The Monthly Newsletter of Chelmsford YHA Local Group
Sunshine north of the border is a rare and precious thing. A whole week of good weather is virtually unheard of. One of our party heading north must have done something very good in a previous life (or perhaps this one?) to deserve such a treat. In the same way that there is nothing quite so miserable as Scotland in the midst of a downpour, neither is there anywhere on earth quite like it when the weather is nice. Suddenly you understand why Queen Victoria loved it and Sir Walter Scott romanticised it. I can't wait to see the slides & pictures at our Scotland revisited evening.
Hills, Haggis, Whisky and Wildlife
Staying at the hostels in Ullapool, a picturesque harbour town in the far north west of Scotland, and Tomintoul in the Cairngorms, the highest town in the highlands, gave us an interesting and varied week.
Land of the Setting Sun
"Chased sunsets while the midges chased us"
The west coast of Scotland is a wonderful place for watching sunsets; this far north the sun sets late and slowly, the sky glows red, the jagged mountains are silhouetted and reflected in the lochs. Gerry took us on a couple of sunset chasing expeditions, hurtling up the road to be in the best place at the right time, tripod in one hand, midge-repellent in the other.
Eat, Drink and be Merry
"Three days without custard - how much longer can we endure these imaginative menus?!"
As usual, we had a different volunteer to cook each night, and a fine selection of tasty and generous meals. We had haggis, tatties & neeps in vast quantities, all eaten up even by those who didn't like the look of the haggii, but some were defeated by the sticky toffee pudding to follow though!
The pub in Ullapool was packed, so we sat on the sea wall, drinking our beer in a swarm of midges, until the pub ran out of beer. And the pub in Tomintoul had to rush in extra bottles of Sheepshagger from the Cairngorm Brewery to quench our thirst.
The magnificently-stocked Whisky Castle in Tomintoul had plenty of custom from us, all wanting a few souvenir bottles to take home.
Girls Night Out
"Advice re girlie survival kit: Never travel without cafetiere and pack of ground coffee. Food not a necessity! Travellers from Somerset provide all sustenance necessary!"
Escaping the Munro and Corbett baggers for a couple of days, Cheryl and Alison decided they wanted to experience the Outer Hebrides and took the ferry to Stornoway. They stayed in a restored "black house" hostel in a tiny crofting village in the north west of the Isle of Lewis. Being late arrivals, they slept on the kitchen floor. Having neglected to bring any food with them (except some freshly ground coffee), they had to beg, borrow and steal to survive. Even the walk to the pub was an epic test of survival!
Sailing with the Summer Queen
As a break from slogging up hills, most of us took a boat cruise to the Summer Isles. With chances to see porpoises, dolphins, seals and numerous sea birds, the boat takes you around the smaller islands, into Cathedral Cave on Tanera Beag, and then for a short stop on Tanera Mor. This is the only inhabited island in the Summer Isles group and lies a mile and a half offshore from Achiltibuie in the mouth of Loch Broom. There's just time to climb the small hill to see the view across the other islands, and to pick out the mountains on the mainland "been there .. done that!".
Gerry seemed to be determined to take a photo of the boat leaving, and narrowly avoided spending the night stranded on the island!
All to Quinag
Quinag is a strange Y-shaped mountain with six tops; on the map it looks like a squashed insect. Everybody went up (except the girls who were on their way back from Stornoway); Tom's group did all the tops (of course), we did most of it, and George did the difficult half (steep narrow ridges), and still got back in time for dinner!!
There were also expeditions to the other monoliths of Wester Ross, including Ben Mor Coigach, Canisp, Stac Polly, Suilven, Cul Beag and Cul Mor. Lorna said the route up Cul Mor was "mildly unpleasant" - that means certain death, so we went a different way.
"Is it a rock? Is it a cow? No - it's a Cromdale Reindeer!"
Tomintoul, we're told, is famous for the three 'W's: Whisky, Walking and Wildlife. John described the landscape as wild and woolly, and told us to look out for woolly mammoths. We didn't spot any mammoths, but we had a close encounter with a reindeer. The heather was alive with grouse, ptarmigan and mountain hares. Clive very nearly trod on a nesting grouse (any one for scrambled grouse eggs with their breakfast?).
The Thrust Zone
"Around the world in 600 million years"
Returning from one of our sunset spotting trips, we stopped at Knochan Crag. This is where geologists first realized that rocks could move sideways over huge distances to build mountains, and a new visitor centre tells the story. In the fading dusk light at 11pm I didn't really expect to see much, but my approached was detected and the exhibition burst into life, with spot lights, touch screens and interactive displays to keep us entertained with the story of Peach and Horne, the victorian pioneers of thrust tectonics.
