This afternoon, the kids and I helped with some citizen science as part of the Thames WaterBlitz, a collaborative effort to sample water quality of the rivers, canals, and ponds of the Thames Valley to produce valuable data for the researchers of today and tomorrow.
My two little science assistants didn’t need any encouragement to get out of the house and into the sunshine and were eager to go. I didn’t even have to pull out my trump card of pointing out that there were fruiting brambles along the length of the canal. As I observed in a vlog last year, it’s usually pretty easy to motivate the tykes with a little foraging.
The EarthWatch Institute had provided all the chemicals and instructions we needed by post, as well as a mobile app with which to record our results (or paper forms, if we preferred). Right after lunch, we watched their instructional video and set out to the sampling site. We’d scouted out a handful of sites including some on the River Cherwell as it snakes through Kidlington but for this our first water-watch expedition we figured we’d err on the safe side and aim to target only a single site: we chose this one both because it’s close to home and because a previous year’s citizen scientist was here, too, improving the comparability of the results year-on-year.
We might never have been very good at keeping track of the exact date our relationship began in Edinburgh twelve years ago, but that doesn’t stop Ruth and I from celebrating it, often with a trip away very-approximately in the summer. This year, we marked the occasion with a return to Scotland, cycling our way around and between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Even sharing a lightweight conventional bike and a powerful e-bike, travelling under your own steam makes you pack lightly. We were able to get everything we needed – including packing for the diversity of weather we’d been told to expect – in a couple of pannier bags and a backpack, and pedalled our way down to Oxford Parkway station to start our journey.
In anticipation of our trip and as a gift to me, Ruth had arranged for tickets on the Caledonian Sleeper train from London to Glasgow and returning from Edinburgh to London to bookend our adventure. A previous sleeper train ticket she’d purchased, for Robin as part of Challenge Robin II, had lead to enormous difficulties when the train got cancelled… but how often can sleeper trains get cancelled, anyway?
Turns out… more-often than you’d think. We cycled across London and got to Euston Station just in time to order dinner and pour a glass of wine before we received an email to let us know that our train had been cancelled.
Station staff advised us that instead of a nice fast train full of beds they’d arranged for a grotty slow bus full of disappointment. It took quite a bit of standing-around and waiting to speak to the right people before anybody could even confirm that we’d be able to stow our bikes on the bus, without which our plans would have been completely scuppered. Not a great start!
Eight uncomfortable hours of tedious motorway (and the opportunity to wave at Oxford as we went back past it) and two service stations later, we finally reached Glasgow.
Despite being tired and in spite of the threatening stormclouds gathering above, we pushed on with our plans to explore Glasgow. We opted to put our trust into random exploration – aided by responses to weirdly-phrased questions to Google Assistant about what we should see or do – to deliver us serendipitous discoveries, and this plan worked well for us. Glasgow’s network of cycle paths and routes seems to be effectively-managed and sprawls across the city, and getting around was incredibly easy (although it’s hilly enough that I found plenty of opportunities to require the lowest gears my bike could offer).
We kicked off by marvelling at the extravagance of the memorials at Glasgow Necropolis, a sprawling 19th-century cemetery covering an entire hill near the city’s cathedral. Especially towards the top of the hill the crypts and monuments give the impression that the dead were competing as to who could leave the most-conspicuous marker behind, but there are gems of subtler and more-attractive Gothic architecture to be seen, too. Finding a convenient nearby geocache completed the experience.
Pushing on, we headed downriver in search of further adventure… and breakfast. The latter was provided by the delightful Meat Up Deli, who make a spectacularly-good omelette. There, in the shadow of Partick Station, Ruth expressed surprise at the prevalence of railway stations in Glasgow; she, like many folks, hadn’t known that Glasgow is served by an underground train network, But I too would get to learn things I hadn’t known about the subway at our next destination.
We visited the Riverside Museum, whose exhibitions are dedicated to the history of transport and industry, with a strong local focus. It’s a terrifically-engaging museum which does a better-than-usual job of bringing history to life through carefully-constructed experiences. We spent much of the time remarking on how much the kids would love it… but then remembering that the fact that we were able to enjoy stopping and read the interpretative signage and not just have to sprint around after the tiny terrors was mostly thanks to their absence! It’s worth visiting twice, if we find ourselves up here in future with the little tykes.
