Plans changed and I found myself with a wee window of opportunity. I managed to see, speak to or narrowly miss so many folk that are dear to me this week it was probably destined to be that on my “big day” I’d wander the Lang Craigs, the place that too, is dear to me.
My phone pinged with messages and kind words so while I was alone I was with friends the whole time too.
The calm and quiet has lingered on and I’m really quite content tonight. Happy? Imagine that.
I had planned a serious post that spoke of my journey, my disappointments, my joy and more and I tried to take two photies to illustrate this in a very grand fashion. The first would be serious and dour, the weight of the world and experience creasing my brow. The second light and smiling, to show that I might win out after all and that I’m all about the joy of things, that would go at the end of the post.
As I struggled with the practical part of this, the camera on the tripod in the bathroom where the light is brightest including one tripod leg in the sink with me leaning over it from the front, faffing with the settings with no glasses on taking useless shot after useless shot on the timer I realised that this whole process kinda summed me up.
And that’s at fifty I’m actually no different than I’ve ever been. So that’s what I think this is, the final photie I took, it’s me realising how ridiculous it all is, how ridiculous I am, and making my peace with it.
I’m saying blacking out the badly placed bathroom curtain is a metaphor. A metaphor for what I don’t know yet, but my enthusiasm for whatever it is will be mighty. Onwards.
Never been a big fan. It’s stuff in a bowl at someone else’s house at festive times that’s probably been there for ages gathering dust and is probably as unhygienic as it is tasteless. However, the festive packaging of the Twiglets lured me in unawares and I was immediately captivated by the dryness of the snack, the texture of brittle twig (irony?) fresh from the forest floor and the taste of peppery burnt rubber. I love them. This tube even fits my hand perfectly. Do they make them all year round? I don’t think I could wait until next Christmas.
The last time. The best school in the world will be Macfarlane-free next Christmas, the Girl will be in high school. The panto was brilliant, just as it’s always been the past few years. I will miss this place, the care, the help, the enthusiasm, the joy that’s allowed to run free because the kids have worked to earn it.
Peter, the other Peter, who does the controls and electrics for me was working on the panel while I made faces at the pump. It’s single phase, but still big. I’d priced a replacement a while back and it was around a grand just for the pump in a box, so we decided to leave it until it died.
It’s grinding a bit but running although the enamel coating was peeling off badly which took me by surprise. It looked as if it had been under water, which this boiler house has known in its time, but not to this height. The wall was wet looking, I put a hand out and snatched back as a got a sharp pain on my wrist. “What the hell…?”
Torch on, I looked for bare wire or something, easy to miss something in this dark, cellar boiler house, built in Georgian times for a coal furnace. Instead I saw and then felt warm vapour at the back of a valve. Closer in, a needle thin jet of 88degC water was making a straight line from the valve to the wall. Not making it wet enough to run, just to be wet.
How long had that been happening? It was the system isolation valve, can’t dismantle that without draining the system, can you? I can, and did. I was in late last night ( see below…), still holding. How? Send a work order, some secrets are chargeable.
The ante room is a jumble of gear used for frequent jumble sales (irony #2). Bags of hangers and clothes rails of various designs and vintages jammed in together. One base had slipped onto the floor and it caught my eye, a vintage design I think? Can’t quite place it.
I spend a lot of time in churches and although it usually remains unspoken due to professional as well as personal courtesy, my opinions on faith are never discussed at work. And so it shall remain. However, the occasional noob will still ask me as I lie on a damp, manky boiler house floor wrestling with rotten Victorian pipework “What church do you go to? and my answer is always “I’m on my knees in a church most Mondays to Fridays, you want me to go at weekends as well?” Never had a comeback to that.
I opened the door and walked inside with footsteps which felt too loud however softly I landed them. I was alone in a very old, creaky church in complete darkness. The wind moved softly through the gaps in the roof, a whisper, a whistle, a voice? A door opened and a shaft of soft yellow light crept towards me across the empty pews and worn carpet. Walk into the light says the voice in my head, walk into the light. I did, the light was at the top of the stairs going to the boiler house, I switched it on when I came in.
Home has been an escape this week. Been back late every night and the first thing we’ve done is put on all the wee lights and candles. Within a few minutes it’s cozy and itchy eyes are looking at cartoons over the top of a fresh cuppa.
