Wednesday 08 May Starting out
I was determined to walk from home to the station. Wilnecote.
I also thought it wise to catch an earlier train in to Birmingham, as there was only one other before my 1410 train from Birmingham to Euston. Wilnecote is a few-stops-a-day station.
So, I had time in hand. I wandered round the Bull Ring and set off down New Street after calling in to Cotswolds. Nothing needed - just looking and passing the time.
As I ambled along New Street, I heard my name being called. I looked round to see Sarah and Bob. So, what's weird about that? Well, I last saw Sarah in 2001 when I was working with her in North London. They were up in Birmingham for the Day and I was on my way down to London. We chatted for ages, but Sarah and Bob were off to a show they had booked, so I had to say, bye.
Time soon went and I made my way to the new New Street station, complete with mind scrambling walks through endless passages. The station re-vamp was still not finished, but, still not much real difference.
My train was a Virgin. And, now that I've stumbled on the Senior Rail Card - three years after I could have been using one - I was travelling first class!
Euston is in London and London is full of people. Too many.
Left luggage was left - £8.50!!!
I wandered down to Oxford Street and was ovewhelmed by the crowds. Too many people going in too many directions - all in a hurry.
I came back to Euston and popped in to the Bree Louise. Just to see what it was like. I was very early.
I wandered off ................and.................... wandered back to get a seat.
Soon I was joined by Alan Sloman and good conversation ensued.
More folk arrived: Ray and Amanda and Russ and Jane and others that appeared through the haze that was created by cask drawn beer. (I used my CAMRA card for a discount).
It got very convivial - i.e pints were sunk.
Hello's were said before goodbyes and the 9.15 pm train. A sleeper.
But, first, there were more beers to get through. The lounge was well frequented and the beer came in cans. But, the conversations were good. I think we spoke about crossing Scotland and things, but, to be honest, I was ready for bed.
And I had a cabin to myself - although I was second class for this bit of the journey up to Nirvana.
Thursday 09 May Inverness to Torridon - still starting out
I woke up as the train pulled into Aviemore.
I actually woke up a few times. But, after my last falling asleep the train was in Aviemore - where I would be in a few days time - I hoped.
And, then it was 8.30 am and time to decant out into Inverness.
Left luggage was left - £3 - same luggage, but not inflated Londinium prices.
Breakfast and re-hydration: M and S breakfast with M and S re-hydration.
There was a cool breeze.
I wandered around in a bit of a stupor and was just a little dis-orientated. I had motion sickness type symptoms. And, they stayed the whole day.
Eventually, a small group gathered on the station and hello's were said before more goodbyes. Except for the Dave Wood taxi group. Dave had organised for about 12 of us to be taxied from Inverness to Torridon.
All the gear was put in the back of the mini bus, but Mark, Dave and I got into an Audi A6.
Start in style.
Torridon SYHA is good. Lovely position in, er, Torridon and only a short walk to the pub.
Well the walk to the Torridon Inn was around 30 mins and it started to rain and it was a bit windy. But we got there.
Food was good and so was the beer. Good converstation ensued with Sue, Ali, Peter, Martin, Philip, Mark and Mark.
Then the walk back. At least it had stopped raining.
I shared a room with Martin, Philip and Andy. But, I was last in and had to be very quite.
Sleep came easy.
Friday 10 May Torridon to Pollan Buidhe
The day dawned just the way you would want days to dawn. Dry and with little wind.
Off we went.
Annat saw us go off road.
It was pleasant walking and it wasn't too long before the breeze picked up enough to add a cooling effect to the early morning toils.
The walk was on a good path. Bealach na Lice led on to Bealach Ban. The weather was changing. It was getting windier and clouds were scudding over Maol Chean-dearg. Quick decisions were made. Mostly to continue on the well maintained paths down Coire Lair. But, Beinn Liath Mhor was calling and two answered. So Ali and Sue hit the high road while the rest of us took the low road. Their's was to be a stormy night. But, then so was ours.