It’s also where I learned something new about the Glasgow Subway: its original implementation – in effect until 1935 – was cable-driven! A steam engine on the South side of the circular network drove a pair of cables – one clockwise, one anticlockwise, each 6½ miles long – around the loop, between the tracks. To start the train, a driver would pull a lever which would cause a clamp to “grab” the continuously-running cable (gently, to prevent jerking forwards!); to stop, he’d release the clamp and apply the brakes. This solution resulted in mechanically-simple subway trains: the system’s similar to that used for some of the surviving parts of San Franciso’s original tram network.
Equally impressive as the Riverside Museum is The Tall Ship accompanying it, comprising the barque Glenlee converted into a floating museum about itself and about the maritime history of its age.
This, again, was an incredibly well-managed bit of culture, with virtually the entire ship accessible to visitors, right down into the hold and engine room, and with a great amount of effort put into producing an engaging experience supported by a mixture of interactive replicas (Ruth particularly enjoyed loading cargo into a hoist, which I’m pretty sure was designed for children), video, audio, historical sets, contemporary accounts, and all the workings of a real, functional sailing vessel.
After lunch at the museum’s cafe, we doubled-back along the dockside to a distillery we’d spotted on the way past. The Clydeside Distillery is a relative newcomer to the world of whisky – starting in 2017, their first casks are still several years’ aging away from being ready for consumption, but that’s not stopping them from performing tours covering the history of their building (it’s an old pumphouse that used to operate the swingbridge over the now-filled-in Queen’s Dock) and distillery, cumulating in a whisky tasting session (although not yet including their own single malt, of course).
This was the first time Ruth and I had attended a professionally-organised whisky-tasting together since 2012, when we did so not once but twice in the same week. Fortunately, it turns out that we hadn’t forgotten how to drink whisky; we’d both kept our hand in in the meantime. <hic> Oh, and we got to keep our tasting-glasses as souvenirs, which was a nice touch.
Thus far we’d been lucky that the rain had mostly held-off, at least while we’d been outdoors. But as we wrapped up in Glasgow and began our cycle ride down the towpath of the Forth & Clyde Canal, the weather turned quickly through bleak to ugly to downright atrocious. The amber flood warning we’d been given gave way to what forecasters and the media called a “weather bomb”: an hours-long torrential downpour that limited visibility and soaked everything left out in it.
You know: things like us.
Our bags held up against the storm, thankfully, but despite an allegedly-waterproof covering Ruth and I both got thoroughly drenched. By the time we reached our destination of Kincaid House Hotel we were both exhausted (not helped by a lack of sleep the previous night during our rail-replacement-bus journey) and soaking wet right through to our skin. My boots squelched with every step as we shuffled uncomfortably like drowned rats into a hotel foyer way too-fancy for bedraggled waifs like us.
We didn’t even have the energy to make it down to dinner, instead having room service delivered to the room while we took turns at warming up with the help of a piping hot bath. If I can sing the praises of Kincaid House in just one way, though, it’s that the food provided by room service was absolutely on-par with what I’d expect from their restaurant: none of the half-hearted approach I’ve experienced elsewhere to guests who happen to be too knackered (and in my case: lacking appropriate footwear that’s not filled with water) to drag themselves to a meal.
Our second day of cycling was to be our longest, covering the 87½ km (54½ mile) stretch of riverside and towpath between Milton of Campsie and our next night’s accommodation on the South side of Edinburgh. We were wonderfully relieved to discover that the previous day’s epic dump of rain had used-up the clouds’ supply in a single day and the forecast was far more agreeable: cycling 55 miles during a downpour did not sound like a fun idea for either of us!
Kicking off by following the Strathkelvin Railway Path, Ruth and I were able to enjoy verdant countryside alongside a beautiful brook. The signs of the area’s industrial past are increasingly well-concealed – a rotting fence made of old railway sleepers here; the remains of a long-dead stone bridge there – and nature has reclaimed the land dividing this former-railway-now-cycleway from the farmland surrounding it. Stopping briefly for another geocache we made good progress down to Barleybank where we were able to rejoin the canal towpath.
