A Beautiful Shortcut

Yesterday, in search of sunshine, I headed north-west to the Crinan Canal in the heart of Argyll, which now ranks in my top ten Scots Spots. I persuaded the old man to come with me (he’s not that bothered about sunshine and is a fairly reluctant walker) luring him with the promise of a pint of Nigerian Lager on our return. It never fails. I was delighted to have him along, not least because he could carry my rucksack, full off the stuff I love such as food, drinks and maps. Man, I’ve missed having stuff.

We had neither the time nor the necessary logistics (because there are no linking buses on a Sunday) to walk the nine-mile length of the canal, so we walked from Crinan to Cairnbann and back – a distance of eight miles. We saw a variety of boats – from rusty tubs to majestic yachts and passed through some stunning countryside. The surrounding area is known as ‘Dalriada’ – an ancient coastal kingdom which is the habitat of a huge range of wildlife.

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According to Scottish Canals, 2,000 boats make the journey along “Britain’s most beautiful shortcut”. Once an important commercial connection with the Western Isles, most of the traffic is now pleasure craft. The canal links Loch Fyne at Ardrishaig with the Sound of Jura, creating a vital waterway through the Kintyre Peninsula. Building work started 222 years ago and by 1854, 33,000 passengers, 27,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle were transported along it.

We found some sunshine and it felt quite warm for a while – perfect weather for working up a thirst.

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Radio and Royalty

Yesterday took me north to one of favourite places on earth – Royal Deeside – to join my adorable pal, Fiona. We met up at Glen Tanar estate just south of the River Dee to do some recording for her new Friday afternoon show on Radio Scotland. Starting in May, ‘Out for The Weekend’ will feature the multitude of activities on offer in Scotland’s Great Outdoors. I was there to talk to her about my road to recovery from breast cancer through walking my way back to health and happiness.

We had planned – by our standards – fairly meticulously, having brought snacks (quorn cocktail sausages, mango pieces, bananas) and a 25 year-old OS map, which I had stuck together rather optimistically with much sellotape. We then decided that the map was perhaps a bit superfluous as the several routes are all way-marked. The one we chose – Fairy Lochan – was symbolised by a dragonfly. It’s a lovely short circuit, passing the 19th century Chapel of St Lesmo, the picturesque small loch and looping back along the Water of Tanar. Simple.

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After some highly technical sound testing of the recording equipment involving a creaky gate, we set off apace in glorious weather, walking and talking…..and then things went a bit Radio Gaga. We got so engrossed in our conversation, that we’d completely forgotten the dragonflies and were not sure which path we were on. We retraced our steps…..only to find we were on the right path after all. After that, the map came out and after much squinting and holding it upside down, we figured out where we were going.

Situated in the heart of Royal Deeside and within the spectacular Cairngorms National Park, Glen Tanar Estate is just east of Balmoral Castle, which was built for Queen Victoria in the mid 1800’s as her wee but ‘n’ ben. The surrounding area is hugely popular with sightseers, anglers, walkers, climbers, cyclists and two distinct types of photographer – the wildlife expert and the selfie amateur.

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Whisky Galore!

It has always been a huge disappointment to me that, when it comes to whisky and the consumption thereof, I suffer from two terrible afflictions – hangovers and heartburn. It was a travesty keenly felt when I visited the north east for a couple of days’ walking along the Speyside Way. I met up with my old mucker Morag and Brodie the dog at the recently refurbished Craigellachie Hotel in the heart of the region’s whisky trail. Surrounded by malts, distilleries and whisky heritage the temptation to throw caution to the wind and ‘drink in’ the atmosphere was stronger than a Glenfarclas 105 which, yes, I have imbibed and suffered the effects. We had to be sternly resolute on arrival at the hotel when we were invited to join in a select whisky tasting event in the drawing room. We declined and instead gazed on the 700+ malts on offer over G+Ts in the hotel’s sumptuous Quaich bar.

The Speyside Way is a long distant route which captures the spirit of Scotland running 84 miles from Buckie on the north east coast, through the heart of malt whisky country to Aviemore, the outdoor centre on the foothills of the Cairngorms. Mostly you walk in the valley of the fast-flowing River Spey, Scotland’s second-longest river and arguably its most attractive.  IMG_0283IMG_0284

The area is home to almost half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries and both Glenfiddich and Glenlivet are directly on the Way. In need of a comfort break, we popped into the former, which hosts an excellent tour and also has a grand fireplace in the ladies loo. Posh or what?

