A wet and windy day in Snowdonia had an unexpectedly glorious ending.
It was close to midnight and the spot where I had planned to park the Bongo for the night was buried under deep snow. I therefore did what I have never done before and ‘wild van camped’ in the middle of a village. Tired after a day at work and a long drive both myself and Reuben slept well, discovering in the morning that even rural Cumbria has a mini rush hour.
The plan for the day was to go and bag a couple of Wainwrights close to Blencathra that have so far eluded me. Souther Fell on the map looks nice and shapely and a bit Howgill in nature. On the other hand Mungrisdale Common appears to not even be a hill, just a spot height on the boggy side of Blencathra. I though that it would be best to explore on a murky school day in the middle of winter. That way I could escape the crowds that were bound to be hogging the no doubt impressive summit cairn.
17 kilometres with 770 metres ascent
I led Reuben out of Mungrisdale without too much of a plan of how I would link the two hills together. Souther fell looms over the village so it made sense to climb it and get the lung bursting climb done first. I found the rapidly thawing snow hard work and picked a route along patches of grass. Reuben thought that the whole snow thing was loads of fun and acted like he has never seen the stuff before.
Souther Fell gave a pleasant promenade with higher peaks towering above and views out across the Eden Valley. Reuben got very enthusiastic meeting a Border Collie who did not know what to make of having his face licked vigorously.
I had thought about continuing along the path above the River Glendermackin on the south side but I was worried about the steepness of the snow slopes at its head. Instead I decided to continue up Scales Fell and climb onto the summit of Blencathra. This I later realised was a very wise move. Despite the snow it was easy going up the path and I only needed my microspikes for the last hundred metres when the snow got particularly crisp. Reuben met another Border Collie on the way up who positively encouraged him to lick his face vigorously. They bounded around while I chatted to the owner. The theme of the following couple of days was the friendliness of fellow dog owners whilst many other folks could barely manage a smile.
There was no view on the summit of Blencathra so we crunched along the icy plateau and started the descent to Mungrisdale Common. I made an initial false start when I realised we were heading for Sharp Edge which meant climbing back up before finally locating the correct path down. Snow and mist made navigating rather tricky. I need to remember that the compass knows better than I do.
The land behind Blencathra is about as different from Sharp Edge than it is possible to be. With a covering of often deep snow and with cloud hanging low it certainly felt a wild and woolly place. It was a good yomp to the summit of Mungrisdale Common where I sat on the rather insignificant cairn and ate my lunch.
I have to say that I think that Wainwright picked a rather fine spot to include in his 214 Lakeland Fells. It was probably the weather but I felt that I was in the middle of nowhere rather than in the compact and busy Lake District. I might even come back and spend the night.
The soft snow made walking slow and laborious as we contoured round to the head of the River Glendermackin. There I came across the debris from a large avalanche, slabs as big as a sofa piled up on top of each other. It is hard to say when it happened but I was glad that I had climbed Blencathra earlier in the day. The alternative would have involved traversing directly across the slopes now covered in debris.
The River Glendermackin carves through a lovely valley and I enjoyed the long walk along its length back to Mungrisdale. Back at the van I decided that it would probably be a bit rude to spend another night sleeping in the Bongo in the village. I headed off into the hills ready for another snowy walk the following day.
During the New Year I was lucky enough to spend a week in a cottage deep in the wilds of Northumberland with Mrs Bongo. We were based in the tiny village of Greenhaugh, inside the National park itself and not too far from Kielder Water. It was a magically tranquil spot, seemingly miles from the hustle and bustle of modern life. It’s one of my favourite parts of the country. There are no huge rocky peaks or dramatic gorges, just miles of unspoilt moors, hidden valleys and an abundance of conifers! Not a single other hiker was spotted during the week. My kind of place. Here are a few brief words and some photos.
Collier Law – 516 metres
Collier Law actually sits over the border in County Durham, but to me the accent sounds the same. We did a small detour on the drive north and parked next to the Parkhead Station cafe on the moors above Stanhope. I don’t think that you could really class Collier Law as an exciting or even attractive hill. It was all tracks, quarries and masts. Reuben however thought it was great and I got a tick on one of my hill lists. The view once at the summit was extensive on the clear and crisp winters day.