This is where we began to appreciate the real beauty of the Scottish lowlands. I’m a big fan of a mountain, but there’s also a real charm to the rolling wet countryside of the Lanarkshire valleys. The Forth & Clyde towpath is wonderfully maintained – perhaps even better than the canal itself, which is suffering in patches from a bloom of spring reeds – and makes for easy cycling.
Outside of moorings at the odd village we’d pass, we saw no boats along most of the inland parts of the Forth & Clyde canal. We didn’t see many joggers, or dog-walkers, or indeed anybody for long stretches.
The canal was also teeming with wildlife. We had to circumnavigate a swarm of frogs, spotted varied waterfowl including a heron who’d decided that atop a footbridge was the perfect place to stand and a siskin that made itself scarce as soon as it spotted us, and saw evidence of water voles in the vicinity. The rushes and woodland all around but especially on the non-towpath side of the canal seemed especially popular with the local fauna as a place broadly left alone by humans.
The canal meanders peacefully, flat and lock-free, around the contours of the Kelvin valley all the way up to the end of the river. There, it drops through Wyndford Lock into the valley of Bonny Water, from which the rivers flow into the Forth. From a hydrogeological perspective, this is the half-way point between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Seven years ago, I got the chance to visit the Falkirk Wheel, but Ruth had never been so we took the opportunity to visit again. The Wheel is a very unusual design of boat lift: a pair of counterbalanced rotating arms swap places to move entire sections of the canal from the lower to upper level, and vice-versa. It’s significantly faster to navigate than a flight of locks (indeed, there used to be a massive flight of eleven locks a little way to the East, until they were filled in and replaced with parts of the Wester Hailes estate of Falkirk), wastes no water, and – because it’s always in a state of balance – uses next to no energy to operate: the hydraulics which push it oppose only air resistance and friction.
So naturally, we took a boat ride up and down the wheel, recharged our batteries (metaphorically; the e-bike’s battery would get a top-up later in the day) at the visitor centre cafe, and enjoyed listening-in to conversations to hear the “oh, I get it” moments of people – mostly from parts of the world without a significant operating canal network, in their defence – learning how a pound lock works for the first time. It’s a “lucky 10,000” thing.
Pressing on, we cycled up the hill. We felt a bit cheated, given that we’d just been up and down pedal-free on the boat tour, and this back-and-forth manoeuvrer confused my GPSr – which was already having difficulty with our insistence on sticking to the towpath despite all the road-based “shortcuts” it was suggesting – no end!
From the top of the Wheel we passed through Rough Castle Tunnel and up onto the towpath of the Union Canal. This took us right underneath the remains of the Antonine Wall, the lesser-known sibling of Hadrian’s Wall and the absolute furthest extent, albeit short-lived, of the Roman Empire on this island. (It only took the Romans eight years to realise that holding back the Caledonian Confederacy was a lot harder work than their replacement plan: giving most of what is now Southern Scotland to the Brythonic Celts and making the defence of the Northern border into their problem.)
A particular joy of this section of waterway was the Falkirk Tunnel, a very long tunnel broad enough that the towpath follows through it, comprised of a mixture of hewn rock and masonry arches and very variable in height (during construction, unstable parts of what would have been the ceiling had to be dug away, making it far roomier than most narrowboat canal tunnels).
Wet, cold, slippery, narrow, and cobblestoned for the benefit of the horses that no-longer pull boats through this passage, we needed to dismount and push our bikes through. This proved especially challenging when we met other cyclists coming in the other direction, especially as our e-bike (as the designated “cargo bike”) was configured in what we came to lovingly call “fat ass” configuration: with pannier bags sticking out widely and awkwardly on both sides.
This is probably the oldest tunnel in Scotland, known with certainty to predate any of the nation’s railway tunnels. The handrail was added far later (obviously, as it would interfere with the reins of a horse), as were the mounted electric lights. As such, this must have been a genuinely challenging navigation hazard for the horse-drawn narrowboats it was built to accommodate!