The mornings have been tricky. Even if we can’t get moving very fast, never missed the school bell once. Been a couple of absolute stunners at dawn this week too. Camera’s aren’t here though are they? Fixing that today.
The invasion has begun. That’s what it felt like when I was picking up some mortar from B&Q at the back of Clydebank. Lots of contrails and my first thought was “Steady on, it’s not a race” until something large and military sounding flew slowly over the roof of the truck. I still remember when they tested the four minute warning siren back around 1980. That was scary enough and this had shades of that for a second or two.
How many poor bastards are living it for real this very second.
It was Saturday tea time but I still wasn’t done. I knew the weather, I heard the advice, trust me I know what I’m doing. Fragile buildings with problems on this night of all nights? Of course I was still going out to do my checks.
I got to Balloch and the snow was getting heavy and was lying quite thickly. I could feel the rear wheels being a little more playful that I’d like, but as long as I trundled on, I’d be fine.
How to take driving into the snow photies. Buy a flip case, park in layby, stand phone up on the dash, jam with set of small stilsons if needs be, select ten second timer, wait for gap in passing traffic press go on phone and on truck, hope for the best, be smart arse and get it first time.
I did soon realise my route choice wasn’t the best though. A lot of hills and lots of folk still out who have never driven on snow. I’d be fine as long as I didn’t have to stop, I left plenty distance and trundled on, up and down the hills, it was going okay. I was doing better that the folk going the other way, that abandoned sideways look wasn’t working for them.
I wasn’t confident by any means, the music was down low, I was concentrating, listening to the engine, feeling the wheels, one more big uphill. I’d be fine as long as I didn’t have to stop.
The blue lights were bright through the trees before I got there, my heart sank. A road maintenance pickup was parked on my side, the police were off to the side and cars were coming down the hill. I slowed, I slowed some more, the other side just had to be clear and I’d motor by, easy. No, police on the road, waving arms. I stopped.
I was amazed to see the pickup drive away, the police get into their car, everything apparently fine and I was now stuck on the hill. Rear wheel drive with no weight on the axle. I love my truck, I love the snow, but together they are horrific.
But, the police were struggling, I leaned out “I’ll give you a push if I can borrow your shovel”. That’s what happened. Mind you, as is the way. One was cheerful and helpful, one was sour faced and arrogant. The good guy helped me dig wheel tracks for the truck and told me they’d stopped for the car on it’s roof behind the hedge (no injuries, girl away and fine), bad cop ignored me as I pushed their motor onto the road and got them underway.
It didn’t work of course. I was still spinning on ice, now alone in the dark etc I looked around and found the corner of a broken bumper from the upside down car and stated digging long tyre tracks down to the tarmac with it, enough for me to roll back a good few feet. This worked, I had the run-up I needed and I was on the road again, a little floaty, but moving forwards.
I got to the job, it was okay, made a couple of adjustments, watched it for a bit and checked my messages. It looked like I wasn’t done yet.
The riverside road was okay, still snowy but flat and I was headed to urban areas this time. I pulled into the car park, the place was silent and deserted, even the houses seemed devoid of lights in the windows. It was late I suppose, but where is Christmas people? A quick check and I was locking up again. I stood by the truck, fishing out the keys and a single loud, sharp, crack followed by a boom bounced of the high buildings and on through the dark before it was silent again. Was that a gunshot?
I was on the road again as fast as I could, including a rather nice fishtail on the snow in the carpark on my way to the gate. I checked their local news this morning, nothing. Good.
I just had slush to deal with over the bridge and into Renfrewshire, it was cold, blowy and wet. Miserable. One last check to make, needed tools on this one though, but not difficult at all. Happy with what I saw, I put the lights out, the alarm on and locked up, I was done for the night. It was almost Sunday.
It was an entirely surreal night. By the time I got home the snow incident felt like ancient news and I was like a burst couch, I just wanted a cuppa and a duvet. I’m 50 in a week, either life is telling me to not be stupid or to keep being stupid so I know that I’m not quite done yet.
I think over the course of the year different bits of myself have been reconnected one after another and although it’s been a sporadic and random process, my work head is very much fully functional at the moment. It’s been years since I’ve done 12 hour days, saw customer after customer in the same day and although there are a few still aren’t exactly ecstatic about the progress of their job, in a week’s time anything that really needs done will be done. Mostly likely.