Deadwater Fell – 571 metres & Peel Fell – 602 metres
After leaving a very snowy Nottingham behind it was rather disappointing to find that there was no snow in Northumberland. We had even taken the Bongo just in case 4WD was needed, sadly (really thankfully) it was not. They actually grit the roads up there, unlike the treacherous city streets we had left behind.
Corrina was happy to be left in bed on our first morning whilst I scooted off at the crack of dawn to bag a couple of remote hills just above Kielder village. I started the walk in freezing fog, everything glazed by a thick penetrating frost, the air perfectly still. Gaining height I was soon in the snowy forest, shifting mists giving teasing glimpses of the sun overhead. Suddenly I was above the fog, the sun shining hard but providing no warmth. Much of the day was spent crossing rough trackless ground, a covering of snow making things more difficult and hiding the bogs. The clouds flirted with me all day, often obscuring the hill tops, taking away the view from Peel Fell itself. I arrived back at Kielder shortly after dark, tired and happy and without seeing a person all day.
Padon hill – 379 Metres
I picked what I hoped would be a scenic but easy walk for Corrina. What could be easier than a stroll down an isolated lane and then a walk over the moors on the Pennine Way? This section of the Pennine Way was bloody awful, especially when it passed through the forest. There was no path as such, just saturated ground that tried to steal your boots. The flagstones of the Peak District would have been very welcome here. The views though were classic Northumberland, moors to the horizon and huge skies. Lunch was eaten whilst perched on a tussock.
For such a large expanse of water it was a little bit underwhelming to be honest. Too many signs telling you where to go and what to do. We got off to a bad start when after paying for the car park we found the public loos were locked. Luckily there are plenty of trees to hide behind. We walked to one of the arty things that are dotted around the shore. The information board promised that inside the structure the lake would be reflected on the floor and we would be soothed by the sound of water. We went into a pitch black chamber and had a minor panic when the door jammed shut.
It then rained and even Reuben wanted to go back and sit next to the fire.
I fancied another big leg stretcher whilst in Northumberland, so I left Corrina a cup of tea next to the bed and buggered off again for the day. On the map my circuit just looked like a loop in a giant conifer plantation. In reality it was much more pleasant. My first destination was Roughside bothy, a place I vow never to spend the night. It is a horrid dark, damp place with evidence of the nefarious folk who frequent it at weekends. Most of them having graffitied their name somewhere. Far too close to the road and easily accessible.
The Chirdon Burn is a hidden gem. The river swollen after heavy rain passes through steep contours and plunges over Jerry’s Linn. An oasis amongst the monoculture of the forestry plantations.
I pulled the Bongo off the road not far from Gualin House, pretty much on the highest part of the A838. Although an A road there was hardly any traffic once past 7.00pm and I had an undisturbed night.
As I write this I am kicking myself. The plan for the following morning was to drive to Blairmore and walk into Sandwood Bay to spend the night in my tent. However waking to another morning of cloud and rain my resolve dissolved. I turned over and went back to sleep for a couple more hours. The unpredictability of the weather was beginning to get to me. When I finally surfaced I went through another bout of lassitude where I could not be bothered to pack a backpacking sack for myself and Reuben. Instead I pulled on my waterproofs and headed up the hill directly behind the Bongo.
Farrmheall – 521 metres
I wonder how many people have bothered to climb Farrmheall? It is the highest peak in a large area of wild land known as the Parph, stretching for 107 square miles. The hill itself is pretty unremarkable and it took less than an hour to get to the summit and back from the van. What it lacks in height and ruggedness it certainly makes up for in terms of views and wide open spaces.
There were vestiges of a vehicle track long reclaimed by the moors on the ascent, a couple of traffic cones having found their way onto the hillside. With my head down and boots squelching across the wet slopes the summit cairn was soon reached. My eye was continually being drawn towards the large bulk of Foinaven, cloud constantly grazing its summit. The long and lonely Strath Dionard looked inviting, the map suggesting many possible adventures in remote and little explored country. Cape Wrath was to my north across endless rolling moors, one day I will make the journey up there and spend the night in the beachside bothy at Kearvaig.
