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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!!
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.