Car Free Walks
A blog about all things car-free walking - taking the bus or train to explore the glorious peaks and valleys of the UK
5 December 2011
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12 November 2010
Some people might think it unwise to plan a trip to the hills more than two days in advance, let alone two months. But being southern in address, frugal by nature and a non-driver by choice, there is little I can do but throw caution to the wind and commit to the uncertainties of the Scottish weather and plan my adventures early. So on the last day of the stag stalking season, two friends and I from the deepest corners of England’s home counties converged at London Euston to catch the evening sleeper train heading north.
For anyone not familiar with the sleeper, it is nothing if not enjoyable. We lounged in leather sofas while being served cold beer and poring over maps of far-flung lands (in this case OS Explorer map 429) before retiring to our snug bunks, the gentle 80mph perfect for rocking us to sleep. Then in the morning, a cheerful knock at the door and a hot coffee in bed, served in good time to rouse oneself from gentle slumbers and be deposited, early in fact, at the destination of choice.
So it was at 8.30am on a Friday morning, we found ourselves at Inverness station immersed in a misty drizzle. The short interval before our onward train towards Kyle of Lochash allowed little opportunity to source the full-cooked breakfast of our slightly inebriated dreams, meaning a station concourse special for us – flimsy cups full of sausage and beans with disintegrating bags of half-buttered toast.
Achnashellach Station in Glen Carron is a request stop on the line towards Skye. It appears to serve little in the way of foot traffic, but provides an ideal access point to the hills around Loch Monar. With a spring in our step we headed south to the first great obstacle. Note to following parties – we thought that fording the River Carron was possible at the point that the crow would fly, or alternatively, that the footbridge upstream at Craig would still exist to allow our safe and dry passage. We were wrong, twice. Thus, two hours later than planned we finally gained the footpath up through Achnashellach Forest, meandered heavily below Carn Mor and sweated up over the steeper slope of Aon Cheum. Dutch Rob in particular struggling having foolishly agreed to carry the weekend’s supply of fuel. Us, we remained quiet and deferred to injuries of old.
From the top plateau, the first views of the next days’ itinerary revealed a covering of light snow above 700 metres and the first fleeting glimpses of some blue sky above. More immediately, the gentle descent path was located amongst the lochan and we followed the steep-sided stream to the bothy on the valley floor below.
Apparently Bearnais was once considered the coldest bothy in the land. Instead, we found a warm, welcoming, wood-panelled and immaculately tidy place that with some logs in the burner and a brew on the go soon became our home in the hills. Conversations and reminiscences flowed as we waited for company, but nobody came and we were left alone to the joy of shared provisions and a peaceful early night.
The next day broke to a calm sky with a hint of late autumn sunshine. Much excitement too with Dutch Rob’s discovery that, according to the bothy book, roughly a quarter of recent visitors hailed from his motherland – the reasons for which we pondered as we burnt off our breakfast of oats across the flanks of a nameless hillside to gain the crest of the path at the head of Bealach an Sgoltaidh. There, a wall of indistinct purpose points the way to the steep zigzagging path through the two-tiered north face of Bidein a Choire Sheasgaich. But with the instructions of a better half still ringing in my ears, the intended scramble ascent was soon abandoned due to thick coatings of ice in inconvenient places and we opted instead for a path of least consequences to gain the summit for an early lunch and views of coffee-table book proportions.Onwards we went, descending to the saddle and climbing the broad slopes of Lurg Mhor. However, the ice made the traverse towards Meall Mor a little more awkward than some group members could stomach and so, at the chilly shadows of the final exposed step, fear overcame valour and an alternative route was found. This took us down to the shores of Loch Calavie and the sanctuary of the clearly defined and sun-bathed footpath towards Bendronaig Lodge, veering on to Loch an Laoigh.
As the light faded, we bowed our heads to the laws of fate whose wisdom in curtailing our summit push a few hours earlier had better judged the tiredness in our limbs. We slipped, slithered and hopped across the flat boggy lands to the still silent and empty Bearnais bothy for a peaceful night of dice games and cheap corner shop whisky.
Sunday arrived late in the warmth of our sleeping bags, but still without a soul in sight, we bade farewell to Bearnais with promises to return. Following the footpath heading southwest, we steadily climbed to reach the anonymous pass offering stunning views across to Torridon and Skye. At the waterfalls of Eas na Creige Duibhe Moire, we ambled on, hearing but not seeing in a shameful haste to cover the distance quickly. At Achintree it is only a short walk back to the station at Strathcarron from where the return journey could be made. However we’d planned another night in Lochcarron, where the adventure continued, but one of less glorious a story than should grace these pages.