Back at the van I pondered my next move, it continued to spit with rain which dampened my enthusiasm for climbing any further hills. It was also far too late to set off for Sandwood Bay. The weather for the following day looked ‘reasonable’ so I decided to head around to the moors north of the remote Crask Inn. From there I would climb Ben Klibreck the following morning.
I took my time driving down the single track A838, stopping frequently to gawp at the views. Ben Stack looked like a volcano as I passed, its cone poking out from a ring of cloud. It appeared much higher than its 720 metres would suggest. There is much to explore on either side of the road, you could easily spend a week doing so. Loch Shin stretches for miles and it is sad to think that the west side could soon be dominated by wind turbines along the whole length. Glencassley and Sallachy power stations will have 48 giant turbines between them if given the go ahead. Right below the magnificent Munro of Ben More Assynt and designated as Wild Land. Lets see if the Scottish Government sticks to its promise to protect those areas designated as wild land.
Meall an Fhuarain – 473 metres (The site of the proposed Altnaharra wind farm)
We spent the night in the Bongo close to the summit of the Crask Inn Road. Once again for such a remote spot there was a mini rush hour in the evening where many cars passed, followed by silence for the rest of the night.
I have to say that I was rather disappointed when I poked my head out of the van at dawn. The good weather had not materialised. Looking up to the summit of Ben Klibreck a big cap of cloud was racing across the highest slopes. The speed at which it was tearing across the summit cone did not make climbing it a very attractive proposition. A heavy shower brought along on a gust of wind helped make up my mind.
I decided that I would start the long journey home at midday, enough time to have a couple of hours squelching about on the moors. Across the road from Ben Klibreck is a large area of moorland that culminates in the summit of Meall an Fhuarain. This is the site of the proposed Altnaharra wind farm, in fact the wind monitoring mast was already towering over the landscape. I decided to go and explore and also tick off a remote Marilyn.
It was a bit of a long slog to get to the summit. We initially followed the Allt Bealachan Fhuarain for a bit, its grassy banks giving easy passage. It was then a case of striking up rough and tough moorland. As expected the summit itself was nothing special but revealed a huge vista of mountains, lochs and moorland with barely any evidence of the hand of man. It was breathtaking to be honest, amazing that such vast and open landscapes exist in our crowded island. The proposal for up to 22 enormous turbines here would be catastrophic for the landscape, dominating the views from Ben Klibreck, Ben Hope, Ben Loyal and Ben Hee.
We descended into a face of drizzle, the weather matching my mood. Reuben was trying to hide from the wet wind behind random tussocks.
For how much longer will the far north remain special?
I got up a couple of times in the night to add coal to the fire. It was snug in my sleeping bag, Reuben snoozing close by and the sound of wind and rain outside. The candles burned for hours giving the room a cozy flickering glow, driving the bothy ghosts into another room.
The room was dark and gloomy when I woke in the morning, grey leaden skies preventing much light getting through the bothy window. I got up and shuffled to my stove, my breath hanging on the cold air. The stove roared into life and within a couple of minutes I had a cup of hot coffee in my hands. I was dismayed to see that the rain was still falling, I once again began to worry about crossing the river and getting back to the van. Apart from my usual breakfast bacon noodles my food bag was empty. I think I would have to be trapped for a few days however before I considered eating the dog.
The buckets of water for the loo needed filling so I took a walk down to the river, my boots still soaking wet from the crossing the day before. Thankfully the river had reduced to half the size so I immediately felt much more relaxed. An enjoyable couple of hours was then spent in the bothy, eating noodles and drinking coffee before finally packing and heading off into improving weather.
The walk back to the Bongo was much easier that the day before, streams were once again confined to their banks and the surrounding mountains were revealing themselves.
Durness and beaches
Traigh allt Chailgeag was a worthy stopping point on the road to Durness. After a few days in the bleak Sutherland hinterland it felt like I was in different country. The wind had dropped, the sun shone and waves lapped gently at the shore.
I was going to pay Smoo cave a visit but as I passed I was put off by the general hustle and bustle. Ok it was hardly Keswick on a bank holiday Monday but after days without seeing a soul it all seemed too much. I did not feel ready to join the great washed. I still had bits of Sutherland dirtying my clothes and I was long overdue a shower.
