Archive for October, 2013

October 18, 2013

Howling in the Howgills – backpacking south to north

by backpackingbongos

I have to admit that I was hard pushed to locate Great Asby on the map.  Chrissie has been cherry picking the best bits from the Dales Highway and invited Reuben the mountain staffy and myself to join her for a weekend.  The plan was to do a linear walk from Sedbergh across the Howgills and into little frequented limestone country to the north.

With modern technology there was no need to locate Great Asby on a road map.  I punched its name into the sat nav and headed the car in the direction I was told.  It turns out that it is a charming village and I parked up next to the church.  Moments later Chrissie’s husband Geoff pulled up in their campervan and drove me south to Sedbergh to meet Chrissie and Dixie.  The campervan turned into the cheapest tea van in Cumbria before I set off with Chrissie, Dixie and Reuben.  Geoff would meet us in Great Asby the following afternoon.

Howgills

Day 1 – 10.5 kilometres with 680 metres ascent

Howgill Lane took us out of the town and we were soon climbing the steep bridleway past Lockbank farm.  The initial ascent was an absolute killer for me.  Lack of fitness plus a recent worsening of my asthma meant that I was soon gasping for breath.  Luckily the increasing views gave plenty of excuses to stop, the rooftops of Sedbergh glinting under shafts of sunlight.

As we contoured around the southern slopes of Winder the wind hit us.  It was strong enough to make the taking of photos difficult without everything becoming a blur.  The path soon levelled out a bit and we could see the route ahead to Arant Haw, occasionally being brushed by clouds.

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A second lunch was grabbed just below the summit, the leeward slopes being surprisingly sheltered.  A guy we had passed earlier had warned us about just how windy it was on the tops.  It was good to have a rest before the promised battering.

The summit was quickly gained but we did not stop except to dig out gloves.  The ridge narrows slightly at Rowantree Grains, giving great views down into Bram Rigg Beck.  The clouds swirling above were highly atmospheric but unfortunately the higher hills ahead were stubbornly covered.

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Climbing up towards Calders the wind increased dramatically as it was funnelled between a narrow col.  I got out my wind measuring thingymajig which measured an average wind speed of 44 mph, the strongest gust being 49.7 mph.  The climb was tiring and at one point the wind made me lose my balance and I found myself on the deck.  Another effect of the wind was to have a horizontal trail of nose juice blowing across the fell side.

The trig point of the Calf was hidden in thick dank cloud, damp enough to warrant waterproof trousers.  Once again we did not hang around and quickly set off along the bridleway that would take us down into Bowderdale.

There was a surreal moment when we saw a strange shape loom out of the mist, to me it looked like a misshapen cross.  It turned out to be two backpackers huddled together consulting their map.  They both jumped when Reuben appeared out of the murk at speed to say hello.

Thankfully the wind dropped a little as we descended into Bowderdale, however the cloud was sitting lower on the hills, the air full of drizzle.  A wild and lonely looking valley in the conditions.

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We followed the path down the valley for a while, eventually picking a flattish spot to camp next to the river.  The wind was gusting again, being funnelled directly up the valley.  I was pitching my new Kifaru Megatarp for the first time out in the wild and the wind did not make things easy.  I eventually wrestled what felt like a hundred metres of fabric into position, pinned firmly down with a grand total of 21 pegs.  It was not going anywhere.

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Along with the Megatarp I had purchased the Tarp Annex which transforms the shelter from a tarp to a four season shelter.  This has a stove boot sewn into it to take the small Kifaru woodburning stove.

It was not yet cold enough to bring along the woodburning stove.  I also did not want to risk using it in strong winds, a lightweight chimney being blown about would just be asking for trouble.

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The weather meant that we were soon in our individual shelters.  It was dark by 6.30pm which felt really early after a summer of wild camping.  Although stable the Megatarp was a bit noisy, there is a lot of fabric to catch the wind.  The plus point was that I had plenty of room to spread out inside, the evening passed quickly with a good book.

Day 2 – 17 kilometres with 280 metres ascent

One of the main problems of sleeping in a floorless shelter is that my pillow seems to go walkabout in the night.  At least in the confines of an inner tent there is nowhere for it to go.  I kept waking to find that it had pinged off somewhere, the downside of a lightweight inflatable pillow.

The rain stopped soon after midnight but the wind continued to increase towards dawn, howling up the narrow valley.  Chrissie came along to wake me around 8am and we had a leisurely couple of hours around camp before packing and setting off at 10am.