Top tips for long-distance train travel
Daily sleeper train services travel to and from many destinations in Scotland. The cheapest train tickets are those booked in advance, with a limited number of tickets available from £19 each way on the Scotrail ‘Bargain Berths’ website. Tickets normally go on sale about nine weeks in advance. Even if the cheap tickets have sold out, you can book a reclining seat for the night and your journey remains cheap. Although you’ll have to do without the joys of the buffet car and a morning coffee in bed…
This is a copy of an article soon to be published in the newsletter of the Mountain Bothy Association.
Words and pictures by Gary Shipp.
18 October 2010
A friend recommended the Pymmes Brook Trail but it was just a little too urban for me (and goes right past my house) so we decided to brave the world beyond zone three and devise my own walk, taking in part of the London Loop. As a nearby urban walk, it was also a good opportunity to test out what kit I really need, in preparation for more arduous routes where the nearest chemist is more than half a mile away. Compass, plasters, water and cash are always essentials; a good book and a banana protector are perhaps urban luxuries.
The familiar walk to the tube felt different, not just because we were wearing boots rather than smart shoes. It was the prelude to a day of fresh air and adventure, rather than another day in the office.
Cockfosters Station raises a titter among more juvenile Londoners, and has been doing so since the 16th century. The name possibly derives from cock breeding in the area, or that it was once the home of the chief, or cock, forester. The train was littered with discarded Metro newpapers, but instead my required reading today was OS173, which covers North London. Cockfosters wasn't the only name on the map to raise a smile; we also enjoyed the hilarious Ferny Hill, Rough Lot, Cuckolds Hill, and Noddin's Well, to which the response must be 'Really? I didn't know he was ill'.
The route began in the inauspicious surrounds of Cockfosters tube station cark park, and we'd gone barely 10 metres before the map and the compass were out of the 'essentials' list, for urban walks at least. The problem is the number of signs, buildings and landmarks, making it impossible to head west for 100m without walking into a wall. (For the record, turn right out of Cockfosters tube into the car park. There's a green gate on the left signposted 'London Loop', which takes you on to a path that circumvents the cemetery.)
Luckily, we were soon in open fields, woods and parkland, with the distant hum of the M25 largely drowned out by the cawing of crows, jays and magpies. While not the most exotic of species, it was a treat to see a variety of wildlife so close to my urban home, including wood pigeons, grey squirrels, rabbits, green woodpeckers, a crow the size of a chicken, great tits, a flock of starlings, a grey heron and three cock pheasants during the walk.
Passing an impressive, though deserted, children's playground on the right, we crossed into Trent Country Park. Stopping at the entrance cafe for a sneaky slice of carrot cake - another lesson learned for trickier walks: eat breakfast first - we then continued along the London Loop. It is no doubt busy at weekends, but we had it largely to ourselves this Wednesday.
Passing lakes on the right, home to herons and ducks, we began the gentle climb up Camlet Hill. We made a slight detour north to see Camlet Moat, a 15th century island with a shallow moat where a drawbridge and weaponry dating from Roman times have been found. It's reputedly haunted, and is certainly eerie, not least because the algae covering the water makes the moat look like a road, and it would be easy to succumb to the water's depths on a dark night. The woodland surrounding the moat is rich in toadstools, including the fly agaric, easily recognisable to Noddy fans as Big Ears' home. We saw at least 10 varieties, enough for Noddy and Big Ears to climb the mushroom property ladder.
On exiting the wood, the path follows Salmon's Brook. The water still flows but is too shallow to harbour much in the way of fresh fish these days. The London Loop continues up Cuckolds Hill, but we took a detour north on a footpath alongside deeply ploughed fields to the Robin Hood in Botany Bay, a McMullens venue. More of a dining room than a pub, it was nonetheless homely and serves food from noon, making it a great spot for a late lunch (the carrot cake had long since worn off). It serves pub classics, plus a large chargrill and fish menu, platters to share and at least three hot vegetarian choices.
The Ridgeway which leads out of Botany Bay towards the outskirts of Enfield is the least attractive aspect of the walk, (nb you can catch bus 313 here to and from Potters Bar) as the road is busy, picking up the traffic turning into London from the M25 and the North Circular. But the ridge provides good views, with the television mast at Alexandra Palace and even the towers of Canary Wharf clearly visible to the south.
The road dips and climbs, and just beyond the Royal Chase hotel we rejoined the marked path, which heads north to Rectory Farm, home to some timid bullocks and friendly horses, and the red house, then under a railway bridge. You can extend the walk by heading north from St Johns church, but instead we opted for a leisurely pint in the quiet but welcoming Fallow Buck, and were treated by a couple of jays noisily flapping about in the trees opposite. We meandered through the estates to Gordon Hill train station for a short ride home, pitying the commuters surging out of London in the opposite direction. Pubs, walking and some urban wildlife - a perfect London day off.