It was a long way down to the road and along it to Craig. We passed Gerry's Hostel and I heard a few stories about his hospitality. Another time, perhaps.
We crossed the railway line to join the track that eventually led round to Pollan Buidhe.
Looking back things were changing. Wind, cloud and rain was on it's way. The track climbed some way and at first it seemed we were going the wrong way. But, we were on the right track. It was the end of the day.
Pollan Buidhe offered a level area of grassy bits nestling on a bed of stones. As the wind got up and the rain set in we were pitching on non-too-good ground. Still all the MSR groundhogs went in and held. Then, I thought, blizzard stake for the rear point. Big mistake.
The groundhogs were helped in with a couple of rock bashes and survived; the blizzard stake had the same treatment, but hit stones that allowed it to crumple and split. But with a groundhog to assist, it held through the very wet and windy night. Day one had started so well and then gave us a taste of things to come.
A good meal and a little whisky before bed in my wet bits covered bivy bag........ NO! Seams were checked and were ok - before setting off. But, the Trailstar was getting a good shaking and some pulling on the seams had produced a couple of leaks.
Out came the waterproofs and the wiping up cloths I had stuck in my pack.
With the drips taken care of, I slept well.
Saturday 11 May Pollan Buidhe to Torr nam Braonan
The day started dry. Route decisions were made and sociability was the word of the day.
Martin and Philip were soon off across some wire contraption and in to the mist. The rest of us, including, Andy, Jim, Jane and Julie continued along the track past Glenuaig Lodge.
But, that was not to be.
We continued on down Gleann Fhiodhaig by the River Meig. Which had to be crossed in order to take the path-ish up by the Allt an Amise.
Wet feet: no problem. First of many wet water crossings.
The path crossed and re-crossed the burn and then took us in to the watershed area. A bit boggy, but not too bad. then the path down by the Allt a' Choire Fhionnaraich which eventually led to Loch Monar.
There seemed to be two paths by Loch Monar. High and low. First we took the low, but, soon realised that this was going nowhere fast and was ultra wet. So a cut up to the high path which was well maintained and made for good walking.
It was a dry evening and Andy, also in a Trailstar, had, at Pollan Buidhe, offered me his seam sealant. Sure enough he came over with my shelter saving sealant. A quick bit of finger work had the seams back into A1 condition and there were to be no more problems with leaks for the rest of the trip.
The wind did get up and it did rain overnight, but, the sealant had dried before this happened.
Sunday 12 May Torr nam Broanan to Cannich
About 3k along the track, the next morning, there was to our right a track going over to Cannich by the Allt Innis na Larach. Well, no it didn't.
I joined Ray and David and Jim and Jane and Andy in crossing a good bridge that led towards this track.
The track soon disappeared and left us in a trackless peat hag ridden wilderness with signs of a path on the other side of the Allt Innis na Larach. After negotiating the way down to the path, it too soon ran out to leave us in boggy, soggy, heather and hag ridden bits.
Jim and I soon got ahead of the rest and found a faint landrover track that eventually led down to a gate in a deer fence. This track, rough as it was, was easy to follow and it soon tipped us into another gate in the deer fence that enabled us to get down to the road by the River Cannich.
After lunch, there was nothing left but to walk along the road to Cannich. At least it remained dry.
Cannich campsite was superb. I wandered round to find a good pitch - some of the area was worn and earthy. But, I found an area which had good bits of grass - still enough to allow a soft lay and good stake purchase.
There was this tiny Gossamer Gear tarp nearby and this turned out to be Jon Hancock's. We had a good neighbourly chat. I then went to the TV room to sort out my parcel and met Willem, who had seen me lose my Croc last year and was very supportive in offering me his dry gloves at that time.
The cafe on site was a little gem. I had a coffee, or two, with the second one being free: and burger and good conversation and it stayed open well past 5pm - the woman even called in some extra help to cope with the influx of Challenge folk.