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The last time I had walked down Bowderdale was with Martin Rye during a stormy January weekend a few years ago.  Then Bowderdale beck was an absolute raging torrent, even the small side streams proving difficult to cross.  We urgently headed down the valley half expecting to find our cars washed downstream.

Although windy the conditions this time were much more benign and it was good to get an actual view of this long and remote valley.

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A dry stone wall provided shelter for a snack break before we headed through the hamlet of Bowderdale and crossed the busy A685 via an underpass.

Access land is marked on the map next to the building at Rigg End, however it proved very difficult to actually access.  A gate in its final years of life was tied to an equally ancient fence post by numerous ancient pieces of twine.  It took a fair bit of patience to pick it all apart whilst Dixie decided she wanted a quick fight with Reuben.

Once through it was a pleasant plod through moorland following a track on the map which no longer exists on the ground.  Perhaps everyone has been put off by that gate.

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As we were descending towards a bridge we saw Geoff and Tilly in the distance.  Tilly spotted us and came bounding over at great speed, the usual happy labrador.  It turned out that Geoff had spent a while trying to find us on our route.  However he had managed to become geographically challenged on the way, muttering something about how the map was wrong.  When unsure of your location it is always best to blame the Ordnance Survey.

Lunch was taken before climbing onto a lovely area of limestone pavement.  The views back were of the northern Howgills, their summits covered by a uniform blanket of cloud.  Fingers crossed that the rain would hold off until we got back to our vehicles.

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Tilly and Reuben behaved splendidly through an area of four-legged woollies, taking not a blind bit of notice of them.  They were too busy larking around, Reuben’s terrier instincts meaning he won tug of war with a stick and stole Tillies ball.

This wedge of limestone country between the Howgills and the Eden valley is worthy of exploration if you are looking for a bit of peace and quiet.  It would be lovely on a warm summers day with sky larks singing overhead.

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The final section of the route took us down through cattle infested territory.  Most were fine until the final field where one started to take offence at the dogs, the field being full of surprisingly young calves.  We all got over the stile in time and no harm was done.

The skies opened a few minutes before reaching the village where the best tea van in Cumbria was waiting for us.  Coffee and homemade apple pudding set me up for the long drive home.

You can read Chrissie’s version of the trip here.

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October 9, 2013

Across the Great Moss – backpacking the Cairngorms

by backpackingbongos

It has been a while since I have driven in the dark.  The journey north after work was a tough one and I was convinced that my night vision had made a turn for the worse over the summer.  Stopping for fuel just north of Carlisle and the attendant informed me that one of my headlights was out.  I can confirm that it’s much easier to drive with two.

I stopped for the night in one of those Alan Partridge style motorway hotels at Abington, a 400 mile journey far too ambitious after a day at work.  My room smelt of damp bathroom and lonely businessman.

The A9 on the way to Kingussie is a combination of tractors and suicidal Audi drivers.  Now when one whooshes past I say to myself, ‘Audi do that’.  There was an alarming moment when one tried to enter my boot whilst I was overtaking a lorry.  I’m not sure what he was trying to achieve whilst flashing his lights and beeping his horn at me.  He must have been very important.

My destination was Glen Feshie, usually a pleasant drive via Feshiebridge.  Unfortunately the road to Feshiebridge was closed and a 17 mile detour did little to add to my happiness.  Getting away for a stress free weekend in the hills can sometimes prove to be a little stressful.

Day 1 – 11 kilometres with 910 metres ascent

Day 1

I left the car in a small off-road car park a short distance from the Glen Feshie hostel.  I set off up the forest track, this soon turning into a delightfully maintained footpath.  The going was easy and I soon had great views back across the Spey valley towards the Monadhliath.  The air was surprisingly still and warm, perfect for the midges that started biting the minute I stopped.

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The path climbed steadily across the hillside up to the Allt a’ Chrom-alltainn on the six hundred metre contour.  Although sweaty and a little bit wheezy I felt the stress of a week at work, followed by a long drive all melt away.  All I had to worry about for the next three nights was putting one foot in front of another.  Actually that is a bit of a lie as the first big storm of the autumn was due to roll in the following night.  I had not yet planned where I would be when it arrived.  Strangely I was sort of looking forward to it, in a nagging worrying sort of way.

The perfectly manicured path petered out at the stream and I followed the thousands of footsteps before me up steep peaty slopes.  It was a bit of a slog with food for four days, a case of stop every few steps to enjoy the view.