22 July 2010
Four miles of road walking. Doesn’t sound a great day out, but I’m not the only one trudging the tarmac along the Arisaig coast road. At each small bay and cove, people with cameras and binoculars peer expectantly out to sea. And with good reason … this is one of the UK’s otter hotspots.
The sun is shining – particularly fiercely for a Scottish May – and the sea lochs are shimmering, bright against the peaty brown headlands and islands. It’s a particularly fine stretch of coast, even set within the fierce competition of the west coast. And the tourists are flocking to this corner of the country – business in Mallaig has apparently boomed since the West Highland Railway started promoting day trips to the town from Fort William. The train journey through the highlands is rightly the major attraction, and with ninety minutes to kill in Mallaig (no easy task, I can tell you) they pack into the tea rooms and pubs.
After an hour of waiting, it’s clear the otters aren’t playing ball. Flask empty, newspaper fully browsed, I set off along the coast road again. At Millburn Cottage, I cross the stile and head along the deer tracks to Cruach Doire an Dobhrain, the high point of the Arisaig peninsula.
As summits go, it’s pretty modest – 103m. But the ground is rough going, with no tracks and plenty of heather. After an appreciative gaze at the Rois-Bhein hills to the south, and Rum and Eigg out at sea, I pick my way through the knee-high heather towards the coast, and the peninsula’s more reliable attraction – the remote bay of Port nam Murrach.
If this striking bay was on England’s south coast, it would have the full works – pubs, tea rooms, gift shops, overflowing car parks. Fortunately, it’s 40 minutes away from the nearest parking spot, which seems to be sufficient to keep most people away. Revelling in the solitude, I lie back on the sand and doze for an hour as the waves lap against the surrounding rocks. Balls to otters, this is the only way to spend a treasured sunny day in Scotland.
Returning via the cow-created track past Rhue Cottage, I get my wildlife spotter’s badge for the day – a buzzard circling over Cruach Doire an Dobhrain, with lapwings bobbling about in the nearby field. Heading back along the coastal road, several otter-spotters are still patiently sat by the shore; but for the furry beats are still proving elusive. I head past them towards my tent in Keppoch, via the restorative comforts of the café in Arisaig.
Even in May, Scottish evenings are long, and for those under canvas there’s little chance of sleep much before 11pm. But a long evening is no hardship when my campsite overlooks the islands of Skye and Rum. With the scarlet sun setting behind them, they looked perfect. If I was a Tweeter, I could have made lots of people envious at once, but as it was, I made do with a few texts before heading for the tent and the stove.
Various cafes in Arisaig (although based on my experience, I would avoid the Rhu café). There’s also a small supermarket.
several campsites around Keppoch – take the track past Keppoch house just north of Arisaig and follow the coast around to the campsites.
Trains between Fort William and Mallaig stop at Arisaig, ten minutes from the village centre. There are also local buses that call at Arisaig.
1 May 2010
The problem is that walking is too damn popular these days. Everyone’s at it – old, young, fat, thin, Duke of Edinburgh groups, Ramblers, people trying to get fit, groups raising money for some charity or another – and the great outdoors is taking on the characteristics of our busy day-to-day lives; noise, hustle, and even more bustle. I have seen walkers searching for a space to sit down at the top of Helvellyn, and (from a distance, fortunately) people queuing to go along Crib Goch – madness. I have even heard pub discussions about whether to limit numbers on popular hills – it works in New Zealand, after all. But how would that work – bouncers at Pen-y-Pass? 'Not going up in those boots, Sir.'
It can be immensely frustrating, especially if, like me, you share that sense of entitlement found in many regular walkers – that these people really shouldn’t be there, that I was there first, and they should respect my privacy by finding a different pastime. But there are ways around this irritation.
The first would be to try being a bit less antisocial. But let’s skip that one for now. An alternative is to pick more obscure, unknown hills. They can still be found, even in the Lakes or the Yorkshire Dales – you will rarely find a soul on Black Combe, for example. But then there’s a reason why peaks like Helvellyn are popular – it’s because they’re good, they’re dramatic, they offer the most exciting challenges. So it takes a bit of careful planning to get them to yourself.
Setting off early afternoon is a pretty simple trick. Catch the last bus or train of the day to your hill of choice, and you’ll arrive just everyone else is heading home. I have had the unrivalled experience of enjoying the summit of Snowdon by myself, on a sunny summer weekend, without a soul about except for the crows and seagulls feasting on the remnants of 1001 packed lunches. Heading up at 3pm, I passed the many hundreds of walkers, oozing down the Pyg Track and Miner’s Track like treacle, with only a few curious glances for my troubles. By the time I reached the western edge of Glaslyn, they had all vanished. Perfect.
