April 26, 2016

Backpacking Walden – Yorkshire’s hidden dale

by backpackingbongos

West Burton is one of those picture perfect Dales villages, stone cottages surrounding a large village green. The only thing spoiling it was the long line of cars parked along the narrow road. I added to it, leaving the Doblo overnight as I headed up the Dale for a horseshoe walk around Walden.

I really want to call it Walden Dale because it is a Dale and a fine one at that. However the OS map simply has the words ‘Walden’ in the middle, so Walden I will call it.

Total distance – 26 kilometres with 800 metres ascent

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It was one of those filthy late winter days, cold, grey and murky. The tops of the hills were invisible, much of the views obscured by haze even in the valleys. I set off along wet tarmac before squelching my way up a bridleway and onto Carlton Moor. There is a Carlton about half a mile away from where I live in Nottingham. Sadly there are no drystone walls, moorland grasses whispering in the wind or fresh invigorating air there.

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I caught my breath on the summit of Harland hill, just in time for the murk to part for a while. My weekend route was at my feet, painted like a faint watercolour, soft greens and greys, the sun providing no visual warmth.

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It’s a long moorland trudge following the watershed to the summit of Brown Haw. Instead I dropped down to the north and followed a landrover track as it wound its way through an increasingly snowy landscape.

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I eventually had to leave the comfort and security of the track and the easy progress that it provided. A thin sheep trod took me upwards and onto the summit . The views once again briefly opened up, this time with Walden widening out to the north towards Wensleydale.

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Brown Haw was defended from the north by a brand new and very sturdy fence. That in itself would not normally be a problem as without barbed wire fences are easily hopped over by the long-legged. The problem was the following garish sign that was posted every few metres, a big long danger zone snaking off into the mist.

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This provided me with a bit of a dilemma. Did I want to risk being sterilised as I attempted to step over? There was no stile or crossing point in view in either direction. As I child growing up in Suffolk one of the challenges we undertook was seeing how long we could hold onto an electric fence for. Therefore I took a deep breath and, nothing. There was no shock involved. In the end Brown Haw was a bit of an anticlimax.

With dusk arriving early I soon found a level pitch at the head of the dale, an area of limestone providing good firm grass. It soon got cold, a damp chill in the air and I was glad to get into a nice warm winter sleeping bag.

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A light snow fell in the night and I awoke to a thick mist, the snow emphasising the general gloom. It had been still, cold and humid leaving the inner tent dripping with condensation. I was warm and snug inside my sleeping bag but the warm air from my body had reached the outer which was soaked due to the dew point being reached.

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I love wild camping mornings, the ritual of waking up in the wilds and making a brew whilst snug and warm in bed. It was the first time I had used an alcohol stove for many years. I had decided to get a Flatcat Bobcat Jr to take to Colorado in the summer. On its first use I was impressed at just how fuel-efficient it is, although it is much slower than using gas.

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Once packed and walking the cloud level lifted for a while and I began to get hopeful that it would clear as forecast. Alas this was not the case and much of the rest of the day was spent walking with heavy snow blowing in my face, visibility often falling close to zero.

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Rather than climbing to the summit of Buckden Pike I stuck to the landrover track for a while before finally striking off up rough slopes to the summit of Naughtberry hill. From there to Wasset Fell the going was probably the least fun way of spending part of a weekend. A shooting hut was marked on the map at Wasset Fell but it was clear it had fallen down years ago. Instead I stood on the exposed fell and shivered whilst I wolfed down some food.

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Floutgate scar provides a bit of drama, the end of the high moors before they drop into Bishopsdale. In the distance I  could just make out Castle Bolton in Wensleydale, the castle itself illuminated by a brief shaft of sunlight.

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Spring finally arrived as I crossed the fields in the dale, the sun chasing winter away. The contrast between moor and valley could not have been greater.

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Once back at the van in West Burton the sun and clouds had a brief atmospheric battle before once again the clouds took control.

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April 20, 2016

Shropshire spring snow surprise

by backpackingbongos

Last Friday was a forgettable weather day. We were greeted at the Ratlinghope campsite in the middle of the Shropshire hills by misty, murky weather, a fine drizzle falling. It was the first time that we had taken out the boot awning for the van. Without any prior practice and with heavy rain due any moment it was an experience akin to putting a square peg in a round hole. We eventually wrestled it into place and spent the rest of the afternoon huddled inside whilst the promised heavy rain fell for a few hours.

I had persuaded Mrs Bongo to join Reuben and I for a weekend camping to celebrate my birthday. The lure was a warm pub with good food to while away the evenings. The Bridges Pub which is a fifteen minute walk down narrow country lanes did not disappoint, the food and beer was excellent. Friends later joined us after driving all the way from Nottingham after work. A convivial evening was spent and I have to say that I was uncomfortably full of food and beer by the time I got to bed.