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Higher up the slopes I found another path that eased the gradient somewhat as it contoured round to deliver me at the col between Carn Ban Mor and Sgor Gaoith.  I was soon approaching the latter which is a Munro, its location making my skin tingle with excitement.

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A rocky prow sits at the top of a two thousand foot drop straight down into the dark depths of Loch Einich.  The summit cairn had sat right at the edge, but it looked like some eejit had pushed it into the void below.  The views are one of the best that I have seen in the Cairngorms and I had a great sense of height.  The coires of Braeriach looked magnificent in the early evening light, like a giant had taken spoons and scooped out the hillside.

Even on the summit the air was perfectly still and warm enough to sit in a t-shirt.  It was at least half an hour before I could tear myself away.

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The reason why I had travelled all the way to the Cairngorms was to wild camp right in the middle of the Moine Mhor, otherwise known as the Great Moss.  This large high altitude plateau has held my imagination for years now, a place I have only ever visited on a map.  I have always wanted to wild camp slap bang in the middle of its high level contours.

I took a narrow path north from the summit along the edge of the plateau, steep slopes dropping into Coire na Caillich.

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The spring Fuaran Diotach tempted me with an idyllic looking wild camp but it just did not feel wild enough, even though the view was stupendous.  I followed the edge of the plateau downwards, the ground becoming rougher as height was lost.  It was now carpeted in wet moss sprinkled with small boulders.  Not the easiest of terrain to walk across.  There however was a real feeling of space as the high plateau rolled away to the bigger hills.  I was in my element.

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The rocky, mossy ground was not ideal to pitch a tent so I continued on towards Loch nan Cnapan, finding a patch of grass bang on the nine hundred metre contour.  I put up the tent on one of the most exposed spots I have ever camped, somewhere that would be difficult to retreat from if the weather turned bad overnight.  However the forecast was for it to remain fair and I revelled in such a wild spot.  After walking to fill up my water bottles I stood outside and watched as shafts of sunlight drifted across the giants on the other side of Loch nan Cnapan.  It really does not get much better.

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Day 2 – 23 Kilometres with 790 metres ascent

Day 2

It rained for most of the night but thankfully the wind did not pick up.  The highest hills were shrouded in mist when I first stuck my head out of the tent.  My wind chill measuring thingymajobbie said that it was minus 0.5 celcius when I got up and packed away.  Gloves were deployed for the first time this autumn.  As I set off towards Tom Dubh I was struck by the autumn colours of the grasses, the season was already underway even though it was only September 14th.

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The walk to the summit of Tom Dubh and down to the Allt Luineag reminded me of parts of Arctic Sweden which I visited last year.  It’s a shame that the Cairngorm reindeer did not put in an appearance as that would have truly fired up my imagination.

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The climb to Monadh Mor was up easy grassy slopes but the modest climb of only two hundred metres felt much higher.  I stood for a while and watched a large herd of deer on Leth-chreag.  I felt that they were also watching me, surely I was too far away to be noticed.  Thankfully I would probably make a rubbish deer stalker.  The view to the west was across the whole of the Moine Mhor, culminating in the Munro Mullach Clach a Bhlair.  One to save for another day.  The plateau was split by the deep trench of the River Eidart, its secret hidden depths a place I would like to explore.

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The summit cairn was quickly gained and then left as I wandered eastwards, first for the view towards Beinn Bhrotain and then the huge bulk of Cairn Toul.

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A little further and I was right at the edge of the plateau, Glen Geusachan snaking away beneath my feet.  It was one of those ‘Wow’ moments, the scale of the landscape enough to get the heart racing.  A photo really can’t do the view justice.  Instead I request that you go and take a look for yourself.

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A joyful yomp to the south and I was descending the steep slopes to the 975 metre col below Beinn Bhrotain.  Although the day was a little murky shafts of sunlight kept highlighting the rocks on The Devil’s Point.  Although one of the smaller summits in the area it packs a punch in terms of character.

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I passed a solo hiker and then a separate group who were doing big days from the Linn of Dee.  Even with taking a bicycle as far as White bridge these hills are pretty remote.

The path up Beinn Bhrotain starts off easily enough and the view back towards Cairn Toul and Braeriach gave plenty of opportunities to stop and gawp.

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The path is soon lost in a jumble of boulders which guard this side of the mountain.  It’s not my favourite sort of terrain, especially with a heavy pack.  Many of the boulders are wobbly and it is easy to lose your balance.  Thankfully the weather was clear as navigation could be tricky in mist, especially in descent.

