Saturday, 26 February 2011

Millstone Hill & Bennachie

Friday 25th February,

The weather forecast for today was another "getting better" day so we were looking forward to something a little longer and more taxing than our walk last week. Unfortunately, someone had to stay and keep the painter company and Mo drew the short straw so, for today anyway, I was on my own. The original plan had been to park at the Bennachie Visitor Centre a few miles from Kemnay but since I was on my own I decided to start at the old Donview Centre just outside Monymusk and extend the walk to include Millstone hill.

The Goal for Today!

The Donview Centre was originally a visitor's centre but was closed in 1995 and now serves as a studio and art gallery. You can find out a little bit more about it here . The walks and woods are maintained by the Forestry Commission so the trails are well signposted and the paths are well maintained and easy to follow.

Donview Centre and Gallery

One of the good things about this walk is that as soon as you leave the car you're walking uphill. I know that may sound a wee bit strange but I'm not a lover of a long flat walk in before you start gaining any height and starting to see nice views. The initial stage of the walk is up through the usual thick, dark forest but, as I said, it's a well marked and maintained path complete with steps at the steepest parts.

Upwards ever Upwards

With no views and a dead dark forest all around it's a slog for a while but it gets the heart thumping and eventually the trees start to thin out. The weather was definitely starting to improve and it was quite stuffy in the trees, but as I cleared the treeline the wind started to pick up and this would become a feature of the day. By this time I'd taken a few photographs, when I came across an improvised view point. Somebody had gone to the trouble of placing a large flat slab on a couple of boulders. Crude, but what a view!

What a spot for a seat!

After a quick drink and an orange, I dragged myself away from the view and carried on towards the summit. There was still a fair bit of work to be done but at least I was now clear of the forest and into the fresh air. At this point there is still no view of Bennachie, but as it slowly comes into sight you at least know that you're nearing the top! The summit cairn, (409m), is a wide flat area and open to the wind so it was only a quick stop for photos before heading down the other side.

Millstone Hill cairn - the first top of the day.

I should probably explain a wee bit about Bennachie which is the name of the range of hills that are so distinctive from anywhere in Aberdeenshire. It's long relatively narrow summit and is made up of lots of different tops, most now linked by a network of well maintained, easy to follow paths. The main tops are Mither Tap on the east side and Oxen Craig on the west, (although there is also Witch Craig and Hermit Seat further west, the path network only goes as far as Oxen Craig). It's a very popular destination for walkers being easily accessible from the Bennachie Visitor Centre, and with well signposted and maintained paths its popularity is easy to understand.

From Millstone Hill summit it's all downhill until you meet the Gordon Way trail as it makes its way up from the Bennachie Centre. The track at this point was badly churned up and muddy where they've been clearing trees and I can't decide what I dislike more, the dark dead forest or the mess that's left once it's been cleared. At this point I needed to decide whether I turn left, (west), along the Gordon Way trail and make my way up onto the top along the longer, but gentler, climb or to set off up the Mither Tap route that would get me up quicker, but possibly with more effort. Had Mo been with me I believe we would have picked the former but, on my own I was keen to get high as quickly as I could.

Mither Tap

As it happened the climb wasn't nearly as long and difficult as the Millstone Hill slog had been. Whether this was because it was more open with more to see or what I don't know, but I felt good by the time I arrived under the huge granite tor that marks the summit. There is a faint path that leads straight up through a gap in the tor itself, but I decided to follow the path around the the base and climb up to the top from the east side.

The last pull

Mither Tap summit (518m)

Unfortunately it was so windy on top that I was only able to stay for a couple of minutes, long enough to take a couple of photos, before heading back down towards some shelter and a welcome cup of tea. Now that I was up of course I was looking forward to spending a couple of hours wandering along between the tops before thinking about heading back down.

Oxen Craig, (left), Craigshannoch, (right)

I decided to go to Craigshannoch first and with no navigation or weather problems it was a very pleasant walk with some fantastic views over the flat lands of Aberdeenshire. It would have been nice to get a photograph to show it off but without a wide angled lens I was struggling to do it justice!


Craigshannoch is another point on the flat top where the granite sticks its head out of the heather. I wish I knew a bit more about geology because some of the shapes and formations beggar belief! It sometimes looks as if the granite has been laid out like a blanket then folded over on itself a dozen or so times. I'm sure there's a perfectly logical scientific reason for it so maybe somebody could explain it to me!