Hadleigh Castle Walk
The sun was shining on us, the day Chelmsford YHA headed for the seaside. Fourteen people met up at Benfleet railway station to enjoy a leisurely walk across Benfleet Downs to Hadleigh Castle where we ate our picnic sitting amongst the ruined towers, enjoying clear views across the Thames estuary to Kent. Needing something sweet to compliment our sandwiches, we walked the short distance to the Salvation Army Home Farm tea-rooms where ice creams were eaten on the veranda, once again offering fantastic views. From there the route was all downhill following field paths into Leigh-on-sea. The place was heaving with Sunday afternoon visitors. The group split, heading for the pub or teashop depending on their tastes, but not before deciding that rather than catch the train, as was the original intention, we would prolong our day by walking back to Benfleet.
Suitably refreshed we met up again to stroll back along the sea wall. It was a flat, well made track, and made for easy walking. The tide was out and oyster-catchers and lapwings searched the mudflats for food. Boats lay on their keels, waiting for the tide to re-float them, whilst to our right the remains of Hadleigh Castle kept a watchful eye on our progress. It was hard to believe you were in one of the most densely populated parts of Essex.
The Bike Ride that Wasn't
As usual for the Wednesday nearest midsummer's day Jim had organised an evening cycle ride. We imagined gliding along quite lanes in the evening sunlight, to relax with a pint in the pub garden. But when the evening came… a howling gale, torrential downpour, falling trees, flooded roads and general mayhem. With a few phone calls between the regular cyclists it was clear that no one wanted to go out, so we called it off. Apologies to anyone who did turn up and found themselves very lonely and very wet. Perhaps next time we'll have our summer ride in November; the weather might be better!
Shropshire is a splendid and often overlooked county. The place called "Bridges" consists of nothing much more than a pub, a hostel and three bridges. A splendid "traditional" hostel in the old village school, it's a good base for walking in the Shropshire Hills.
Arriving on Friday night just in time for sunset, we drove over the Long Mynd for some spectacular views. But on Saturday the forecast drizzle had set in. The hardy few set out to climb the mist-shrouded Long Mynd ("This walk's not for the faint-hearted" said Nigel, "No, it's for the dick-headed" replied Robert). The rest of us went off to the Ironbridge Gorge museums to educate ourselves about our industrial heritage.
Sunday was a better day, with enough sunshine to tempt us to walk up to the Stiperstones ridge before the hail showers started. After taking pictures of each other in heroic poses on top of the stones, we made our way back to the pub to enjoy a drink before to journey home. Another splendid weekend, despite the weather!
What to do if you're not in Scotland and it's Sunny
Unfortunately I couldn't get the time off work to join our Scotland party. I was trapped at home, taunted by phone calls, text messages, emails and postcards from a bunch of people clearly having a much better time than I was.
But I still had my Bank Holiday - the question was what to do with it?
Some of you may remember Debbie, who was a member of the group up until a few years ago. Debs is currently studying in Bangor and it was her suggestion that we get together to make the most of the long weekend.
Wiltshire was my choice, partly because the lack of Youth Hostels means I've never really looked at the area in any detail. I've been to Stonehenge a couple of times on the way to somewhere else, but I highly recommend the area for a more extended visit.
We met up in the car park at Avebury, after mammoth journeys battling the Bank Holiday traffic, and headed straight for the tearooms!
Avebury village is set inside a massive stone circle and there are huge stones in virtually every direction. The village bookshop is almost as fascinating with inane new-age theories jostling for position with Oxbridge archaeological tomes.
Nearby is the massive man-made earthwork of Silbury Hill (the largest in Europe and about the same size as some of the smaller Egyptian pyramids). It dates from about 2660BC, roughly the same period as the Avebury ring, and was marvellously well constructed - taking 18 million man hours to build.
Also nearby is West Kennet long barrow. You may think of barrows as nondescript bumps in the ground, but this barrow contains a series of burial chambers and you can actually walk inside.
The next day we headed off to Salisbury. Salisbury does have a youth hostel, but couldn't accommodate us for the whole weekend, probably due to the Arts festival going on in the town. We raided Tourist Information and then headed for the Cathedral. Very impressive architecture in the Early English style, plus the chance to see one of the few original copies of the Magna Carta.
From Salisbury we moved on to Old Sarum, the site of the original city. Old Sarum started as a huge Neolithic hill fort set in such a splendid spot that William the Conqueror thought it would be a really good place for a castle. A city grew up around it, including the original Salisbury cathedral, and culminating in a royal palace. Of course, nothing now remains except the massive earthworks and some scenic ruins. The city thrived for a couple of hundred years but then began to decline as the population moved to the more convenient (but less well defended) location of new Salisbury. It became an infamous "rotten borough" because although everyone moved out in the 13th century, Old Sarum continued to return an MP until 1832 (presumably voted in by a yokel and half a dozen sheep).
Monday saw some civil war history with a visit to Old Wardour Castle. A castle accidentally blown us by the owner (royalist) whilst trying to get the occupants (roundheads), who had taken the castle from his mother, to leave. And who said history was simple?
The bank holiday drew to a close and Debs & I bid farewell, having had a super, culture-filled weekend. Missing the Scotland trip didn't seem quite so bad after all.
Please send any comments on these pages to Dave Plummer