I’m tired though. Sore as well. Quite right, as my much missed buddy Z told me: pain is just weakness leaving the body. Well, that and old knees. If anyone actually pays me in the next week, the pain will subside for a wee bit.
Saturday evening, winter depths of darkness, the worst weather in ages and I am truck-bound with a folder full of paperwork to deliver. The metal will be loud for the next few hours.
I wrote a feature for the current National Trust for Scotland magazine covering the work of their Path Repair Team who were working on Ben Lomond at the time. The time in question was the height of summer, one of the hottest days of the year, or indeed since records began and I felt it on every step of the ascent.
Ciaran and Nan who I were meeting had climbed up at dawn to miss the midges and get to their work site before the sun caught them. Good call.
It was a good day though, great company and excellent banter and I came home with hours of recorded conversation to sift through. I learned new stuff and will forever view paths a little differently.
I’ve some thoughts on it all below, some banter from Ciaran and Nan that never made the pages and an amazing coincidence at the end.
Just to confirm that the feature seen below is indeed written by me, it’s just that they spelled my name wrong.
I fully expect Holly to have to take a sharpie to my gravestone to add the “a”.
I’ve no idea how many times I’ve climbed Ben Lomond, been wandering it’s ridges since I had hair and no camera. It’s familiar and approachable but it’s never a pushover; been on my knees in the wind wishing I was elsewhere and on the north side on snow wishing I’d thought it through better.
The days of joy up there I can’t count however. It’s close enough that I can drop everything and run to it and over the years I’ve caught some golden moments when I had no right to be there.
It’s a bigger hill than the regular route suggests, it has secrets, it has dark corners and it has my heart. I love this hill.
I know I’m not alone, the paths show it. Many years ago I could climb Ptarmigan Ridge to the top and see no one else there, the path there was easily followable for most of the way but it wasn’t overly worn. Nowadays the path is as ground down as the tourist route up Sron Aonach.
It’s not like this is the work of “someone else” though, it’s our feet that’s doing it. We tread on the grass, the grass dies away. We tread on the earth, it breaks up and washes away. We tread on the rock. And then it’s too late.
You could say we should all take different routes. I remember someone on an outdoor forum somewhere on their high horse about always walking off track. Oh aye, my hero. Every hill has a summit or a ridge we have to take, we’re all walking on the same ground at some point.
Besides, hills have obvious lines of ascent, we are going to gravitate to certain routes from the start. It’s human nature, we’re pack animals, we will follow.
I remember a group following my footsteps high on Ben Lomond years back, footsteps in fresh snow which were obviously going in the completely wrong direction just so I could get out of sight for a pee on the pristine white hillside. I mean, really?
So what are the options? Don’t climb hills so they don’t get eroded. Good luck with that. Ignore it and hope it goes away? See too much of that walking through feet deep trenches on the the lower slopes nation wide.
Fix it? Aye, we broke it, I suppose we have to fix it. Yes it’s going to be visually intrusive and the hand of man will be seen in nature, yes it’s going to ease the way for perhaps the inexperienced and the unwary, but what choice do we have?
I saw the lovely little Ben A’an in the Trossachs destroyed when it became one of the first hills reopened after the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001. The little tracks became trenches in a matter of weeks and the whole approach route was ruined forever when the weather got it and washed it all away.
There’s a middle ground to be found where you can do the best job possible if you apply skill, time and money. That’s where the feature comes in. I found the folks with the skills out on the hill, they just don’t have any time or money and NTS are currently making a push for funding.
When you’re looking at the view it’s easy to miss the ground underneath you. The ultimate contrast isn’t, the Cobbler at sunset and the multi-lane highway on the Ben’s lower slopes.
The approach has changed dramatically in recent year with the tree felling above Rowardennan and the non NTS path has seen a lot of changes to match the increased traffic. You can see a difference in the maintenance approach, down here it’s all about feeding folk through, on the open hillside it’s a bit more involved.
I spied Nan first, clearing out the drains on the path. I didn’t announce myself, so I must have looked like a weirdo. Still, action shot etc
These familiar drains stop paths turning into burns and need cleared and repaired. The stones are dug in and set, the drain channels dug and formed then and checked every spring after the snow melts. Not just here, but Glen Coe, Torridon, Ben Lawers, Arran, The Cairngorms and Kintail. That’s a lot of paths, a lot of miles and all of it done by a team of four in a pickup truck.