Folded rock!

Looking back to Mither Tap

From here I needed to choose again as to whether I made my way straight across to Oxen Craig or whether to drop down a bit and take in Little Oxen Craig first. Since it was still relatively early and I was still feeling fine I decided that I'd do both tops. Little Oxen Craig however is a very unassuming little bundle of rocks that marks the furthest west point of the path network so from here I turned left and headed up towards the final top of the day.

Oxen Craig

The walk between Craigshannoch and Little Oxen Craig was mainly flat with a little bit of downhill but the walk from Little Oxen Craig to Oxen Craig was a steepish, if short, pull and I was beginning to feel it in my legs and with the walk back over Millstone Hill still to come I was glad that this would be the last top of the day! The cairn on top here is a circular map that shows directions and distances from the top. It would have been nice to have a look at it properly but by now it was so windy it was difficult to stand up never mind study a map. Fortunately there was a sturdy wind break type shelter just off the top so, although I was a little bit late, I settled down for a spot of lunch!

Oxen Craig (528m) - Map of the world!!

Mither Tap & Craigshannoch

Nice spot for lunch

From Oxen Craig it's an easy walk down to join the Gordon Way trail and a gentle downhill stroll back towards the Mither Tap route junction. The weather was now fantastic and definitely had a hint of spring in the air. Down here in the trees and between Bennachie and Millstone Hill the wind had dropped off to a light breeze and I stopped for a while for some juice and the last of my crisps. Bliss!!

Pleasant downhill walking

Retracing my steps when I reached the junction I headed back up Millstone Hill for the last up-hill section of today's walk. Fortunately about three quarters of the way up the path rejoins the Millstone Hill waymarked circular walk and it was a long but easy walk around the flank of the hill then down through the forest to the carpark. All in all a beautiful day to have been out. I left the car at 10 o'clock and arrived back at 4 o'clock tired and stiff but chuffed never the less.

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Saturday, 19 February 2011

St Fergus Beach

18th February 2011

Not a great Friday walk this week. Don't get me wrong it still beats the hell out of working, but I need to keep reminding myself that it's only February and I'm only a few weeks into this experiment. It was disappointing for a couple of reasons; firstly I needed to go into work for the morning, (a boring meeting in Dyce at 10 o'clock); secondly the weather was absolutely awful with a very strong cold south easterly wind. With John in London and Craig working, we were press ganged into walking the dogs, so after the meeting in Dyce I met up with mo and we headed off to Cruden Bay. Craig had suggested that, rather than the usual walk around Slains Castle, we try somewhere different with them and suggested the beach at St Fergus. Now I must confess that when I hear the name St Fegus it's the huge gas terminal that comes to mind and I had no idea that there was a beach! However there is, so we packed up the dogs and set off, pleased at least that it would be a different walk if nothing else. (If you want to know more about St Fergus and what happens there then you can get it here ).

The carpark at Scotston Beach, (the road sign is for Scotstown Beach, but the O&S map says Scotston, so take your pick), is about a mile from the junction along a single track road. It was quite busy with about half a dozen cars already there. While we were getting our gear on, (full waterproofs of course although it was actually dry just very windy and very cold), a woman stopped to chat and suggested that we headed south on the beach, that way we would be walking into the wind at the start of our walk but at our backs on the way home. We ignored this of course and headed north along the beach towards the gas terminal.

Gas Terminal & Turbulent Seas

We had no particular plan for the day but I had hoped to walk as far along the beach as possible, maybe even as far as the lighthouse at Rattray Head, but it was never going to happen. With the wind coming in over our right shoulder and helping a little it was still uncomfortable walking and although the wind meant that the sea was spectacular to look at we were not having any fun!

Looking South

In the end the decision to turn back was taken for us when we arrived at the Blackwater River mouth and it was obvious we were not going to be able to ford it. The tide was well in and with no apparent way across we decided that we'd go up into the dunes and see if we could find a way back that had some shelter from the wind.

Journey's End

We were lucky in that there was a well trodden path on the far side on the dunes and, although it didn't shelter us completely, it did feel a little more comfortable to walk in. It's another fantastic dune system similar, if not as extensive as the Mennie Estate further south. We'll just need to hope that we can keep it secret from any American billionaire a******s who might want to do us natives a favour and dig it all up to build a golf course we don't need. Still maybe the view of the gas terminal might be too off-putting for his guest's sensibilities!