The weather came in for a while whilst I sat in the summit shelter chatting to a couple of guys from Glasgow.  They were having a long day having walked all the way from Auchlean to bag a couple of Munros.  They were going to return the same way.  With only the remotest Munros left to do they had conceded that they may have to take up backpacking to bag them.

I retraced my steps to the col and then descended south-west into the upper reaches of the Allt Dhaidh Mor.

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Without losing too much height I contoured along the side to reach the saddle to the north of Cnapan Mor, a peak that I imagine sees very little foot traffic.  I often feel that lower summits can be better viewpoints and this is definitely the case here, especially along the length of the Geldie.

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I imagined that the going underfoot on the descent to the Eidart would be tough going.  Thankfully I managed to link together areas of short vegetation on stony ground.  A final cairn before dropping into the glen gave a good view towards Carn a Fhidhleir and An Sgarsoch, possibly the remotest Munros in the Cairngorms.

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The ground reverted to the usual tangle of heather and tussocks on the final descent to the River Eidart.  I think that on my next visit to the Moine Mhor I will approach by following the river to its source.

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The bridge above the waterfall is a good spot to sit in the sun, the spray floating like tiny crystals in the air.

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I passed the old pony hut and deliberated whether or not I should pitch there for the night as planned.  With the weather forecast being absolutely dire in terms of wind and rain I decided to press on.  If it was going to be as bad as predicted then I did not want to be in an exposed spot.  I also did not fancy crossing the landslip area during strong winds and after heavy rain.  I thought it would be best to head for the bothy.  With the weather being so calm it was hard to imagine weather fronts sweeping in.

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It felt a bit of a slog walking down the Upper Feshie, however the scenery is about as good as it gets.  I had walked the same route the opposite way in May, I’m not sure that I could ever get bored with it.  For me its all about the many splendid trees.

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A lot of work had been done on the landslip area since earlier in the year and the path was easy to follow with no difficulties.  I later read in the bothy book that the MO was often seen fixing the path.  He has done a cracking job.

I reached Ruigh-aiteachain just as darkness was falling.  With it being a Saturday night I expected to see lights in the windows and smoke drifting from the chimney.  The place was dark and deserted.  With it being late and not being too fussed about spending time chopping wood I pitched the tent on the grass outside.  It had felt like a long hard day and I was soon asleep after dinner.

Day 3 – Bothy fester day

The wind and rain arrived in the night.  I had fixed the crossing poles to the Scarp when pitching, but the bothy provided shelter from the wind whistling down the glen.  They were hardly needed.  I managed to fester in the tent until about midday, reading and drinking coffee.  The weather down in the glen was not half as bad as expected, although I imagine it would have been tough on the summits.  The rain came in the form of sudden short downpours, the noise deafening under Silnylon.  I used a lull after one such downpour to make a dash to the loo.  Yep this bothy comes equipped with somewhere to squat in dry comfort.  All very civilised.

During the afternoon the sun came out and I used the opportunity to have a short wander.  It felt a bit odd that no one was around, I had that last man on earth feeling, especially since this is a very popular bothy.

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The rest of the afternoon was spent sawing wood, an increasing pile of logs being stacked next to the stove.  It was hard work with arms not used to manual labour, but at the same time very satisfying.  Time ticked by slowly and I was happy just to fester with a book.  Finally an hour before dark I got the stove roaring.  It was soon t-shirt time inside.

An evening spent with my feet up by the fire, a dram in my hand and candlelight flickering on the walls was pretty good.  By 10pm I was reticent to go back out side and sleep in the tent.  I quickly dashed out, packed and then spread my mat and sleeping bag out on the wooden floor.  Bothy nights can be damn good.

Day 4 – 9 kilometres with 120 metres ascent

Day 4

I was up and packed early as it was a few miles to the car followed by a four hundred mile drive home.  I made sure that there were a few logs and kindling left by the stove and swept the floor.  A night camping outside followed by a night inside had made it feel rather homely.  I was a bit sad to leave.

The paths on the way to Auchleen have been greatly improved and currently appear very manicured.  I hope that they soon blend into their surroundings.  The River Feshie kept me company on the way out, the only person I saw being a fisherman dressed for the part in tweed.

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It was a bit of a shock to be on tarmac once more for the final section back to the car.  On the road I could see the tops of the Monadhliath to the west with a dusting of snow.  It felt like winter was on its way.

