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.
I had the ultimate contrast this week. As a freelancer I depend on the phone ringing to pay the bills, and it’s a never a casual enquiry, it’s always life and death on the other end of the line. So, I do my best with that.
I did a job a while back and submitted my invoice. Now, it’s rare these days I have to wait more than a week for a regular to pay, but as it was a new client I let it run 28 days. As soon as that was done I sent a wee nudging email, I got a reply to that. Still no money though.
The next couple of emails went unanswered so I made plans to get to a landline with a little time to spare and make my feelings and intentions known over and sandwich and a cuppa.
“In a meeting…”, “not at their desk…”.
I wasn’t going away though and I did eventually get a call back which saved me going to their door after I’d finished that last coffee. Hesitant and a little sheepish was the tone. I do have some sympathy, it’s not always the person you deal with, it’s sometimes a faceless arsehole in accounts that won’t ever have to speak to you. So never lose your temper, just be assertive and plain: here’s what’s happened, and here’s what’s going to happen next depending on whether I get paid or not.
I got paid within an hour of that call. Didn’t have to be so difficult did it? I don’t remember being so angry for a long time as I was that day.
As Jimmy says, I don’t mind working for my money but I don’t want to fight for it.
And the contrast?
“Goannae get your bill in!”
I’ll drop it off
“I’ll get it signed on Sunday, mind and leave it”
I ran out of time and ran over this morning and caught the folks arriving.
I got smiles, hello’s, thank you’s, a cheque, shake of the hand and “We appreciate what you do for us”.
I could have cried or hugged him, both probably.
This is why my beard is a different colour to what it was on the early pages of this place.
But I was reminded today that the bad guys aren’t winning, not just yet.
I was supposed to be an artist, I suppose I could have been many things. But my trouble is I have unlimited enthusiasm and passion for stuff, but a total lack of focus and discipline.
Willie Rodger was my art teacher for 6 years, all through high school, and he read me, my strengths and weaknesses right away. I think, more than anyone probably has.
He tried and succeeded to coax good work out of me for years and although he could see as I found other distractions over the years that I was losing my application to the task more than a wee bit, he never lessened his support and encouragement.
His latter advice was just to be creative and that it didn’t matter whatever I did, music, art, words. I always had great support from my folks, still do bless them, but to hear words of support to be non conformist from outside the family bubble feels somehow different, not greater or better, just different and maybe emboldening.
I met him by accident years later after he’d retired back to full time art and I was an engineer and we chatted about way back then and where to next. I was glad of that, leaving school is one of those final moments, so many full stops and dead ends and Willie’s affect on me went beyond that.
I wish we’d met again, I’ve done so much more stuff since that he’d have appreciated, music, art, words.
I think I’d have liked him to know that his advice is still a voice in my head to this day that helps me have the freedom to do the creative stuff I do, lining up a shot in the mountains, flattening out a blank sheet of paper, opening up Word or plugging in a guitar.
Thanks Willie, for way back then and for where to next.
Dalmuir Park fireworks is where we always end up, it’s usually very good and I can’t remember a night where it wasn’t clear and cold for the display.
Tonight it was pissing down and as they counted down to launch I swear it got defiantly heavier.
However, due to the power of positive thinking, or a rising cloud of ned sweat, or tory cuts affecting weather reliability, the rain fizzled out until the end of the display.
Peter Hutchinson, founder of Mountain Equipment and PHD died aged 81 on Friday last week.
PHD had been very much on my mind last week. I’d been using two of the sleeping bags and other bits and pieces last week as I work on a long overdue review and then the winter sale post popped up on Facebook, complete with a purple Yukon jacket which had to be commented on of course. Then the news of Peter’s passing.
I only met Peter once when Phil and I went down to the factory for a visit. I was struck by the no nonsense, practicality of the man and the company as well as a joyful geekiness in his approach to the gear they made. He and Peter Elliott made a great double act and it was enlightening, educational and best of all, fun.
A workshop in a Victorian mill seemed the perfect place to find Peter and it took me back to my early years spent in similar environments where I watched blokes of a certain age weaving magic out of nothing. Steel stock or goose down, doesn’t matter, apply imagination and skill to either and I still think it’s a kind of magic when something good comes out the other side.