On the other side the canal passes over mighty aqueducts spanning a series of wooded valleys, and also providing us with yet another geocaching opportunity. We were very selective about our geocache stops on this trip; there were so many candidates but we needed to make progress to ensure that we made it to Edinburgh in good time.
We took lunch and shandy at Bridge 49 where we also bought a painting depicting one of the bridges on the Union Canal and negotiated with the proprietor an arrangement to post it to us (as we certainly didn’t have space for it in our bags!), continuing a family tradition of us buying art from and of places we take holidays to. They let us recharge our batteries (literal this time: we plugged the e-bike in to ensure it’d have enough charge to make it the rest of the way without excessive rationing of power). Eventually, our bodies and bikes refuelled, we pressed on into the afternoon.
For all that we might scoff at the overly-ornate, sometimes gaudy architecture of the Victorian era – like the often-ostentatious monuments of the Necropolis we visited early in our adventure – it’s still awe-inspiring to see their engineering ingenuity. When you stand on a 200-year-old aqueduct that’s still standing, still functional, and still objectively beautiful, it’s easy to draw unflattering comparisons to the things we build today in our short-term-thinking, “throwaway” culture. Even the design of the Falkirk Wheel’s, whose fate is directly linked to these duocentenarian marvels, only called for a 120-year lifespan. How old is your house? How long can your car be kept functioning? Long-term thinking has given way to short-term solutions, and I’m not convinced that it’s for the better.
Eventually, and one further (especially sneaky) geocache later, a total of around 66 “canal miles”, one monsoon, and one sleep from the Glasgow station where we dismounted our bus, we reached the end of the Union Canal in Edinburgh.
There we checked in to the highly-recommendable 94DR guest house where our host Paul and his dog Molly demonstrated their ability to instantly-befriend just-about anybody.
We went out for food and drinks at a local gastropub, and took a brief amble part-way up Arthur’s Seat (but not too far… we had just cycled fifty-something miles), of which our hotel room enjoyed a wonderful view, and went to bed.
The following morning we cycled out to Craigmillar Castle: Edinburgh’s other castle, and a fantastic (and surprisingly-intact) example of late medieval castle-building.
This place is a sprawling warren of chambers and dungeons with a wonderful and complicated history. I feel almost ashamed to not have even known that it existed before now: I’ve been to Edinburgh enough times that I feel like I ought to have visited, and I’m glad that I’ve finally had the chance to discover and explore it.
Edinburgh’s a remarkable city: it feels like it gives way swiftly, but not abruptly, to the surrounding countryside, and – thanks to the hills and forests – once you’re outside of suburbia you could easily forget how close you are to Scotland’s capital.
In addition to a wonderful touch with history and a virtual geocache, Craigmillar Castle also provided with a delightful route back to the city centre. “The Innocent Railway” – an 1830s stretch of the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway which retained a tradition of horse-drawn carriages long after they’d gone out of fashion elsewhere – once connected Craigmillar to Holyrood Park Road along the edge of what is now Bawsinch and Duddington Nature Reserve, and has long since been converted into a cycleway.
Making the most of our time in the city, we hit up a spa (that Ruth had secretly booked as a surprise for me) in the afternoon followed by an escape room – The Tesla Cube – in the evening. The former involved a relaxing soak, a stress-busting massage, and a chill lounge in a rooftop pool. The latter undid all of the good of this by comprising of us running around frantically barking updates at one another and eventually rocking the week’s highscore for the game. Turns out we make a pretty good pair at escape rooms.
After a light dinner at the excellent vegan cafe Holy Cow (who somehow sell a banana bread that is vegan, gluten-free, and sugar-free: by the time you add no eggs, dairy, flour or sugar, isn’t banana bread just a mashed banana?) and a quick trip to buy some supplies, we rode to Waverley Station to find out if we’d at least be able to get a sleeper train home and hoping for not-another-bus.