The forecast was for snow during the early hours of the morning, something I was fairly sceptical of due to how mild it felt that night. I poked my head out of the van a couple of times during the night but just got a face full of drizzle. I was therefore like a kid at Christmas when at 7am I was greeted with this.

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A good couple of inches of soft powdery snow had fallen, the air still and quiet, the dawn chorus hushed. I ran round unsuitably dressed for a few minutes before diving back into the van and the comfort of a warm duvet.

We were all up and about by 9am, the snow still deep and crisp, the sky blue and the sun warm. It was weird sitting around eating breakfast in just a baselayer, with spring in the air whilst winter nipped at our feet.

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Later that day we spent a few hours exploring Adison Hill and the Long Mynd. The snow soon melted but the northerly airflow left incredibly clear skies. To the west much of Wales was laid out at our feet, we could clearly make out Cadair Idris, the Arrans and the Berwyns.

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All in all a splendid birthday weekend with my wife and good friends.

April 3, 2016

Micro wild vanping in the Carsphairn hills (part two)

by backpackingbongos

Downgrading from the Bongo to a Doblo sized campervan has taken a little bit of adjustment. During bad weather it’s not quite as simple as shutting the door and being protected from the elements. Everything takes a bit of thinking about, there really is not much room, especially with a wet dog in tow!

It is designed so that the kitchen is outside under the tailgate, fine if it is not hammering it down with hail being thrown at you on thirty mile an hour winds. Therefore with much shifting about of gear I managed to bring the cooker inside which enabled breakfast to be made with a modicum of comfort. To avoid suffocating in the small space a couple of windows have to be left open, the hail and rain finding an easy way in.

After a few days living in it in bad weather, things start to get a bit grubby inside, all sense of order is lost. You really can’t remember what has happened to your last pair of dry socks. You wonder if you will ever get rid of all those dog hairs.

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Each evening just before it got dark I would stand outside Chrissie and Geoff’s van with my nose pressed up against the window. Next to me would be a shivering staffy, his face a picture of unhappiness. More often than not we would get an invite inside and Reuben would prostrate himself on the sofa, a big grin on his face.

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On the Easter Monday Geoff and Chrissie decided that they would start to make their way south, leaving me with a cream egg. The forecast for the day was reasonable so Reuben and I went back into the hills to bag some more Donald’s and tops (hills over 2000ft in this part of the world). The day started off cruelly with a lung busting climb up the steep slopes of Ewe hill.

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It was whilst descending from the summit en-route for Alwhat where I came across a rather sad sight in these lovely quiet hills. A wind monitoring mast had been erected, a sizeable structure when up close. There are plans for the massive Lorg windfarm here with turbines up to five hundred feet high. One thing I had noticed over the past couple of days was just how many of these things had sprouted up in the surrounding area. It looks like the wind rush in these parts is not yet over.

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The grassy slopes of Alwhat was easily gained and a short descent and re-ascent brought us to the summit of Alhang. In the col between Alhang and Windy Standard there was yet another wind monitoring mast.

It was on the ascent of Windy Standard that some of the wind turbines that make up Windy Standard wind farm came into view. By modern-day standards these turbines are tiny at 35 metres high, the blades spinning furiously rather than the slow whoosh you get these days.

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To the north and east the landscape remains relatively untouched, rolling hills filling the horizon all the way to the snow-capped Lowther hill.

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The summit of Windy Standard itself is dominated by turbines which march down the ridges to the north. As far as wind farms go it certainly is not the most offensive that I have come across. With such small turbines they were not really that noticeable from the surrounding hills the previous couple of days. The roads that service them being no wider than landrover tracks. What was very noticeable however was the nearby construction of Windy Standard 2 wind farm. There massive wide highways had been constructed across the hillsides, banks of earth piled at the side. Numerous diggers and trucks were at work clearing areas the size of football pitches to lay the foundations for the massive new turbines. The whole area was a horrible mess. Coming home and looking at the internet there are already plans for Windy Standard 3😦

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Reuben and I quickly turned our backs on the whole sorry scene and hurried down the slopes to the south. This was also due to the black clouds piling in from the north. With all the recent stormy weather the last place I wanted to be was surrounded by turbines if there was a threat of lightning! This lead to the head of the Holm Burn with its numerous drumlins, a good place for Reuben to pull a pose.

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Down in the glen is an atmospheric ruin, this must have been a truly remote spot before the advent of the motor car. I sat on the low wall that surrounds an old stand of trees, soaking up the rare warm rays of the sun.

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The only difficulty of the day came at the end of the walk whilst trying to get back onto the public road. I ended up inadvertently trespassing through someones garden, luckily no one was at home. I felt guilty as I joined the track, sending up a chorus of barking from the nearby farm.