Industry and Dunes

Anyway not much else to say. By now it was beginning to rain and by the time we got back to the car only the dogs seemed reluctant to call it a day. The weather forecast for Saturday is really bad and brightening up to miserable on Sunday so this will probably be the only post this weekend. Still it's only February!!

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Saturday, 12 February 2011

Queen's Well

Friday 11th February

The plan today was to drive down to Edzell then, weather permitting, carry on into Glen Esk. The target was to walk into Queen's Well with The Rocks of Solitude walk along the North Esk as the fallback. The forecast was for a "getting worse" day so it was always likely that we would need to wait and see how things developed. It's about an hours' drive from the house to the carpark at the head of Glen Esk and although the temperature was just above freezing and the cloud was quite low it stayed dry so we decided that Queens's Well was the goal for today.

We left the carpark and ten fifteen and headed up past the Loch Lee Parish Church - another part time affair with the dates of the services posted at the gate.

Loch Lee Parish Church

The path to Queen's Well follows the route up the neighbouring Glen Mark to the Munro Mount Keen. The path is easy to follow and apart from being very wet and in places a little bit icy it's an easy flat walk. The weather stayed overcast but dry and with no wind the temperature was cold but pleasant to walk in. It's a bleak area with the track generally following the Water of Mark river and the cliffs were sprinkled with a dusting of snow.

Glen Mark

As usual in the Scottish glens there are always signs of past habitation with piles of stones that have a vague shape or outline but it's difficult to imagine what these buildings may have looked like. Were they one room low roofed hovels or were they cosy homes with roaring fires? Who knows?

Hovel or Home

At least when we come across these things we can have a guess at what they might have been. They may have been a building or a paddock or enclosure of some kind. But then we stumble across things that have no obvious explanation. Into this category comes a stone on top of a little hillock just off the path. On one side is the letter P and on the other the letter D and I have no idea what it signifies. If it had been by the side of the track it may have related to some underground cable or pipline, but on the top of the hillock none of these suggestions made any sense. Any suggestions, let me know!

Random Stone

From here it is a steady, and fairly easy, walk towards the Well itself. The reason for its existence is to do with a trip Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were making from Balmoral across to Invermark Lodge and, as legend would have it, stopped here for a drink. After Prince Albert's death the locals erected this as a monument to the Queen "in the year of her great sorrow".

Queen's Well

Queen's Well

With the weather still holding up we decided to turn off the Mount Keen route and head further up towards the head of the Glen in search of Balnamoon's cave named after the Jacobite sympathiser The Laird of Balnamoon. The legend has it that the Laird hid here for many months after the Battle of Culloden and, despite a large reward on offer for his capture, was looked after by the local population until he was finally pardoned and returned to his estates near Brechin. Unfortunately after about a mile or so the path crosses the river and in full spate there was no obvious way across. We decided on a cup of coffee and a sandwich while we decided what to do.

Insurmountable Obstacle

In the end we continued along the riverbank as far as we could in the hope of at least seeing the waterfalls marked on the O&S map, but we ran out of room after about half a mile. The view up the glen looked pretty spectacular and we vowed to come back later in the year when the river would be smaller and with some sort of appropriate footwear that would let us get across.

Head of the Glen

So having gone as far as we could, we headed back along the track towards the Queen's Well. Nearby the Well there's a cottage that, according to a notice in the window, is available to rent. Now it seems in some ways an ideal spot for a holiday, but it's a long way from anywhere and when we looked in there were storm lamps and torches lying around. It was only then that we realised that there were no light fittings in any of the rooms that we could see into!

The walk back along the Glen was uneventful and we arrived back at the carpark about 2 o'clock. The weather was looking a little more threatening now but since it was still early we decided to take a little detour and get some photographs of Invermark Castle.

Invermark Castle

Dating from 1526, the castle was built to guard the strategic pass from Deeside to Glen Esk. It was of course much altered and extended over the centuries with the addition of outhouses and an upper floor before being robbed out with some of the masonry being used to build the old church by the loch. It's also believed that the slates from the roof were used on the roof of the boathouse halfway down Loch Lee. We carried on the half mile or so to Loch Lee - always good for photographs - where we had another cup of coffee.