We got a train this time, at least, but the journey wasn’t without its (unnecessary) stresses. We were allowed past the check-in gates and to queue to load our bikes into their designated storage space but only after waiting for this to become available (for some reason it wasn’t immediately, even though the door was open and crew were standing there) were we told that our tickets needed to be taken back to the check-in gates (which had now developed a queue of their own) and something done to them before they could be accepted. Then they reprogrammed the train’s digital displays incorrectly, so we boarded coach B but then it turned into coach E once we were inside, leading to confused passengers trying to take one another’s rooms… it later turned back into coach B, which apparently reset the digital locks on everybody’s doors so some passengers who’d already put their luggage into a room now found that they weren’t allowed into that room…
…all of which tied-up the crew and prevented them from dealing with deeper issues like the fact that the room we’d been allocated (a room with twin bunks) wasn’t what we’d paid for (a double room). And so once their seemingly-skeleton crew had solved all of their initial technical problems they still needed to go back and rearrange us and several other customers in a sliding-puzzle-game into one another’s rooms in order to give everybody what they’d actually booked in the first place.
In conclusion: a combination of bad signage, technical troubles, and understaffing made our train journey South only slightly less stressful than our bus journey North had been. I’ve sort-of been put off sleeper trains.
After a reasonable night’s sleep – certainly better than a bus! – we arrived in London, ate some breakfast, took a brief cycle around Regent’s Park, and then found our way to Marylebone to catch a train home.
All in all it was a spectacular and highly-memorable adventure, illustrative of the joy of leaving planning to good-luck, the perseverance of wet cyclists, the ingenuity of Victorian engineers, the beauty of the Scottish lowlands, the cycle-friendliness of Glasgow, and – sadly – the sheer incompetence of the operators of sleeper trains.
I’ve had a tardy summer for blogging, falling way behind on many of the things I’d planned to write about. Perhaps the problem is that I’m still on Narrowboat Time, the timezone of a strange parallel universe in which everything happens more-slowly, in a gin-soaked, gently-rocking, slowly-crawling haze.
That’s believable, because this summer Ruth, JTA and I – joined for some of the journey by Matt – rented a narrowboat and spent a week drifting unhurriedly down the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal… and then another week making a leisurely cruise back up it again.
We picked up Nerys, out of Cambrian Cruisers, who also gave us an introduction to the operation of the boat (driving it, filling it with water, pumping out sewage, generating electricity for appliances, etc.) and safety instructions (virtually all of the canal is less than four feet deep, so if you fall in, the best thing to do is to simply walk to the shore), and set out towards Brecon. In order to explore the entire canal in the time available, we needed to cover an average of only five miles per day. When you’re going at about two and a half miles per hour and having to stop to operate locks (there are only six locks on the navigable stretch of the canal, but they’re all clustered towards the upper end), though, five miles is plenty.
The upper end of the canal is by far the busiest, with not only narrowboats cruising up and down but a significant number of day boats (mostly on loan from Brecon) and at least one tour boat: a 50-seater that you don’t want to have to wiggle past at sharp corner North of the Bryich Aqueduct. From a navigation perspective, though, it’s also the best-maintained: wide enough that two boats can pass one another without much thought, and deep enough across its entire width that you needn’t be concerned about running aground, it makes for a great starting point for people who want some narrowboating practice before they hit the more challenging bits to the South.
Ruth was excited to find in me a driver who was confident holding the boat steady in a lock. Perhaps an expression of equal parts talent and arrogance, I was more than happy to take over the driving, leaving others to jump out and juggle the lock gates and lift bridges. Owing to Ruth’s delicate condition, we’d forbidden her from operating the entirely-manual locks, but she made sure to get a go at running one of the fancy hydraulic ones.
After each day’s cruising, we’d find a nice place to moor up, open a bottle of wine or mix up some gin-and-tonics, and lounge in the warm, late summer air.
As we wound our way further South, to the “other” end of the waterway, we discovered that the already-narrow canal was ill-dredged, and drifting anywhere close to the sides – especially on corners – was a recipe for running around. Crewmates who weren’t driving would take turns on “pole duty”, being on standby to push us off if we got too close to one or the other bank.
