A blog about all things car-free walking - taking the bus or train to explore the glorious peaks and valleys of the UK

25 February 2010

A Scottish winter wonderland

During the winter months in Scotland, the weather can change hourly and only a fool would pre-empt the forecast more than a day in advance. However, on this occasion, good luck was the reward for some advanced planning and the three of us were provided with some of the best mountain days ever experienced. Our adventure took place over three days, journeying where our curiosity, heavy packs and the avalanche warnings would allow.

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 . . .

Getting there
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.

Staying safe
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

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

The lost village of Imber

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.

But our efforts paid off. Salisbury Plain is always a rewarding place for a walk, but it particularly inspiring at this early hour. The near-full moon shone brightly, illuminating the footpath, and the overhanging grasses tinkled as we crashed through their frost-covered seed heads. Soon we reached a barred gate that marks the perimeter of the army land. This is usually the point to turn left or right and head home via the outskirts of the plateau. But today, like a handful of other days each year, it marks the boundary of something a bit special. Our target was Imber, a deserted village right in the centre of Ministry of Defence land. They open it to the public for just a few days each year and this sense of something ‘forbidden’ makes it a popular trip.

As we had hoped, there was not another soul about. The ghostly outlines of discarded tanks on the hills around provided a reminder of the current land use, but as the first red-brick building appeared, we were reminded that this lonely outpost was once a thriving farming community. The building was the pub, the focus of village life until 1943. In November that year, the MOD told residents they would have to leave so that visiting American troops could practice street fighting. The villagers made this wartime sacrifice with no complaint, perhaps due to a promise that they could return post-war. But to this day, the village is devoid of residents and still used for army training. The only building still functioning is the church of St Giles, which holds services on ‘open’ days.

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.

Getting there
Buses run to Edington, a village on the northern side of Salisbury Plain. You can also reach Imber from Warminster, which has a train station.

When to go
The outer parts of Salisbury Plain are accessible year-round, but Imber only on certain days around Christmas and New Year, Easter and the summer Bank Holidays. Check the Forever Imber website for more information.
For more photos of this walk, visit the Visitorreview page for Car Free Walks.

3 February 2010

Island walking

The Isle of Wight is an ideal location for a car-free walk - its size means many interesting walks are easily reachable, and the remoteness of many locations and the island itself mean many of the island's inhabitants rely on the local bus and train services. The train runs along the eastern side of the island from Ryde to Shanklin, with converted tube carriages meandering along quite frequently. One company, Southern Vectis, runs the majority of the island's buses and they are quite reliable - except when it snows.

Before setting off for a January break on the island, I was told by a family member that 'it never snows on the Isle of Wight'. As we arrived at our cottage at the start of the week, laden with a rucksack each and some emergency shopping, a fellow bus passenger told us about the last time it had snowed on the island - the 1970s. But no one had reckoned with the cold snap that hit the UK over the new year, and the Isle of Wight certainly didn't escape. The good thing about all the snow was that we couldn't have used a car even if we had wanted to, so the walks we had planned were solely reliant on boots, backpacks and the emergency shopping.

Although unexpected, it was good to get some experience of snow walking as it is noticeably different to good weather trips. Progress is a lot slower than the average 3mph when you are walking through knee-deep drifts or negotiating downhill tracks with pockets of ice. So we had to plan accordingly, bearing in mind how early it gets dark, and take extra food and water. And torches. My wind-up bicycle lamp did the trick. The snow also made it harder to find the way, with many signposts coated in thick white and the terrain difficult to relate to the map - roads, tracks and fields all look pretty similar under a blanket of snow. Fortunately some gregarious locals had written signs in the snow - much appreciated.

The Isle of Wight's climate is normally far more agreeable, offering excellent year-round walking, and even in January we noticed the temperate rising in the undercliff of St Lawrence on the southern side of the island, where the variety of plants and wildlife were still evident. A palm tree with its branches laden with snow is a peculiar sight in any part of the world.

It is also a haven for birdwatching and perhaps some residents were feeling the chill beneath their feathers, because plenty were about searching for sustenance. In Niton, we saw flocks of redwings, ravens, black caps and a solitary pied wagtail. On the coast near St Catherine's lighthouse, a buzzard was circling; near the Ryde ferry terminal we spotted avocets and gulls. And there were plenty of more familiar names too - tits, blackbirds and thrushes.

The Isle of Wight is a great learning ground for the novice walker, because of the pleasant temperate climate and the (usually) well-signposted routes. The excellent bus and train network make it ideal for the car-free walker. And the impressive number of pubs, accustomed to catering for people with a friendly welcome and pint of a local brew, make it perfect for all kinds of walker.

By Penny Woods
For more photos, visit Car Free Walk's photo gallery