Loch Lee Reflections

On the banks of the loch is an old churchyard and although there's little left of the building itself it's worth looking round at some of the headstones, some of which go back a long way. The information board at the carpark tells us that the church on this site was founded by St Drostan or one of his followers early in the 7th century.

Old Kirkyard

From here we made our way back to the carpark and were busy changing out of our walking gear when the rain started, so nice timing! We were leaving the carpark at three fifteen so all in all a reasonably successful day, even if we never quite made it to Balnamoon's cave this time round.

More photos

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Hadrian's Wall

Sunday 6th February 2011.

A bit of an explanation required to start with because there was no walk last Friday. There is a couple of reasons for that. Firstly the weather was very bad and despite our resolve to walk whatever the weather we decided that it simply wasn't worth it: secondly, was that I needed to go to Cumbria for meetings on Monday and Tuesday so we had decided to make a weekend of it and maybe even get some walking on Hadrian's Wall. We travelled down on Saturday, taking our time, enjoying some nice weather and looking forward to walking the next day. It wasn't to be! The weather deteriorated the further south we went and by the time we arrived in Haltwhistle, that was to be our base for the next few days, it was thoroughly miserable. The weather forecast for the Sunday was even worse and it looked as if we'd be struggling again to get out. Unfortunately the forecast turned out to be absolutely spot on, and we got up to a miserable morning.

We decided that the best we could hope for was to go for a run in the car and see if we could find any of the Wall that we could perhaps photograph, (not a bad idea for this month's photo assignment was my way of thinking). The problem with this theory of course is that I had no idea what Hadrian's Wall would look like! Was it made of stone or turf? Was it obvious or would there need to be a sign that says "this is it"? I suppose I should be a wee bit embarrassed about my ignorance, but the truth is that I knew there was a wall, built at the command of the Emperor Hadrian somewhere in the Borders, but I didn't know what it looked like or how much of it still existed. Fortunately for us, while pondering this problem, we were driving through a small village called Girsland when we noticed a group of very wet walkers getting their photograph taken perched on a wall that turned out to be the very one we were looking for! Would we have noticed this wall if there hadn't been people there? I'm not sure, but once we knew what to look for it became much easier to spot.

It turned out that we had arrived at a section of the Wall that was the beginning of a short(ish) walk between Willowford Farm and the Roman Fort at Birdoswald. The only downside was that it was still lashing with rain. We decided that at the very least we should take some photographs and decided that, despite the nuisance of it, we would get the full wet weather gear on before we set off.

Yes it really was this wet!!

Needless to say of course once we were out, and the fact that we were as suitably dressed as we could be, we decided to carry on along the track for a wee while and see how we got on. A bit of history here, just in case you are as ignorant as I was, the Wall was begun in AD122 on the orders of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It is around 73 miles long and, east of the river Irthing, (the bit we were walking for instance), was built from squared stone and measured 2 metres wide and between 5 and 6 metres high. West of the river the wall was made from turf and measured 6 metres wide and 3.5 metres high. There were small fortlets called milecastles spaced about a mile apart along its length that each held a few dozen troops. All in all the construction took around a ridiculously short 6 years to complete. The most amazing thing for me is that it is arrow straight!

Arrow straight

From where we started we walked along the route of the wall for a mile or so until we reached Willowford Farm where it dropped down onto the low land along the banks of the Irthing river. Thinking that this would be as far as we could go we decided to carry on because we could see some information boards in the distance. As it turned out at the end of this section there is the remains of the bridge that once crossed the river. 2000 years ago the river flowed on a slightly different course so the bridge foundations look a little bit askew but you've got to take your hat off to the engineering abilities of the Roman builders.

Bridge Parapet

From here we did go on to cross the river by a modern bridge put in to help complete the Hadrian Wall Path that tracks the wall from coast to coast. By now we were drenched through but we persevered up the other side of the river and then another mile or so until we reached Roman Fort at Birdoswald. Needless to say it was closed, so no tea and cake today!

Crossing the Irthing River

From the Fort it was a case of retracing our steps back to the car. All in all it had taken us around two and half very wet hours but we were glad we'd done it. It wasn't particularly far but considering the conditions I think we did pretty well.

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