Each night moored up in a separate place gives a deceptive feeling of travel. Deceptive, because I’ve had hiking trips where I’ve traveled further each day than we did on our boat! But the nature of the canal, winding its way from the urban centre of Brecon out through the old mining villages of South Wales.
The canal, already quite narrow and shallow, only became harder to navigate as we got further South. Our weed hatch (that’s the door to the propeller box, that is, not a slang term for the secret compartment where you keep your drugs) saw plenty of use, and we found ourselves disentangling all manner of curious flora in order to keep our engine pushing us forwards (and not catching fire).
Eventually, we had to give up navigating the waterway, tie up, and finish the journey on foot. We could have gotten the boat all the way to the end, but it’d have been a stop-start day of pushing ourselves off the shallow banks and cleaning out the weed hatch. Walking the last few miles – with a stop either way at a wonderful little pub called The Open Hearth – let us get all the way to both ends of the navigable stretch of the canal, with a lot less hassle and grime.
It’s a little sad coming to the end of a waterway, cut short – in this case – by a road. There’s no easy way – short of the removal of an important road, or the challenging and expensive installation of a drop lock, that this waterway will ever be connected at this point again. The surrounding landscape doesn’t even make it look likely that it’ll be connected again by a different route, either: this canal is broken here.
I found myself remarking on quite how well-laid-out the inside of the narrowboat was. Naturally, on a vehicle/home that’s so long and thin, a great number of clever decisions had clearly been made. The main living space could be converted between a living room, dining room, and bedroom by re-arranging planks and poles; the kitchen made use of carefully-engineered cupboards to hold the crockery in place in case of a… bump; and little space-saving features added up all along the boat, such as the central bedroom’s wardrobe door being adaptable to function as a privacy door between the two main bedrooms.
On the way back up the canal, we watched the new boaters setting out in their narrowboats for the first time. We felt like pros, by now, gliding around the corners with ease and passing other vessels with narry a hint of a bump. We were a well-oiled machine, handling every lock with ease. Well: some ease. Unfortunately, we’d managed to lose not one but both of our windlasses on the way down the canal and had to buy a replacement pair on the way back up, which somewhat dented our “what pros we are” feeling.
Coming to the end of our narrowboating journey, we took a quick trip to Fourteen Locks, a beautiful and series of locks with a sophisticated basin network, disconnected from the remains of the South Wales canal network. They’ve got a particular lock (lock 11), there, whose unusual shape hints at a function that’s no-longer understood, which I think it quite fabulously wonderful – that we could as a nation built a machine just 200 years ago, used it for a hundred years, and now have no idea how it worked.
Our next stop was Ikea, where we’d only meant to buy a couple of shelves for our new home, but you know how it is when you go to Ikea.
We wrapped up our holiday with a visit to Sian and Andy (and their little one), and Andy showed off his talent of singing songs that send babies to sleep. I swear, if he makes an album of children’s songs and they’re as effective as he is in person, we’ll buy a copy.
Altogether, a wonderfully laid-back holiday that clearly knocked my sense of urgency so far off that I didn’t blog about it for several months.
Edit, 22 June 2018: after somebody from the Canal & River Trust noticed that my link to their page on the Brynich Aqueduct was broken after they’d rearranged their site, I removed it. They suggested an alternative page, but it didn’t really have the same content (about the aqueduct itself) so I’ve just removed the link. Boo, Canal & River Trust! Cool URIs Don’t Change!
A quick summary of a holiday (and a series of associated trips on the side) that Ruth and I took a fortnight ago (yeah; I’ve been busy). Ruth has already written a little about the trip. I’d hoped to blog “on the move”, but a combination of low signal and low energy after a day of paddling made this pretty much impossible, so here’s the “grand catch-up”:
Wednesday 27th May
Ruth and I travelled to Shropshire to visit Ruth’s grandma in hospital, but it turned out that she’d been discharged about an hour before we arrived, so we briefly visited her at home.
Then we drove on, up to Preston.
In the evening, we played Chocolate Teapot with my family. I haven’t written about Chocolate Teapot on here yet, but the short summary is that it’s a “light” board game I’ve put together in the style of Apples to Apples meets Chrononauts… meets Dragons’ Den. So far, folks seem to like it, although I’m still ironing out a few kinks in the rules.