They stay in local accommodation or NTS sites and get back home most weekends. I worked away from home a lot when I was younger, it can be fun, but it does grind after a while. I could also leave all my gear on site, walk a few feet to my truck and go back to my digs. These guys are carrying tools and gear up a mountain to get to their work and it’s not just the access paths, it’s the final pulls to the summits too.
Ciaran: “We do maintenance runs, walk the paths to see what needs done and see their general state which allows us to prioritise. Sometimes on site staff will have something they need us to do, but mostly we just go looking for trouble.”
Nan: “People do see to appreciate what we do. Even the old-school old-timers might huff and puff at what they see, but they talk to us and they do appreciate the effort, and of course set off for the summit on the path we just repaired”.
Ciaran: “People will show you what’s wrong with your path, they’ll leave it and go their own way”.
That’s the crux isn’t it. Making it usable but not sanitise the experience. Ben Lomond’s paths are mostly a happy medium I think, you have to watch where you put your feet, the stone looks like it should be there and on ascent it blends in well visually.
They use interesting techniques to keep folks on the paths, for example,a few boulders placed here and there with some turf soon turns into a natural feature that folk will avoid.
Once you know they’re there you go “Ah…” to yourself, as much as I know this hill, I’d never spotted them. Have you?
Nan: “We build a path smooth in the knowledge that it will wear and get rougher over time. No path is ever perfect or finished, we’re always doing the worst bits, leaving it to do the worst bits somewhere else and coming back here to do the worst bits again“.
We looked in detail at some of the construction methods. How and why stones are placed or angled, how anticipated future wear or erosion influences what and how they build now.
It’s really not straightforward and I like it when something is based on a mix of technical knowledge, feel and experience like this is.
“We’re stretched very thin, we could do with a whole other team!”
A couple of months later on a #microadventure with Gus I saw an NTS pickup truck parked at the bottom of the hill, looked up and saw big white rubble sacks on the hillside. Who else could it be?
We found the full squad of four in the sleet digging foundations and placing stone for a new path before the increased traffic here made a trench up the face of Meall nan Tarmachan.
Ciaran: “In the years I’ve been doing this we’ve had stone dropped by helicopter twice.” He got his third here. Big bags of stone had just been dropped all the way up the path for ongoing works which will carry on next year once the snow comes and goes.
Me and Gus were cozy and comfy in our fancy new gear after a fine night at the top, so when we caught up with the team the next day, gear was on our minds.
They have an annual kit budget and luckily they have duct tape too for patching when they quickly wreck the gear they get from spending that. These guys are so hard on kit and they’re high in the hills hard at it in gear I’d keep for the garden.
Jeez us hill tourists are so soft.
Lunch is out in the open too regardless of weather, so what do you do I asked, have you got a bothy bag or group shelter?
No says Nan. Best thing is when those rubble bags are empty, if it’s raining, I can crawl inside one and it’s just my feet that are left out in the rain. Quite cozy.
Go to a building site these days and the portacabins are like mobile hotels. These guys are still living the definition of roughing it. Someone somewhere in the outdoor trade brand up some kit and send them it ffs.
Still, they do it all with humour and passion. I got smiles and banter every time.
I asked Nan and Ciaran what their biggest problems on the paths were and I was surprised when they answered as one; “Litter!” Erosion they can deal with, walking for miles to look for stone is acceptable, but crushed cans and bottles jammed between the stones on their steps is too much. “If you can carry it in full, is it too much to ask to carry it out empty?” I can’t argue with that. Dog poo bags hidden in corners of the stonework is a part of the same problem, “It’s the attitude that someone else will get it, I mean, who is this someone else?!” Minor vandalism can occur, stones dislodged and rolled down hill for fun can be dispiriting as well as damaging, every missing stone allows water to pool and run and that’s where the erosion starts. The team can cope with the natural elements of the path as it ages. The large stones or bedrock are at the bottom, the bed of medium and small stones give it shape and the dust and gravel on top which give a walking surface washes away or is blown away by the stronger mountain winds. They go to repair that and they need all the time that have to do it. Let’s help them out and take our little home.
There will always be a debate about path repair and rightly so. I’m saying it has to be done as long as we’re wearing them down with our feet, it’s the way that it’s done is what’s important.
People with passion and sensitivity will do a different job from contractors payed by the metre. The people who care for the land will chose which of these to apply based on funds more than anything.
I suppose it’s up to us where we are with this in the future.
