Monday, 28 May 2012

Under Lochnagar to Conachcraig

Friday 25th May,

The weather up here, like the rest of the country, has been sunny and warm all week so Mo and I decided that, come Friday, it was time for stretching ourselves a little after our stroll along St Cyrus beach last week. Now there are wild places in Aberdeenshire that get some fairly heavy traffic when the weather gets nice, and one of those is Glen Muick. With its narrow but well maintained road in, its ample car parking, its information centre, its toilet facilities and its easy tracks and paths around the loch make it a haven for families and tourists alike. Added to this is that it's a favourite kick-off point for Munro baggers climbing Lochnagar - I've done myself a few times. Don't get me wrong, I like Lochnagar; it is a very impressive and photogenic mountain - especially from the A93 or even better the B976 - but on the "tourist" path from Glen Muick you almost don't see the dammed thing until you're on top of it, added to which is that the path is the mountain equivalent of the M6, and it's sometimes just as busy! So a route described on the Walkhighland website that would take us in under Lochnagar's towering cliffs to a couple of smaller hills sounded more like the thing we were after.

I think it's important to make the point at this stage that I'm neither a royalist nor a republican. The debate as to whether we have an elected head of state or a politically toothless monarch leaves me cold. I genuinely believe that I don't care enough to make up my mind which, if either, would be better for me personally. So having made this point I would now like to claim that Queen Victoria and I have something in common - we both believe that Deeside is a stunningly beautiful place to live and this is exemplified by the Balmoral Estate. I don't mean the tourist areas, with its manicured gardens, and a castle that is, to say the least, a bit over the top, I mean the remoteness of the place as you climb away from the tourists and the trip buses and the souvenir shops and into the high moorland - well what can I say.

We parked in the Balmoral Castle / Crathie Church car park and paid our £1.50 per visit fee and joined the rest of the tourists crossing the river Dee by the Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed bridge. It was opened in 1857 and apparently cost the princely sum of £1,650, but the Royal family it seems "were not overly impressed by the simple aesthetics of the bridge". Oh well you can't please everybody!

The Isambard Kingdom Brunel design was not to one's taste it seems!!

The bridge might lack grandeur but the view downriver makes up for it
It's worth mentioning here that there are a couple of things we came across on the Royal Estate that you don't see much of in other estates in the highlands.

Private Golf Course

Curling rink, complete with floodlights and clubhouse
Security checkpoint and CCTV cameras.
We walked up through the birch woods past some very pretty estate houses and the empty security hut with its CCTV cameras, (there were even some in the woods as well as at the post and although probably not operating, since no Royals were in residence, I found I was still too self-conscious to photograph them), and into the usual commercially planted pine forest. Although we could hear timber operations going on in the distance we had the place pretty much to ourselves and after a stiffish but short climb we cleared the treeline to be greeted with our first view of the high moors and Lochnagar.

Looking south to Lochnagar

and north-west to the distant snow-capped Beinn a'Bhuird
Walking was very easy on what must be the smoothest, best maintained estate track in the country, (I'm pretty sure I've driven on worse roads this year), and we were making good time despite the steady climb and a brisk, but warm, southerly breeze in our faces.

She tells me it was only juice!
Our first port of call was Gelder Sheil and this meant a wee bit of a detour from our route but still following the super smooth track. Gelder Sheil is made up of a cottage, which is still owned by the Royals, (and if I was being cynical, I might suggest that this is the reason for the state of the track), and a bothy maintained by the Scottish Mountain Bothy Association and available to anybody; although I don't fancy your chances of getting to stay if the royals are in residence. To say that the complex is out of the way is a major understatement!!

Gelder Sheil is in the shelter of the only trees for miles around
Royal bolt hole
Bothy - the old stable block apparently

Coffee and chocolate in the royal sun porch!
We had a root around of course but the cottage was securely locked up with wooden shutters on all the windows. It wouldn't have surprised me to see CCTV cameras as well but if they were there they were well hidden. After a bit of sustenance we left the estate track to follow a boggy, sometimes indistinct path along the east bank of the Gelder Burn until it cut up through the heather to pick up our original estate track, now much more like the estate tracks we're used to. Funny that!