Thursday 28th May
This morning, we were supposed to do something special I’d had planned to commemorate the occasion of Ruth finishing her final exam, but we weren’t able to on account of the weather. I’d kept secret from Ruth what it is we were eventually to do, and the tension of not knowing (she’s not good at surprises) was very obviously boggling her poor little mind by now.
Instead, we went to Blackpool, rode a few rides (and felt ill thanks to eating a huge chocolate éclair each and then riding on the waltzer on the Central Pier), and played adventure golf, which Ruth won by a significant margin. And then ate fish & chips, because that’s what one does in Blackpool.
Ate far too much Chinese food at an all-you-can-eat buffet and gave myself nasty indigestion.
Friday 29th May
Did things in Preston, like buying lots of really really cheap clothes to wear for the remainder of the trip while paddling around in Scotland.
Saturday 30th May
Travelled up to Gretna Green with my dad and Ruth. Left the car at the services there and transferred to a coach full of Go North East employees. Travelled up to Fort William, in the centre of the Nevis mountain range and close to the Great Glen Way and the Caledonian Canal.
Despite it by now being late in the afternoon, my dad suggested we walk up Ben Nevis, so Ruth and I – joined by two others: John (fellow canoeist) and Dave (the bus driver, although – that said – about half of the folks on the trip were bus drivers) – followed my dad up the mountain. Dave, who’d apparently never climbed a mountain before, made it about 200 feet up before he had to give up. Ruth and I got to about 3200ft before we realised that we hadn’t actually eaten since breakfast and had to turn around and get some food, and only my dad and John made it the extra thousand feet or so to the summit, keeping a spectacular pace going as they did.
This was our first day in canoes. Ruth and I took one, John and my dad took a second, and the third was taken by a pair of the bus drivers, Yvonne and Claire. We were to paddle our way up to Inverness, towards the North Sea, over four days. The remainder of the group were to walk the Great Glen Way – about 13 miles longer, and – of course – hillier, but at least they’d be powered by their legs and not their arms!
The first day was the hardest. It was the longest, which made an impact, but it was also the hottest. I’d not planned for this kind of heat (I’d thought – hey, Scotland, that’ll be a few degrees colder than Aberystwyth, but it turned out that Northern Scotland was in the middle of some kind of unseasonal heatwave): my case held lots of long sleeves and not enough pairs of shorts! Out on the lochs and canals, there’s no shade, and on our first day’s paddling, there wasn’t any breeze either. Combine that with 17 miles of rowing, and you’ve got a recipe for exhaustion.
Ruth overdid it somewhat, and triggered a relapse of her RSI, and she wasn’t able to carry on rowing for the rest of the trip: instead, she joined the walkers group, and a walker called Martin took her place in my canoe.
Among the many canoeing photos I took, there’s a very cute one of Ruth with one of the walkers helping her to drink a glass of lemonade because her arms were too broken to lift the glass for herself.
Monday 1st June
The second day’s canoeing was a lot shorter, and a lot easier. Martin and I – after a little bit of weaving around the canal and failing to paddle in a straight line – found a great synchronisation and made a great rowing team. We easily led the other two canoes for most of the remainder of the journey.
On this, the second day, we even beat the walkers along the first half of the route, meeting them part way for lunch on a pebble beach alongside Loch Oich.
One of the hardest bits of canoeing the Caledonian Canal is that British Waterways no longer allow canoes to use the lock gates (there’s a concern that if your boat tipped over you could be sucked into a sluice gate and held underwater for quite a lot longer than most people can hold their breath for). So we had to pull ashore, lift the boat out, and carry it up or down each hill. Walking rather than rowing gave our arms a rest, at least, but it’s not easy to lift your boat, your day bag, and your oars and then carry them up a hill.
Tuesday 2nd June
On Tuesday, we were supposed to cover the first half of Loch Ness. At Fort Augustus, we got into the River Ness (it was easier to get the boats than the canal would have been, from the back garden of the building we’d kept them at), and appreciated for awhile the current helping us along a little. We passed the smallest lighthouse in the world and headed out onto the Loch.