I was in the jammed-solid hall cupboard looking for something else and found my original LX3 camera and a couple of batteries in a box.
I got all warm and fuzzy in the head and immediately charged the batteries to have a play around. One battery was happy enough, one died almost instantly when I stuck it in the camera. Ach, that’s fine given the age I think.
Hmm, I like it better than the more recent LX7. One step forward, two updates back. Taking an old friend out with me this winter.
Had a fine day last Saturday. We had a fruit tree planting day at the the Lang Craigs in a handy wee space just up a bit from Overtoun House and despite the manky weather it was well attended.
We had a lot of families so quite a few wee yins in wellies and woolly hats digging in the mud and having fun before it was time for a quick wander round the trees to talk about winter identification (its bark and buds, that’s how you tell).
Then it was back to the big hoose for soup and cuppas in a room I’d never been in, all dark paneling and roaring log fire.
I did notice this barbed wire right on the path about to shred someone’s rucksack. Is this allowed? I think not, this disagreeable neighbour’s pushing his luck here I think.
That all done, everyone went their own way except me, Jo and Franki my fellow rangers and two poor wee buggers from BB’s on a mission for achievements in their book of activity type thing (I should really have asked what the proper description of it was).
So, a quest of fence maintenance it was. I also had to fit some signs on the top gates so it seemed a good fit to give the boys a real task rather than some random box ticking exercise that I imagine happens a lot with this stuff.
It was however cold, a bit rainy, windy and late in the day. We also had a good bit of ascent to do so had to keep moving to get stuff done.
Franki lost my screwdriver at the first sign fitting. I am psychologically scarred for life knowing that a lifelong companion is lying lonely on the hillside somewhere. Rusting slowly…
We cleared a water gate, a swinging doodah above running water that lets swollen burns and debris through, but keeps deer out. There were three big boulders jammed under it, it’s amazing how easily an unassuming little watercourse can move rocks you would struggle to roll never mind lift.
We climbed up to 1000ft dealing with fence issues on the way and fitted another couple of signs with cold fingers on spare screwdrivers before I called it: time to go down. I saw tired faces, darkening skies and we were all getting hungry.
Although not far away, the easy track were were picking up at Black Wood was beyond a nightmare crossing of moorland covered with water filled potholes, the legacy of prepping for tree planting. I’m used to it, I mostly skip from mound to mound, but every time I turned round I saw someone disappear into knee deep cold water and mud. Ha.
The track was descended in darkness, but the banter was in full flow, the team was happy. The youngsters did really well, it was a big day in very poor hill conditions and they did the tasks themselves.
I suspect there were some early nights had by team members.
Nice to be up there team handed, I usually feel like the upper contours only ever see me or the poachers. Lang Craigs, just magic.
Never seen a venue kill the atmosphere of an event as comprehensively as when Gary Numan played the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall last week.
Numan is on a roll, making great new music and packing venues. This part of the tour was an extension of the recent album cycle and he was really just having some fun playing with the Skaparis Orchestra on a string of UK dates.
A great idea which sounded epic as well as intimate at times. The music really lends itself to the addition of an orchestra, the electronics and guitars did not fight with the unusual additions, it blended perfectly.
But. It was the wrong place for this. Numan’s shows are lively, loud affairs. This all seated, posh venue with it’s bright wood panelling which makes it feel like a waiting room felt wrong from the moment I walked into the auditorium. It usually sounds great in here, classical and jazz fit so well, it’s just not rock n roll.
The music started, and it was so quiet. You could talk over it. The audience stayed seated, the ushers made sure of it.
Two songs in and Numan was visibly annoyed, he was animated and agitated, trying to get a reaction from the audience. The ushers didn’t agree with this and it took maybe an hour for them to finally give up and let people do what they should have been doing all along.
Numan was still raging though, he might be 60 but he’s definitely not going through the motions for the cash.
It got louder too towards the end too, did the soundman try and help the situation in the only way he could?
The orchestra were excellent, all young folks having the time of their lives. The conductor was a nutjob too, so into it. Brilliant to watch.
Numan’s wee lassie sang a couple of numbers, cracking voice and watching dad and girl interact on stage was such a joy.
So many positives tonight, the music was just so good. Support from Chris Payne who played his awesome 1980 classic Fade to Grey, never thought I’d see that song played by its writer.
But that venue, that bloody venue, what a horrible mismatch.