PHD has been a constant in my life for ten years or so and it’s part of a handful of elements that have made all the things I’ve done in the mountains not only more enjoyable that they might have been otherwise, but just possible. That’s thinking at work, not marketing.
Here’s to Peter and his generation of fellow innovators, the ones that did it all first.
I wonder how much of our time spent pursuing a passion is trying to find that feeling we had the first time we did it, saw it, felt it… ate it?
Familiarity has never taken the wow moments away from anything I love, the grin is always as wide when I hit that first chord, the giggling at the colours when the sun sets is just as giddy.
But it can never be the first time again, can it?
Maybe it’s a product of age, but I get flashbacks of a sort, moments of time travel where then and now meet and I swear I can feel “it”, whatever that may be.
This photie gives me “it”. I took it on Tuesday morning. The ridge had been hidden by darkness or cloud until the descent and now I couldn’t take my eyes off it on the way down. The nights’ fresh snow had given it a texture and a glow that went beyond pretty. I was partly, I dunno, 20 or 30 years ago, swinging Grivel climbing axes with enthusiastic incompetence with heels shredded in rigid boots as well as 21st Century Schizoid Man needing a hot lunch.
They say smells have the strongest memory triggers. Nah, these folk have never spent a lifetime in the mountains.
The joy and the melancholy mixed together in that moment was a strong brew indeed.
If I keep getting those moments, I am alive, obviously, but I’m still me too. As strange as that might sound, it’s good to know.
I’ve sort of gotten into the way of carrying a camera again, but I still find myself without it when I’m in places I could have been pointing it and pressing GO optimistically.
The phone saves the moments as best as it can, which is fine when it’s bright and clear, but why Sony of all people can’t make a decent low light camera for their current phones I don’t understand.
So, I get some wacky stuff that looks borderline psychedelic or animation still. I can live with that.
This one of Holly reminds me of something, movie poster or book cover that might have been briefly visible around the place a few years back?
Kilpatricks in the dark, love it.
Low tide at the beach is magic in the winter months.
The keys though, is it a youth culture thing, a remembrance thing? I kinda like not knowing the answers sometimes.
Camera strap in there. Ha.
I’m more of a kid that Holly is. She has advanced vocabulary* and uses it to put me in my place while I just laugh and do stupid voices to get her to keep running up and down in front of the old railway arch lights.
A wee spin out for lunch turned into a longer galavant. It’s often the way of it.
The big surprise was Kilchurn Castle being unlocked and accessible which I hadn’t been for years when we’d been here. There’s some closed areas, some fenced off bits and works are a little half heartedly underway. It’s a great place, I hope they fix it rather than forget it because it just exists and does not pay for itself.
Not far away is Strone Hill, a compact and very pretty forest walk. Two loops with benches by a burn, a waterfall and ancient spirits manifesting through the moss.
We’re suckers for these things, park, run, whoop and make up a story on the way back to the truck.
The most “Scottish” thing about this trip was this coo. Well, not so much the coo itself, but the story woven around it.
The big beastie is sitting on the path the Kilchurn Castle, it’s obviously where it hangs out when it’s not walking around slowly looking vacant.
However, after stepping over its tail, we were greeted by this first sign.
Then this one, because you totally took the first one on board.
Then there’s this one so they can find you and kill you for taking photies of the coo and not paying.
And then for bonus fun there’s the barbed wire protecting the photography business’s garden shed.
This whole thing is annoying and kinda distasteful. Normally I can just think “Fannies…” and wander on, but this all grated on me a bit.
I love it. I’ve had a beanie on, I’ve had gloves on.
I’ve spent as much time looking down as I have up, so much going on around the woodland floor.
The colours and the smells, the bite in the early morning air.
I can hear the wind right now, the clouds are moving fast across the bright blue on the other side of the river and I’m wheel-less looking at it, still waiting for the new suspension parts to arrive for the truck. Mountaineering is indeed hazardous, broke the suspension on the way to Ben Cruachan last week.
Might have to head to the Kilpatricks, just in case like.