth at Leith. The river was Edinburgh's industrial heartland, lined with mills harnessing the power of the water to produce paper, fabric and flour, while the river mouth supported a boat and shipbuilding industry. Now it's a ribbon of green meandering across the city.

Urban oasis

With the aim of walking at least half of it one Saturday, some old school friends and I meet at the Water of Leith visitor centre at Slateford. This area was once a busy river crossing and a thriving village grew up around the nearby quarries. An impressive aqueduct and viaduct loom over the path as we set off on our walk, echoes of a 19th century industrial past.

Slateford crossings

Over the next few miles we pass iconic Edinburgh sites, including remnants of the 1908 Scottish National Exhibition, Murrayfield rugby stadium, the cathedral-like towers of Donaldson's School for the Deaf, and a sobering glimpse of the barbed wire fence surrounding Saughton Prison.

Dean Village nestles in a steep-sided gorge where the Dean Bridge, designed by Thomas Telford in 1832, towers above the river at a height of 32 metres. There were mills along this stretch as far back as the 12th century and the village became a centre for flour milling. 

Dean Village
Telford's towering bridge

Here you can pop up to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art for lunch and a loll about on its expansive lawn, taking in the many outdoor sculptures.  

Miro on the lawn

We notice the work of guerrilla stone-balancers, whose rock creations teeter precariously midstream. 

Stone love

A little further on, towards Stockbridge (meaning timber bridge), another highlight of the route is the St Bernard's Well, popular in the 19th century for its mineral water. Housed inside a roman-style temple with Hygeia, the goddess of health at the centre, recent analysis shows the water to be unfit for drinking.

Inside St Bernard's Well

We walk on through Canonmills (so called because King David l granted one of his mills to the Canon, in 1128). This weekend there's a free festival called Fanfare going on at 12 locations along the Water of Leith. We're lucky enough to catch one of the brass bands in St Mark's Park, by the river at Warriston. We soon singing along to an eclectic set that ranges from Bach to Adele. Sublime.

Brassed off

The walk ends in Leith Docks with its mix of bars, restaurants and restored warehouses. Moored next to Ocean Terminal, a shopping mall, is former Royal Yacht Brittania, now a major visitor attraction. For me, the view of one of Anthony Gormley's life-size figures, staring out to sea, is a far more fitting way to end the walk. 

Sea view at Leith

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Tour de force: last leg

The finale of the London Bulgarian Choir's tour is a monastery town called Troyan, where former choir members, Tsenka and Rolf, have organised a concert, as well as places for us to stay. 

To get there, we cross the Balkan mountain range that stretches all the way from Serbia to the Black Sea. It's a steep, winding road and we make the most of the views – and a break from the hairpin bends – at the top of the pass. 

The point of no return
We visit the monastery, a tranquil retreat with a chapel decorated with delicately fading frescoes. We're invited to sing some of our orthodox songs inside and the monks, visibly moved, lead us to their guest quarters for some hospitality – their own homemade rakia. 

Monastic peace and quiet
A matter of life and death
Going inside to sing

The concert that evening is outdoors and we're joined by a local choir who sing in a classical style, a real contrast to the folk melodies and chorals we've just experienced at Koprivshtitsa. It all goes well, and is followed by a slap-up meal laid on by the town council. Several raucous songs later, we slink off to bed. The tour has reached its end. We're hoarse, sleep-deprived and hungover. But we'd do it all again in a heartbeat.

Time for the bus home...