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Parklife

‘Confidence is a preference for the habitual voyeur of what is known as parklife’. The first line of British band Blur’s popular track ‘Parklife’ came to mind on my walk yesterday and now I can’t get the lyrics out of my head. It was released in 1994 – CRIKEY – and remains popular today. That set me off thinking about what I was doing then. I lived in Aberdeen in the early 90’s and – as was a rite of passage in those days – worked for a large regional newspaper group. It was the aftermath of a bitter industrial dispute at the company which saw the sacking of 120 workers. For nearly a year after, journalists mounted picket lines outside the newspaper offices. The dispute was one of the longest and costliest in Scottish media and nearly bankrupted the NUJ. Those were trying times, which some might attribute to bonkers bosses (or bonking bosses, as the Scottish Sun reported) but I made very dear, lifelong friends there.

In 1995, when the bosses and I had a bit of a contretemps, I moved  to Glasgow, which in Gaelic means ‘dear, green place’. The city has many lovely parks and gardens and I’m lucky to have two on my doorstep. Blonde Eleanor and I set off for a circuit of two of the city’s favourite parks – the Botanic Gardens and Kelvingrove Park. The Botanic’s iconic Kibble Palace (pictured below) is one of the most prestigious remaining Victorian iron and glass structures. Built in 1973, it houses tropical plants from around the world and is a peaceful place for repose. The Botanics is also home to some stunning orchids.

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Our five-mile circuit took us down to the River Kelvin walkway and into Kelvingrove Park, past the imposing Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and up to Park Circus, built above the city in Victorian times by the wealthy burghers seeking to escape the pollution and disease of the industrialised city.

It’s a very pleasant walk….. And then I’m happy for the rest of the day safe in the knowledge there will always be a bit of my heart devoted to parklife.

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Walking Among Wind Turbines

Blimey, they’re big! 110 metres tall with blades 45 metres long, there are 215 turbines at Whitelee Windfarm, the UK’s largest onshore windfarm.  As part of our training for the West Highland Way Challenge, my fellow breast cancer survivor Grace and I set off yesterday for what should have been a 20-minute journey by car to the Whitelee visitor’s centre for the start of the walk. However, as I haven’t yet got the hang of my sat nav, which I had unknowingly set for return to my house, we did a few unscheduled ‘U-ies’ and took almost an hour to get there. (Give me a map any day).

It’s quite a sight, looking out at the hundreds of white three-pronged giants which dominate the seemingly barren moorland. However, Whitelee’s habitat management estate covers an area equivalent to 2,358 football pitches and is home to deer, shrews, stoats, frogs, lizards, snakes and a variety of bird species including merlin and curlew. Yesterday, there were two additional ‘burds’ circling Loch Goin and getting a bit lost in the 130km of trails that surround the wind turbines.

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So we ended up walking for longer than we’d planned and had time for LOTS of chat (that’ll come as no surprise to our friends!). Much of our conversation was about breast cancer and the fallout from the disease. Grace was one of the first people I discussed my breast cancer diagnosis with last year. She’d been there five years ago, got the T-shirt.  She is an ambassador for Breakthrough Breast Cancer and is very knowledgeable.The day after I was out of hospital, she came round with the tastiest superfoods salad to help build up my iron (I’d lost a lot of blood and was anaemic) and has offered a lot of valuable advice. We have since shared many experiences ……….and many glasses of wine!

If you would like to donate to my West Highland Way Challenge please visit https://www.justgiving.com/Wendy-Smith2015/

For more information on The Challenge visit http://www.breakthrough.org.uk/support-us/find-event/west-highland-way-challenge

Cutting Aboot

My hiking book billed it as a RELAXING 7-mile walk over moorland and along the Greenock Cut aqueduct. It started so well yesterday, in sunshine, with fantastic views over the Clyde to the hills beyond. Then this happened…….

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Weather with more front than Blackpool swept in from the west and nearly knocked me off my stott. Gale force winds of up to 100mph – along with showers of flinty hailstones – battered into me. Relaxing, became invigorating, then a bit scary. The Cut is quite exposed and I was feeling the almost overpowering effects of a particularly enthusiastic jet stream from the Atlantic.