On a mountain like Snowdon, with clear tracks to follow, it’s easy to plan for the walk down in fading evening light. Another way, and useful for trickier summits, is to camp out wild in the hills. This has the added advantage of getting them to yourself again the next morning, before the hordes begin their march. Nothing beats a cup of tea brewed as the sun goes down behind your favourite peak, when there’s not a sound apart from the gentle crash of a stream or the birds overhead. So if you can’t beat them, avoid them – it’s not always as hard as it seems.
Posted by Tim
25 February 2010
Starting from Corrour Station, we passed the shores of Loch Treig to the valley of Allt na Lairige and an overnight stay in the bothy at the foot of Stob Coire ne Ceannaine. A sharp frost left us languishing in our bunks a little later than planned, but we did at least surprise the locals passing by; they proclaimed their astonishment that southerners such as us had braved the plummeting overnight mercury!
Departing after a warming breakfast of tea and packet porridge, it was not long before layers were shed due to the warming blue skies and the stiff climb to Stob Ban. From this lofty peak, we could view the stunning ridge above the Grey Corries and, confident that snow conditions would allow a safe passage, this was where we headed - an incredible traverse along the line between Stob Coire Leith and Stob Coire an Laoigh.
Choosing our line of descent carefully, we dropped into the valley of Allt Coire Rath, under the watchful eyes of a large herd of deer. A tricky river crossing required caution under heavy loads and tired limbs as the day's walking finished along the frozen banks of Abhainn Rath. Our second, and much needed, night of rest was spent at Maennanach bothy.
On paper, Day 3 could have been quite an undertaking - an 18km walk out along the length of Glen Nevis. However, with snow the consistency of caster sugar, walking was as effortless as one could hope for and under a cloudless sky of the deepest blue, we strolled through the valley, stopping occasionally to savour the silence and the most wonderful ice formations that lay on all sides.
With a head count of only six other people encountered during the whole trip, it was a with a little regret that we emerged back into civilisation. The feeling was strong that we might never enjoy such good fortune as this for a while. But then, the sun always shines on the righteous . . .
The overnight sleeper train from Euston dropped us in the heart of the mountains at 9am. Our berths were £60 pp, booked in advance, though it is possible to get them cheaper via the Bargain Berths website. Our return from Fort William was made during the day, dispersing to various parts of England's south coast for a little under £30. However, a turn-up-on-the-day ticket would have set us back close to five times that amount!
Where to sleep
If you don't know about them already, you really must join the Mountain Bothy Association. They take care of a wide variety of shelters in the upland areas of the UK, and rely on the support of their members (both financial and otherwise) to provide this fantastic resource. Prefering a softer bed and shower before the train journey home, we opted for a last night of comfort at Glen Nevis YHA.
While the summer is midge season in Scotland, the winter hazard of avalanches is far, far greater. Before travelling into the mountains, be sure to get the latest updates from the Sport Scotland Avalanche information Service.
Posting by Gary
Photo's by Matt M
You can view more images from the trip on our Visitor Review site.
For 100's more Car Free Walking routes in England, Scotland and Wales visit www.carfreewalks.org
5 February 2010
We had finalised our plans the night before, sat in front of a blazing fireplace. Up early next day, quick cup of tea, then boots on and straight up on to Salisbury Plain, a ten-mile stomp and back home mid-morning for breakfast. This schedule would allow us to enjoy Wiltshire’s vast chalk plateau in near solitude, before the hordes of walkers, cyclists and rangers arrived. Hopefully we would see plenty of the wildlife that abounds on the lush, undisturbed grasslands and copses.
Standing outside at 6am on a freezing January morning, the flaws in our plan became apparent. My caffeine requirement correlates sharply with how early I rise, and the one cup of tea so far (cup, mind, not mug, and a smallish one at that) had barely raised a flicker on my internal motor. Danny, my walking companion for the day and someone I have long suspected to be of a much sturdier ilk, was thriving in the early morning darkness. Dermot the dog has unbounded energy at any hour, especially when there are rabbits about.
As we left the village, the preparations for a cycle race across the Plain were starting up, with the marshals putting out markers and generally making a lot of noise. We quickened our pace to keep ahead of them and avoid being coated in flying mud. A young deer family trotted briskly across the path in front of us; we stopped to watch them, only to have this scene of countryside idyll torn away by an expletive-laden instruction to, er, ‘go away’. Someone high up on the hillside had spotted the deer before us, and our disturbing presence had prevented a clean shot. Briefly, we considered exerting our right to be there; but he had one gun more than us. Argument settled. Comforted that we had, at least, spared the lives of the those gentle animals for another day, we hurried back to Edington for our sausages and bacon.