The wind had picked up, and it was choppy on the Loch. Paddling over waves and against the wind was more challenging than what we were used to, and the six of us adopted a tight formation in order to keep an eye on one another in case we got into any trouble. We hugged the shore to avoid the worst of the wind, and took an early break at the bottom of the garden of a waterfront house, where we ate our morning energy snacks.
The wind felt okay in the bay we’d sat in, but as soon as we got back out onto the Loch, we could feel the wind: it was getting stronger. Paddling was very hard, and Martin and I redoubled our pace several times. It felt like we were making great time – a hard wind in your face and an ache in your arms will give you the illusion of speed – but when we pulled over and took a break, we looked at the map and realised that we had travelled about half a mile in the last hour. At this rate, we’d barely reach the next Youth Hostel in time for breakfast… the following day.
We pressed on, and stopped again and I looked up the shipping forecast on my phone. The wind was due to get worse still, with gusts of up to 25 miles per hour. We were already at a point at which we spent almost as much time going backwards that forwards, and turning sideways to the current resulted in the boats rocking alarmingly and very quickly filling with water, so we ran them aground, dragged them ashore into a building site, and called for backup to come and pick them up.
The building site turned out to belong to a chap who I’ll hereafter refer to as The Friendliest Man In Scotland, who was quite unsympathetic to the idea of us sitting around and waiting for rescue from the backup vehicle, and shouted and swore and threatened legal action quite a lot. While we waited for the rescue vehicle, I used my phone to find XSS vulnerabilities in his website. You know, like this one.
After we’d got rid of the canoes, we raced to try to catch up with the walkers, who were a couple of hours ahead, finally reaching them a little while after they’d reached the cabins in which we’d be spending our next night. It was disappointing to not be able to canoe the rest of the distance, but it really wouldn’t have been possible to go any further this day, and the weather forecase didn’t look any better for the day after (it turned out to be wrong, but we didn’t know that when we had the canoes returned to their owner).
Wednesday 3rd June
And so we canoeists joined the walkers for the very last day of the Scottish trip. The walk was long and arduous, and Ruth and I probably ought to have set off earlier, because we were right at the back of the group when we entered Inverness, and we actually had to cheat and catch a bus for the final mile in order to not keep them waiting at Inverness Castle for any longer than we already had.
In summary, canoeing across Scotland was… exhausting. Even (and perhaps especially) for the bits that we weren’t actually in canoes. But it was also a great opportunity to see that beautiful country from a new angle – from water level, looking up at the Munroes and along at the Lochs. It could be beautifully still and calm out in the middle of the bigger lochs, and it was great to just stop and sip some water and take in quite how magestic the mountains of Scotland actually are.
At Inverness, we took victory photos (here they are), had a quick McDonalds meal, and got back on the coach to Gretna, then drove back down to Preston.
Thursday 4th June
On Thursday morning, we finally managed to do the thing we’d tried to do the previous week… weather conditions were at last favourable for: a trip in a hot air balloon (thanks, Pendle Balloon Company)!
Ruth was suitably surprised.
The whole experience was a lot of fun, and everybody present got roped in to helping lay out the balloon, inflate it with cold air, check and disentangle the control lines (and all the same stuff again but in reverse at the opposite end).
It’s amazing quite how gentle a balloon take-off is. While the pilot fired the (hot!) burners in a full burn ready for takeoff, I glanced out of the side of the basket and down at the ground… and realised it was slowly moving along underneath us – we were airborne, and I hadn’t even noticed!
We sailed around at 3,500-5,500 feet for awhile, looking down over mid-Lancashire. We got a great view of Houghton Tower, where I’ve been to their annual open air classical concert a numberoftimes (including some I didn’t manage to blog about). Ruth geeked out about different kinds of road junctions and their comparative space/throughput efficiency trade-offs. We came in low over fields of cows and horses and confused the livestock as they trotted towards the barns for their morning feed.
And after an hour of sailing around, we bumped down into a field (which happened to double as a microlite runway, which was convenient) and all helped to pack the balloon away. And it was awesome.