The pub wasn't too far and I wandered in to meet Ray, Rob and David with Rob Slade. I wasn't going to eat again, but ended up having fish pie and a few pints. I went back early to the campsite and had a drop of whisky before retiring (to sleep). It was cold. Snow lay on the hills and this was rain on the campsite, but, I had a good night's sleep.
Monday 13 May Cannich to Drumnadrochit
The cafe was on top form. A full breakfast and coffee for £7. Said hello's and goodbye's and had a chat with Denis. It was a bit showery packing up and there were showers to come for the rest of the day. Not so wet as to need more than my windshirt.
The first part to Drum was road walking to the cross the bridge to the tracks that winded through the forests and ended up near Drum. By the bridge were Graeme and Marion relaxing in a windbreak sun trap and Willem and Marianne joined us for a warm break.
Later I met Phil Hill and passed Marion Boyle.
The walking along the forest tracks was good and the track rose to give good views - eventually over Loch Ness. A path leading down signalled the way to Drum and with a bit of twisting and turning eventually brought me out on to the main road.
Now, Ray had told me that "the" hotel gave good TGO discounts. So I went to the not-the-"the" hotel and was met with ......... er? I almost left before another, behind the counter - the manageress? said oh, yes we give discounts to TGO folk - £20. So, I could have a room for £55. Slight error, but I took it. The room at the back of the hotel overlooked a steep dirty slope. The heating was an oil fired heater that needed the skills of a nuclear physicist to work out and I just knew I was not in the right place. "The" hotel was down the road and rooms there were £35.
Later, I tried to bargain with them. I would put good things about their hotel if they could drop the price. What a waste of time. I got blurb about their hotel was superior to the other etc., with good views (my room - Nooo!)
So, no names mentioned, but, as you cross the bridge; turn right - not left.
And, I decided to stay in an hotel because I was having a day off in Drum before catching the 5pm ferry across the Loch. As if to make up for it the Benleva Hotel - home of the Loch Ness Brewery - did me a fantastic evening meal a good helping of whitebait followed by real steak pie and I enjoyed a few pints of the ale.
Tuesday 14 May Drum to Ault - na - goire
Breakfast was ok - in the company of some men in lycra who were in property, or, accountancy, or, ? but all of whom spoke with that certain air of eh-haw. They were doing JOGLE by bike and luxury hotel. But, they too were in not -"the"- hotel.
I walked down to Temple Pier and back. I walked back up the hill a way and then down again. Then folk started arriving in Town. The first I met was Antti from Finland and then Willem and Marianne. Later a small group of us gathered in the Fiddlers and passed the time talking and drinking some good Loch Ness beer.
Where we met Willem and Marianne relaxing in the evening near-sun.
Then we were all aboard for a rough crossing, but, no one was affected by the ups and downs.
Not even the non-fare paying passengers - one of whom is seem here.
The road up to Ault - na - goire was ok and we all rolled in for a warm welcome from Janet Sutherland.
Wednesday 15 May Ault - na - goire to the Findhorn Ruins
Janet had done some of us a really good breakfast and this set us up for the day. I also met and had a chat with Alex Sutherland. What a great couple; and what a great location.
Off we set and first we passed through Errogie and signed in to the Telephone box. Yes, there was a Visitors book.
So a rough detour got us back on track. The house seemed empty - probably not in season.
We were on the track that led us up by the Allt an Doire Leathain and there were many water crossings.
After lunch it was compass bearings over rough terrain - 3k to 4k of pathless peat hags. Sleet, snow and rain dropped and to start with it felt cold - until the walking warmed me up. We checked bearings and aimed to hit a track that would eventually lead down to the Findhorn.
After ages we hit the track that led down by the Allt Odhar Beag and then the Allt Calder to lead to a bridge a few k short of Coignafearn (Old Lodge). From here it was an easy walk down the track, past the Lodge to the bridge just before Coignascallan. Graham and Tina were some way behind us as they were wearing boots and changed into Crocs at each of the wet water crossings. We just waded through (and my feet remained really comfortable for the whole trip).They camped near the Allt Calder where it led into the Findhorn. The track led us on to the track to the ruins. The walls provided shelter from the cold winds and we settled down for a good evening.