October 2, 2013

Merrell Chameleon 5 Mid Ventilator GTX

by backpackingbongos

During the warmer months I have to say that I am now a convert to unlined trail shoes.  There is nothing better than the freedom of splashing through bogs without worrying about keeping your feet dry.  They are lightweight and give freedom of movement, your feet soon dry once out of the wet stuff.  In the snow and ice of winter however I prefer the complete opposite.  Nothing beats clomping around in a pair of sturdy traditional leather boots.  This means that there is still a chunk of the year when neither really fit the bill.  This is where I feel a good pair of mids fit in.

With the sole of my trail shoes threatening to desert the uppers, I quickly took up the offer from Merrell to test out their new Chameleon 5 Mid Ventilator GTX.  I have to admit that Merrell have always been in the back of my mind when choosing new footwear.  This is probably down to gear snobbery as I have always thought of them as the sort of brand Blacks and Millets stock.  I have my reasons to be snobbish about Blacks but this is not the time………..

Anyway, out of the box and onto my feet it was like pulling on a favourite pair of slippers.  Having a narrow ankle I often find footwear is a little loose in this department.  However the Chameleon 5’s were reasonably snug, although not the sort of snugness you get with trail shoes.  The toe area has loads of room for me to wiggle my toes.  There is a good amount of padding around the ankle and on the tongue without being over the top.

My first impression when I took them out of the box is that they are rather cheap looking.  To me they look like something you could pick up from TK Max for £20 rather than a pair of premium priced hiking boots (the RRP is £140).  Looks aren’t everything though.  The pig suede leather has several mesh cut out panels for ventilation and is backed up by a Goretex lining.  A plastic arm wraps around the ankle to provide some support and to maintain the heel shape.  This is connected to the laces so you can get a nice snug fit.  Anyway no point in describing what they look like as you can just look at a picture.

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On first examination I thought that the lugs on the Vibram sole look a little bit shallow and the heel does not have a deep ‘bite’, something I like to have when descending.  The best test of a sole unit however is on the hill.

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Their first outing was on a three-day backpack across the Moelwyns.  The feeling of wearing a favourite pair of slippers continued and I walked for three days without any rubbing or discomfort.  The cushioning under foot is great, nice and soft but without being spongy.  They would be ideal for yomping for miles along hard packed paths and tracks.  The Moelwyns were absolutely saturated after a few days of heavy rain.  With the aid of gaiters they kept my feet dry, the Goretex not letting in any water.  Although waterproof they did prove to be rather warm and sweaty on a humid August weekend.  I can’t imagine those mesh panels did much to aid ventilation, especially when backed by Goretex.  To be honest I feel that they would be much better without a waterproof lining.  I find lined boots far too warm and in my experience the lining fails all to quickly.  I have never had any last more than six months.  Only time will tell with these.  On the plus side the sole unit gripped the sopping wet grass like a limpet.

The second outing was a few days walking the grassy hills of the Southern Uplands.  Once again they proved to be ridiculously comfy.  There was a problem though with the inner sole.  It is so thin and unsupportive that I don’t know why Merrell bothered putting it in.  On the second day in the Tweedsmuir hills it was wet, both from the sky and the ground.  My left boot filled with water, whether from a leak, a foot in a bog or water running off my waterproof trousers I don’t know.  The inner sole started to shift about within my boot, gradually trying to work its way out.  I had to stop a couple of times in the rain and re-adjust it, no fun when it is wet and windy on a hill.  It was about as effective as a soggy bit of cardboard.  Merrell you really do need to address this.

The third outing was a four-day backpack across the Cairngorms.  They handled the varied terrain well.  This alternated between good paths, soggy moorland and boulder fields.  They gave me real confidence crossing boulder fields with a heavy pack.  Admittedly the rock was dry but they gripped really well.  To be honest I did not even think about them during the four days.  Always a good sign.

I’ll pop back in six months and let you know if they are still in one piece.

So, overall what do I think?

Pros –

As comfy as they come.  I can wear them for days without thinking about them.

For me a good fit (although we are all different).

Great cushioning underfoot.  I did a 23 kilometre day in the Cairngorms taking in two Munros and lots of trackless ground.  The soles of my feet did not get the usual pounding.

A good grippy sole on wet grass.

Cons –

The crappiest inner sole you could possibly imagine.

The Goretex lining makes them sweaty and means water that gets in can’t get out.

They stink already!

Price.  A RRP of £140 is far too steep.  Knock off £40 and they would be great value (you can find them for around £100 on the internet).

Note:  These were given to me to test by Merrell.  However I was free to write anything that I wanted.

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