Not much of a path but it is there

Heading back up onto the estate track
The goal for today was a couple of hills on the east side of Lochnagar. Conachcraig at 865m, (Corbett number 69 by height if you're ticking them off), was the highest point of the day although Caisteal na Caillich at 862m wasn't far behind.

Caisteal na Caillich (left) and Conachcraig (right)
We followed the estate track as it snaked its way around the shank of our two hills with Lochnagar now huge on our right side until we reached the "tourist" path coming up from Glen Muick. It was opposite this junction that we picked up the path to the summit of Conachcraig.

Upward slog

Nearly there!!

Conachcraig (865m) - on top of the world!

Looking across to Lochnagar
Having reached our furthest point south, we turned north down and across a top at 850m before heading back up onto Caisteal na Caillich.

A rare photo of me! (850m)

Caisteal na Caillich (862m) with Conachcraig in the background.
The views on all sides were now majestic, with a glimpse of Loch Muick and a distant, hazy view of Mount Keen the pick of the bunch.

Loch Muick

Mount Keen in the distance
There was a certain reluctance in our steps as we made our way down through the pathless heather of Caisteal na Caillich towards the estate track and our long walk back to the car. The weather had been fantastic and the views spectacular and it seemed a pity to be heading off the hills while it was still as beautiful. But at some point you need to go home so having safely negotiated our descent to the track we started downhill and, with the wind now at our back, it was a pleasant walk towards the car. There was nothing of great note as we retraced our steps, (by-passing Gelder Sheil by staying on the estate track), apart from a little bundle of litter that turned out to be empty packets of insence sticks!! Now we've come across some rubbish on the hills in the past but that was a first!

Insence stick litter - but why? Answers on a postcard.

Only on the Royal Estate would you find a post to tie up your pony!

I'd quite like one of these for Christmas please - the crane not the trees!!
We had left the car at around 10.30 and arrived back weary and foot-sore at 17.30 so it had been a long day, (probably too long in the big scheme of things), but a most enjoyable day which we finished off with ice cream in Ballater. I've seen the days when it would have been pints of beer rather than ice cream but I guess that's old age for you!!

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Tuesday, 22 May 2012

St Cyrus Nature Reserve

Saturday 19th May,

We missed out again last weekend due to poor weather and travelling to visit family - which seems to be becoming a theme that I think we need to stamp out! Friday was another cold, wet washout but the forecast for today suggested that at least it would be dry, so we settled for that. We had two routes planned with the decision to be taken when we got up in the morning. If it was sunny with clear skies we would try for Hill of Wirren and if not we would take the shorter, easier alternative of St Cyrus Nature Reserve. In the end we did a wee bit of both in as much as we drove down to find the start of the Hill of Wirren walk, but the top was still covered in mist so we headed back towards the coast, which was clear, and St Cyrus.

The Nature Reserve is set just north of the Montrose and the river North Esk. It sits between the A92 and the sea and is sheltered by high volcanic cliffs.

Looking north along the original river course
With the reserve being managed by Scottish Natural Heritage there's an informative visitor's centre that details everything you can see, to everything you might see, so it was worth spending a while looking around it before we set off on the Coastal Path north following the base of the cliffs, (more by coincidence than design, this turned out to be another piece of the Scottish Coastal Path network we could tick off). We stopped off at the old Nether Kirkyard which sits on what was originally the beach but is now some 2km from the sea.

Nether Kirkyard - Looking North

Nether Kirkyard - Looking Southeast
 With still no particular plan in mind we continued along the Coastal Path until the cliffs met the beach. The path from the beach up to the cliff top was closed due land slips so we found a sheltered spot to have some lunch.

Nice spot for a house but maybe a bit too precarious!

Looking North

Looking South
With nowhere left to go we turned south along the beach which stretches in a long curve all the way past the river North Esk to Montrose, but at this time of year you can only go as far as the Visitor's Centre before you're met with out of bounds signs as SNH try to re-establish bird breeding areas among the dunes. It's a little bit disappointing but what can you do? I like the idea of trying to re-establish breeding colonies but it seems like a big area and I wonder if there isn't better way than simply closing off great chunks of the reserve. Maybe I'm being a bit selfish.

No through road!!