A typical evening meal for me was soup followed by a dyhydrated meal and I was using Real Turmat for the first time - expensive, but very tasty
I woke up at around 5.15 am and looked out.
The sky was amazing.
Thursday 16 May Findhorn ruins to Aviemore
And the next day dawned well.
Thanks to my excellent direction finding we headed too far south. But, we were heading for higher ground, where, I thought we could see our way better. But, no, we checked compasses and set a few bearings to eventually bring us to the track. That crossing to the track was rough.
We had lunch at the Red Bothy before heading up and down the Burma Road and our first sight of the Cairngorms.
Then it was a fairly straightforward walk in to Aviemore. Here I said goodbye to my travelling companions for the last few days - Willem and Marianne. I could not have wished for better company.
I checked in to the SHYA where I had a room to myself. Out with all the gear to dry and air all the bits and pieces. Then a shower.
I was yearning for a curry, but, walked past the curry house to the Cairngorm Hotel. Here they served good beer and I settled down for a few pints. Then Jim and David joined me. A few more pints were sunk and I decided to eat in the hotel. A steak: and it was very good.
I returned to join Jim and David and we chatted a while. Then I said hello and goodbye to Lee, Bob and Tony - the music was too loud for any meaningful conversation. Back to the hostel for a good night's sleep.
Friday 17 May Aviemore to Faindouran Lodge - Bothy
I set out from the hostel and took the footpath and cycle track that eventually led to Glenmore Lodge. I did not see anyone who was on the Challenge all day.
At least it was a dry day. And walking over to Fords of Avon was on good, well maintained paths.
I decided it would not be a good idea to go up Bynack More. Folk were glissading down the snow covered path.
The River Avon ( A as in Have - not A as in Hay - as I was told) looked full of life and I was glad that I did not have to cross it.
The refuge was well protected from the elements.
I had originally planned to camp at the Fords of Avon, but, the ground was soggy and wet.
I decided to head down the path to Faindouran bothy. At least I hoped it was still ok. I'd read about the chimney collapsing and wondered if it was still open. At least, if it wasn't I'd find a pitch in the shelter of one of the walls. The path was soggy and wet but at least it was a path to follow as opposed to trackless stuff.
The building on the right looked in good condition. The floor inside was rough and stoney.
The ruin on the left was the bothy. Surprisingly, although it was mostly rubble, the end room was in good condition. As I settled in for the night, the mist and drizzle and rain set in for the night .......... and the next day.
There was only one sleeping platform. A few Challenge folk had passed by earlier and filled in the bothy book: and I sat with the door half open while I had my evening meal - listening to music on my phone - in case someone else arrived.
I thought it wise to let some time go by before breaking out the whisky - in case I was joined by a later arrival. But, the night turned wilder and it was obvious, by about 9.30pm, that no one else was going to arrive.
I relaxed and opened my little bottle of whisky. With music and whisky I passed the next hour or so, just enjoying the solitude. The weather turned nasty. I was dry and comfortable, wrapped in down from head to toe.
Saturday 18 May Faindouran bothy to Cock Bridge
The day dawned wet. The track was good and wended it's way down to the bridge over the Avon, not far from Glen Builg. From here it was a short walk to the bridge that crossed the Builg. For some reason, I wasn't sure if there would be a bridge here. But there was, and shortly after I saw this figure heading towards me. It turned out to be Matt Little who was heading to camp further up Glen Builg. We had a chat and then I joined the tracks that led over to Cock Bridge. Rain and wind was present and not pleasant. It got heavier.
I decided that it would be a good idea to stay in the pub - the pub with the mythical bothy. But there was no bothy. The pub was empty - the last two customers having left as I arrived.
I asked for a cheap room and was told £30. That was ok. A couple of pints with some great soup and I was ready for a long hot bath. My room was basic, but comfortable and the pub had a certain charm about it. I lay listening to music until later when I went down for a few more pints and a meal.