Back at the van I fancied a change from the hills and decided to drive to the Solway coast to spend the night. Dalbeattie provided some half decent fish and chips en-route for Powillimount. I arrived at the beach during the golden hour, the sun just beginning to descend behind the hills to the west. It is a lovely spot but I decided not to stay the night. There was too much coming and going and sadly the car park was full of blowing litter. Instead I sat on the rocks for a while as the last of the Easter bank holiday disappeared into a warm glow.

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* All photos taken with iPhone 6s Plus.

March 30, 2016

Micro wild vanping in the Carsphairn hills (part one)

by backpackingbongos

The headlights on the van pierced the darkness as I steered a course along the bumpy track in the depths of the Galloway Forest Park. A small gravel car park overlooks the deserted settlement of Polmaddy, invisible under the inky black sky. I had been driving for seven hours, especially tiring after a day at work. The Easter weekend had given me a five day slot to escape into one of the quietest places I could think of. I was keen to use every moment of it.

Ten minutes of fumbling saw the Doblo being turned from a daily run around into a fully fledged micro camper, complete with a full length and very comfy bed. Reuben could be heard exploring the immediate surroundings, his name tag tinkling on his collar as he sniffed and pee’d his way along.

It’s always very exciting waking up in the morning after arriving somewhere the night before in the dark. I removed the blinds to a sparkling morning, birdsong filling the crisp air. Coffee was brewed and breakfast eaten outside whilst Reuben once again sniffed at and pee’d on his surroundings.

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I was going to meet up with Chrissie and Geoff later that evening, but first I wanted to make the best of the unexpectedly good weather window. The van was pointed in the direction of the Green Well of Scotland where it was deposited on a grassy verge. The plan for the day was the 797 metre summit of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn. This rises head and shoulder above the immediate hills, its grassy dome punctuated by rocks piercing the earth. It’s a simple grassy walk, firstly along a track before breaking off to ascend Dunool and then contouring round to the summit of Beninner.

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Lunch was had sheltering behind a boulder that provided scant shelter, Reuben shivering until I put on his warm jacket. He did not turn down the crusts from my sandwiches. I kept close to the steep fractured western slopes on the way to the deserted summit of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn. The view was across miles of empty hills and on towards the Central Belt. The weather was on the turn, cloud building from the west and the wind gusting to gale force. The zip on my jacket got stuck and I managed to break it whilst battling the wind. This resulted in it being zipped to the neck but gaping in the middle. I like to think that it accentuated the fine curve of my belly.

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A drystone wall provides a steep but direct way back down to the track, on which I followed a short distance behind a couple. As a misanthropic hill walker this made me uneasy as I wanted the whole hill to myself with none of my fellow humans clogging up the view. There were also practical considerations such as do I quickly overtake or stop regularly so as not to get too close. You probably now understand why I rarely visit the Lake District.

The weather forecast for the following day was for wind and rain of Biblical proportions, apt really considering that it was the Easter weekend. A sheltered woodland site was therefore chosen to spend the night and meet up with Chrissie and Geoff and their very energetic hounds. No sooner had the van once again been turned into a camper they turned up. The dogs spent a good hour running after a ball, enough to ensure that they would be sensible during the evening.

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A top tip when wild vanping in a very small van is to invite along people with a very big van. This means that you have the benefits of something easy to drive with great fuel economy but also somewhere warm and comfy to spend the evening. Sadly Chrissie does not drink so Geoff and I had to finish a bottle of red and some beer all to ourselves. Nonsense was probably spoken and I later retired to the cold Doblo with a dog who would have much rather stayed in the big, warm and very comfy van.

The weather forecast duly delivered the next day, trees creaking in the wind, the continuous pounding of rain on the van roof. The planned four mile walk was quickly dismissed. A quick yomp was followed by lots of sitting in the big van, the heating creating a sauna from our wet clothing, steaming hot drinks and snoring dogs adding to the pleasant fug.

We later relocated to a much more remote spot, six miles up a dead-end valley, accessed by a single track road. The amount of water pouring off the hills and into the Water of Ken was an impressive sight. Fields had quickly become lakes and water was crashing down the steep rocky sections of river.

It was a night with the vans being rocked by increasingly strong winds, rain coming in violent squalls, punctuated by moments of calm. These moments of calm would often catch you out if you dared go outside without full waterproofs. Hail would be thrown at you without warning, sending you running and cursing.

The following day had promised improving weather and I was lulled into a false sense of security whilst climbing onto Colt Hill with Reuben. The sky quickly darkened and curtains of hail swept down the valley. The icy crystals were painful on exposed skin and Reuben quickly let his displeasure be known. We huddled together behind a stone wall as ragged clouds covered the hills. The storm departed as quickly as it came but it set up a regular pattern for the rest of the day.