The small huddled flocks of sheep had all eyes on me, I could see them thinking: If she’s not here to round us up and bring us to shelter, then what the hell is she doing here? But being more ‘fool’ than ‘hardy’, I kept going and resolved to complete the circuit. An hour and a half into the walk and I was quite exhausted. The force of the hailstorm meant it was difficult to look into the distance. Added to that, there was no signal so the walking App didn’t record my miles. I had no idea how far I still had to go. I was never so glad as when I rounded a small slope and there was my car.

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The Greenock Cut was constructed between the 1820’s and 1840’s to take water to and from Loch Thom to Greenock. It’s now a Designated Ancient Monument, has a visitors’ centre and, in the right weather, is a pleasant outing. I’d avoid it in hailstorms though…….unless you want to save on those dermabrasion sessions.

Saints and Sair Feet

I’ve had to take a couple of days rest as I’m suffering from an ailment which afflicts many a Scottish walker – sair feet. I’ve also got aching shins and wonky hips and by the end of last week was feeling fair trammeled. On Friday, I had an appointment at Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary and I decided to walk. All the way. On tarmac. I know, it’s my own fault that I’ve got gammy legs as I clocked up a total of over 30 miles last week, which was perhaps a bit ambitious at this stage of my recovery. I was a bit downbeat at being so knackered, but rallied when I remembered that four months ago I could barely make it in a taxi to the hospital. It’s progress.

The walk from my home in the west end to The Royal in the east of the city, is as interesting as it is diverse. It starts at the Botanic Gardens, down to the River Kelvin, through Kelvingrove Park, down to The Clyde, walking along the city’s iconic river to the scene of the terrible Clutha helicopter tragedy, past the Tron and up the High Street, ending near Cathedral Square and the imposing and rather spooky Necropolis.

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I had a bit of time to pop into Glasgow’s Cathedral, a medieval place of worship which is also known as St Mungo’s Cathedral, after the 6th Century missionary who became Glasgow’s Saint and whose tomb lies in the crypts. He was a cult figure in the Scottish Church who, according to enthusiastic biographers, performed four miracles in his lifetime which are featured in Glasgow’s coat of arms. These included reincarnation of a bird and saving Queen Languoreth from execution by her jealous husband by finding her ring inside a fish. Some guy, that Mungo.

Reservoir Logs

I’ve started logging my walks with the MapMyWalk App with a goal of walking at least 25 miles a week on the run up to The West Highland Way Challenge for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. Yesterday’s jaunt was to the Milngavie Water Treatment Works on the outskirts of Glasgow. (Trust me, it’s more appealing that it sounds.) I walked a total of 8.25 Km (5 miles in old money) – twice around the Mugdock Reservoir and once round Craigmaddie – which took me 1 hour 30mins. Unfortunately no calories were burned (I hadn’t set up the App properly) so no hearty pub lunch for me this time.

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The footpaths around these reservoirs are popular with walkers, runners and doggie people (no, it’s not that kind of place). As I walked and took pics, I got to thinking about the history of the place and it’s quite fascinating. No, really, it is. Stay with me.

It dates back to the mid 1800’s when Glasgow was desperately in need of a good, clean, safe water supply as disease was rife. The city fathers instigated a search for the best source and found that Loch Katrine was capable of supplying the 50 million gallons of water that was needed every day and, being upland water, it was very clean. The only problem was how to get the water from the loch to Glasgow, 35 miles away.

The answer was something that is in infinite supply and doesn’t cost a penny – gravity. In the 1850’s three thousand workmen built a pipe 26 miles from Loch Katrine to Milngavie, where they built two reservoirs. In order for the water to travel they had make sure that the pipe dropped ten inches for every mile of its length.

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As part of the Loch Katrine Water Project, the reservoirs were opened in 1859 by Queen Victoria. More recently, the project was upgraded at the beginning of the millenium and reopened in 2007, serving 700,00 customers in Greater Glasgow.

Sources: Scottish Water

If you would like to donate to my West Highland Way Challenge please visit https://www.justgiving.com/Wendy-Smith2015/

For more information on The Challenge visit http://www.breakthrough.org.uk/support-us/find-event/west-highland-way-challenge