There were a few local farmers in the bar bit and there in the eating area were Richard and Rosemany who I last saw in Cannick. They were nearly through their meal, when I ordered mine. As you do we got chatting and the evening passed well - great company. Food was good and so too was the beer.
Sunday 19 May Cock Bridge to Ballater
Breakfast started a bit Fawlty Towers-ish. There was only Richard and Rosemary and an Australian couple besides myself and we were all down for breakfast at 8.15am. I had come down at 8am but there was no one around. Then the owner came in and apologised for the late start - I think it was his son who served in the bar/did the meals and was suposed to do breakfast. After a jerky start we were all well fed and watered. His son appeared and continued to ply us with toast and coffee, etc., Paying the bill was interesting as the batteries in the hand held gizmo for card reading and paying were a bit low. But, unfortunately it did work and I paid and left.
Down the road and to the right was an old military road that re-joined the main road for a while. Then there was a track that led off past and beyond Morven Lodge and by back roads in to Ballater.
Off the road it was a pleasant back track and Ballater was reached in comfort.
I pitched and decided to ring in to Challenge Control. "Where are you - you are late" I appologised and explained that Humphrey had led me astray in the pub. But, no, I had not rung in from Cock Bridge the day before (I should have done!) And, it was Sue: her of stern, iron, demeanour (not really!). Oops, slight error; but I did try to get a signal and couldn't. I was let off. No alarms were raised - I think I was thought to be safe.
Ballater campsite is now community run. Same people in the office, but, by the people for the people.
There were loads of Challenge folk here. The weather remained kind. It was warm.
Later in the evening it was time to eat and drink. Back to the Alexandra. The bar was full of Challenge folk. Good conversations were had. Good food was eaten and good beer was drunk. That night was the first, and only, night of camping without needing to wear down to sleep in.
Monday 20 May Ballater to ................. Tarfside.
Not my planned route. I had heard that there were major works in the Fetterresso. I also knew that the pub at Feughside was closed. I decided to be more sociable and head for Tarfside.
Via Mt Keen, again.
There was still a patch of snow on the path and some very anti-social people decided to turn their backs on me. They were doing a charity thing and had pealed off their tops briefly to be photographed. The camera was facing them. They were actually sociable, but they soon disappeared down towards Queens Well and beyond.
St Drostan's was warm and welcoming and I was soon settled and enjoying a can, or, two.
Much to my surprise there were two single rooms left. John Donohoe showed Rob and me the rooms - one quite with no view out and one near the main room with a view out. We tossed a coin and I got the quite room.
The evening meal was soup followed by baked potato and Chilli and desert and coffee. The meals were served in three sittings. As I had the second sitting I had time for a shower. And more beers were consumed.
I will not even ateempt to name names there. Suffice to say you will know you were there and you will know that once again the legendary hospitality was first class.
Two people who were there and do deserve mention are Ann and Alvar. Only, they were not supposed to be there! They were on the Challenge. Poor Alvar had an attack of sciatica and had to pull out - along with Ann. They decided to come along to St Drostan's to help out. Alvar was feeling better, but, I can only guess how it must feel to have had to pull out.
And, I heard of the two helicopter rescues and the 40+ others who for various reasons were not able to complete the crossing. It must be gutting to have to pull out. I just hope I'm never in the same position.
Later Frank and I joined the Masons. Or, we went to the Masons. Now, Frank is one to lead me astray/or is it me him? But, we joined a small group who enjoyed some more chat and beer.
Then back to sleep in comfort. The campsite was pretty full too.
Tuesday 21 May Tarfside to North Water Bridge
Bacon roll and coffee for breakfast. A good way to start the day. And, it was a good weather day.
How many times have I taken this route? Four. How many times have I done the Challenge? Four.
I set off and was soon in he company of Jane and Rob. I tried to lead them down a wrong track before we crossed the Esk. Jane and Rob soon got some way ahead. Later I came across them having a break and we continued walking and chatting.