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The reason I had chosen Colt Hill was because I wanted to see one of the Striding Arches, a collection of sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy. You can read about the project here. Large sandstone blocks make up this particular arch, perfect Reuben thought for giving his back a good rub.

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The way back to the vans was through a dark mossy forest, the trees draped in living curtains of green. Ideal for making art work of my own, although I’m not sure Reuben was very impressed.

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A mile or so further up the valley from the vans we passed the lonely cottage of Lorg. From what I can gather on the internet it has been deserted for years. It is a place that really appeals to me, an isolated cottage at the end of a remote glen in a little known part of the country. It even has telephone poles and an electricity supply. However things in this quiet glen could soon be changing, the men with machines are planning to industrialise the immediate surroundings. More of that in the next post.

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March 6, 2016

A solo mid Winter Borders / Kielder bothy trip (part two)

by backpackingbongos

Once the van had defrosted it was a short drive back to Newcastleton, the bakery providing some not very complex carbohydrates to take away for lunch. The destination was Kielder reservoir but I was keen to detour to deepest Liddesdale and the imposing Hermitage castle.

The castle sits in a wild and lonely spot, sombre moorland hills rising up around it. Unfortunately it does not open until April, so I was unable to explore inside. The low gate across the bridge that leads to is easy to hop over though and I spent a while walking around its forbidding exterior. The morning was cold and sunny, the grass still frosty in the shadows, with surrounding hills covered in a light mist. During the long bothy nights I was reading the fourth book in the Game of Thrones series, Hermitage castle conjured up the sights and sounds I had imagined in Kings Landing. More info on the castle can be found here. I look forward to returning in the summer when it is open.

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I returned to Reuben who was waiting patiently inside the van. It was not too far to drive to Kielder and I parked up in a woodland car park to the south of the village. The ground and air were damp and fragrant,the smell of the forest filling my nostrils. Low winter sunshine was filtering through the trees at an angle, casting mysterious beams of light onto the mossy floor.

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I decided that the car park was too secluded to leave the van so I drove into the village of Butteryhaugh and left it at the Village Library / School car park. There was a nearby sign stating that public nudity was an offence, with a request for people not to get changed in the car park! Luckily I was fully dressed when Reuben and I set off south, heading for the path along the north shores of Bakethin and Kielder Reservoirs.

The sky was becoming overcast as we walked along the Lakeside way, the forecast was for heavy snow to arrive later that evening. A mysterious shape in the woods beckoned us onwards, its empty eyes and gaping mouth looking over the large expanse of water. A large wooden sculpture called Silvis Capitalis invites you to explore inside its head but unfortunately the ladder that leads you upwards has been removed, to be replaced in the spring.

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The reservoir was left behind, forest tracks taking us uphill towards Wainhope Bothy.

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The bothy sits in a large clearing, a pleasant space after being hemmed in by trees. I looked for the telltale smoke from the chimney or movement outside but it looked like I was going to have another bothy night with just Reuben for company.

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The bothy is a very attractive building with a lone tree outside and surrounded by a stone enclosure. Inside there are two main rooms, the one on the left being large with a stove and space to sleep lots of people on a wooden platform. I chose the smaller right hand room with its open fireplace. The bothy was tidy with no rubbish about but it looks like it receives a large amount of traffic, confirmed by the comments in the bothy book. I set about giving it a good sweep and then went to fetch water from as far away from the building as possible.

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As I was filling my bottles from a stream Reuben pulled off one of his poses on a handily placed moss-covered log.

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I was glad that I had carried in a bag of coal and kindling as the bothy was devoid of any fuel. It saved me a long trek into the woods with a rusty bow saw. With the fire lit and candles spread around the room, the bothy soon felt warm and cosy.

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When I popped my head out of the door later that evening I saw that snow had started to fall, gradually settling after the earlier drizzle. At one point I noticed bright lights and the sound of machinery to the north as if there was a vehicle on one of the remote forestry tracks. It never passed my way and I assume that it was someone working in the forest.

I awoke to a white wonderland, the first time this winter that I had seen proper snow. I crunched around outside for a while, a big grin on my face as my hands got cold whilst throwing snowballs at Reuben.

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I had planned to bag the remote Dewey of Monkside but a late start and the effort of walking through the snow would have meant I would not be able to get back to the van before dark. Instead I picked a series of high level forest tracks that eventually led down to a bridge over the kielder Burn. It was great walking through the virgin snow, with not a soul to be seen all day. Reuben especially enjoyed yomping along, seeking out all the best smells.

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When I got back to the van it was still plastered in snow which had frozen solid. It took ages to scrape it all off but at least the doors had not frozen shut this time. The set of winter tyres that have been next to useless this winter finally came into their own as I drove towards home on the snowy road along Kielder reservoir.

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