The shop in Durness was an Aladdins cave of treasure. They even had Arran Blonde which is one of my favourite beers. I hauled my bounty back to the Bongo and drove the short distance to Balnakeil bay.
A hefty shower meant that lunch was eaten in the van. An almighty bang suddenly rattled the windows and Reuben cowered in the passenger seat. I initially thought that it was thunder but noticed a group of people staring out to sea. I got out of the van just in time to see a low flying jet, then a plume of smoke on an island to the north of the Cape Wrath peninsular. Seconds later there was another mighty boom. The military were playing with their weapons.
It was too late in the day for a big walk so I spent a pleasant hour with Reuben walking the coast path leading to Keodale. The weather was ever-changing. Bright sunshine, white clouds, black skies, sun, hail and rainbows. The grass in the dunes rippled in the wind sending patterns into the distance. Reuben got the wind in his sails and sped across the dunes with a grin on his face.
I later checked into the Sango Sands campsite in Durness, time for a shower and to top up the Bongo’s water supply. By then there was barely a cloud in the sky and I picked a grassy spot right on the cliff top. I double checked that the handbrake was on, otherwise it would be a very quick trip to the beach below. There was only a handful of other vans on the site, braving the weather in the far north during the school holidays.
In the last of the afternoon light I had the beach pretty much to myself bar a couple of surfers. Reuben loves being on sand and raced around in huge circles, ripping up any seaweed that he could find.
Later that evening after reviving myself under a hot shower I paid a visit to the ‘pub’ next door. I was looking forward to a pint and a good bar meal. I was bitterly disappointed, for some reason the Highlands don’t really do cosy country pubs. The best I could find in the land of Tennents pish was a pint of Guinness. My meal consisted of frozen chips, frozen scampi, tinned peas and some strangely artificial looking carrots. It was also not very cheap. I could not bring myself to stay for a second pint.
Beinn Spionnaidh 773 metres and Cranstackie 801 metres
With the best weather of the week forecast I was up and away early. With sunshine promised along with much lighter winds I was determined to get up a mountain. Beinn Spionnaidh is the most northern bit of significant high ground on the mainland and from looking at the map I thought it should give good views of the north coast. Adding its higher neighbour Cranstackie would give a short outing in terms of mileage but plenty of ascent and descent.
There is parking for a few cars a couple of hundred metres from the cottage at Carbreck. We took to the track that leads to the isolated farm at Rhigolter, almost reaching it before I realised that I had left my water bottle back at the van. I decided against the nearly two mile round trip to go back and collect it, I reasoned that water should be easy to find on the hill. We picked up the track round the back of the farm, setting off the dogs barking.
The track has been extended further than the map suggests, an ugly scar on the hillside I would imagine is too steep for most vehicles. We soon left it and climbed very steep grass slopes to Cioch Mhor and finally onto the plateau of Beinn Spionnaidh itself.
The summit plateau is one of the rockiest that I have visited, acres of flat boulders which needed care to cross. It would be a real ankle breaker under a covering of snow. Even Reuben took his time, worried as they wobbled under his paws.
The view from the summit was even better than expected. The whole of the north coast was spread out beneath my feet, the mountains of Ben Loyal and Ben Hope rising from the flat moors. The wilderness of the Parph, a huge area of low hills south of Cape Wrath looked especially inviting under the low Autumn sun. I sat for a long time enjoying the views and solitude whilst I ate my lunch, cursing the fact that I had nothing to drink.
With both hills being Corbetts there was a long descent and ascent to reach the summit of Cranstackie. The views from that cairn were more about the mountainous Sutherland hinterland than the coast. Foinaven dominated the view to the south, the hills to the south-east being comprised more of rock and boulder than vegetation.
We descended back to the bealach between the two hills and picked a way down very steep grass into Calbhach Coire, herds of deer scattering as we approached. It took a while to pick a way through the boggy coire and down to the farm at Rhigolter. With wood smoke coming from the chimney and lights from the living room it looked very cosy. By the time we had walked back along the track and back to the van it was pitch black. Time to find a good spot in which to spend another long dark night.