Then, nearing Edzell Rob and I were some way ahead of Jane. We headed for the Panmuir Arms. Plenty of time - and Jane and Rob had talked about having a meal there. Time went by and Dave Wood joined us - no Jane. Then Aussie Mike came along. No Jane. Some while later Jane appeared. She had stopped to eat some of the food she was carrying instead of having a meal.
Meantime, with pints going down Rob and I both ordered mussels and then Rob ordered the Monkfish. I too wanted this, but Rob had the last of the monkfish. I had a steak tower instead. This comprised of steak, chicken breasts and haggis and was superb. Aussie Mike also joined us at the table for a meal. We had a few more pints before being joined by Dave Skipp. Dave decided to settle in for a while after we eventually left. We saw him arrive at NWB a few hours later.
Rob, Mike and I managed to avoid most of the main drag strip to NWB.
NWB campsite is great. Nice level pitch and good facilities - surrounded by caravans. But, why next to a main road?
Anyway, a good evening. Hardly any wind and most of this from a Southerly direction. Trailstar pitched with door to the North. A drop of soup and whisky saw me off to sleep.
Then the wind picked up. And it picked up the wrong way - from the North. And a bit of rain joined it. But, I could not be too bothered to change the pitch of the Trailstar. Thankfully, the wind did not let loose with the force it saved for the next day.
Wednesday 22 May NWB to St Cyrus
Third time finishing at St Cyrus - must do better.
The roads get you there. As I walked along, I thought: and wondered whether there might be a late cancellation in the Park Hotel - for Thursday night. Why not? Much to my surprise there was a room available, so I booked it.
The cliff is a long way down and even longer coming back.
I was joined by Chris, who took my photo.
Back up to the cafe - now open - for a quick coffee before boarding the bus to Montrose.
Challenge Control was buzzing with activity. A good warm welcome from Sue and from John before going down to the bar for a few guinesses. Then down to find a camp spot on the campsite.
Luckily, I was able to tuck away near the end of the bit that was being used by Challenge folk.
Did I mention curry?
A bunch of us hit the George before the Indian Garden where around 12 of us sat down to a great meal with beers.
Then a couple in the pub over the road before a good nights sleep. The wind, by this time was blowing a hoolie, but, the campsite had a protective stand of trees around the outside and there was no problem with the Trailstar being blown about.
Thursday 23 May Montrose
The wind continued all night and well into Thursday. Martin and Philip had appeared since I had left the site the night before; as did Julie and Jane. But there were loads of tents with Challenge folk in.
I packed up and made my way to the Park.
All the packs were being stored in a back function room. Lots of hello's. Lots of chat and a few more pints before my room was ready. Then a few hours to relax before dinner. A bath and a shower followed by a short nap saw the time edge towards around 5.30pm. Time to join the rest. Now the bar was heaving.
When we were called in to the dinner I sat next to Gerry and Lou. During the usual stand ups for so many crossings I managed to find and say hello again to Marianne and Willem. We exchanged email addresses. I hope I can get the photos to work on Picasa or Flickr.
Much as I was tempted to go back into the bar I went back to my room and a good nights sleep.
Friday 24 May Home
1032 Montrose to Kings Cross - first class. Phil, Andrew and Alan were opposite me. Loads of drinks and food. No alcohol until after Newcastle. Then three cans to ensure that when I left the train at Kings Cross, I needed to go to the loo, so didn't say bye properly.
But then I didn't sat bye properly that morning in the Park at breakfast time. I'm better at hello's than goodbye's. So, I'll just have to enter for 2014.
Having started in the Bree Louise I popped in for a half pint before catching the slow train to Birmingham International - first class!
My wife, Barbara, was there to give me a big hug and drive me home.
Good to have been away and to have enjoyed good company on the Challenge.
Great to be back home with Barbara.
Thanks to her, I get to do these great activites.
So, will I apply in September? ............................................... You bet!