Hopeful - or have missed the point!
So having walked the length of the beach, and passed a couple of beach casters who didn't appear to be doing very much that looked exciting, we followed the path through the dunes back towards the car park. The path crosses the original route of the North Esk which burst its banks during a huge storm in 1879 and the route of the river estuary changed in just 24 hours to its current position some 1.5km to the south.

Looking what would have been downriver, (north), before the flood.
From here it was an easy stroll back to the car. Compared with two weeks ago when we visited Balnamoon's cave, this was an easy, short walk but it had been nice to visitthe area again and to feel a wee bit of sun on our backs. We had left the car around 10 o'clock and got back just before 2 o'clock so a quiet afternoons stroll would be the best description.

I did stop off to photograph the Kinnaber Viaduct that once carried the branch line from Montrose to Inverbervie and its much older road equivalent built by public subscription in the 18th century during the Scottish Enlightenment. It's one of those photographs that I can see but can't quite get right! Answers on a postcard!!

Kinnaber Viaduct, (road on the right, old railway on the left)
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Monday, 7 May 2012

In Search of Balnamoon's Cave

Saturday 5th May,

After losing all of the April weekends to dog sitting at Cruden Bay and family visits back home we finally manged to get back into some sort of walking routine this weekend. Not that we had been idle at Cruden Bay - the dogs were well walked every day - but our outings were confined to the nature reserve at Forvie or the Slains Castle / Goat's Hillock circuit and, apart from sighting a couple of owls that seem to have taken up residence around the hill, there wasn't much to blog about. We did also manage a trip up Millstone Hill by Bennachie but since I'd also written that one up I wasn't inclined to repeat myself. I was tempted to write a post based on our successful search for the trig point at Forvie marked on the O&S map, but I decided that sounded a little bit too sad and desperate and that I wasn't quite at the stage of going through life ticking off trig points!

We had intended to walk on Friday but were put off by the strong northerly wind and driving sleet! I know we were being a bit namby pamby, but we're supposed to be doing this for pleasure after all! Saturday however dawned crisp and clear and although there was still a stiffish breeze it was much more inviting when we set off. The goal for today was to find Balnamoon's cave located somewhere at the north end of Glen Mark, something we had half heartedly tried to do last year when we only got as far as Queens Well. The walk starts at the Glen Esk car park that, being a Saturday rather than our normal Friday and being the easiest kicking off point for Munro baggers heading up Mount Keen, was relatively busy. Our route follows that of the baggers along an easy path for an hour or so until we reached Queens Well and since I'd already written a bit about this part of the route I thought I'd stick in some photos rather than more words!

Heading up Glen Mark

Our only view of a snow capped Mount Keen (right)

First sight of Queens Well with the Mount Keen path heading around Couternach

Built in memory of Queen Victoria who stopped off for a drink with Prince Albert in 1861.

Glenmark holiday cottage
We parted company with the Munro baggers at this point and continued to follow the Water of Mark upstream until the landrover track crosses it at a ford. It was at this point last year that we were thwarted and it didn't look a lot more inviting this time around.

Now what?
Looking at the photogragh it really doesn't look too bad but it would have been an uncomfortable crossing that would need to be repeated on the way back so, like last year, we headed up river on the assumption that it can only get narrower. We were obviously not the only people who had been a little bit frustrated at the lack of a crossing because there was a relatively well trodden path along the north bank. We stopped off for some coffee and chocolate and although this didn't help get us across the river, it did ease the frustration and we decided that we would continue to make our way along the riverbank until such times as it became impossible. If nothing else we wanted to reach the Burn of Doune waterfall that we could see in the distance, but that meant making our way along the steep heather clad hillside until we could reach the cropped grass at the base of the waterfall.

Craig of Doune

Looking back downriver - our route through the heather is on the left.
As it turned out there was a faint path that followed the very edge of the river and we reached the meadow at the foot of Craig of Doune without getting our feet wet. The Water of Doune waterfall looked a lot more spectacular from a distance than it did close up so, a little bit disappointed, we made our way on upstream. The theory being that if we could get far enough we might be able to see the cave from the north bank - disappointing but not a disaster!

Water of Doune waterfall
As it turned out the river narrowed as it passed through a steep sided gorge and rushed and tumbled over and around huge rocks. This then was decision time. It seemed a straight forward crossing at this point, the only difference being that falling in back at the ford meant getting wet, whereas now falling in would have much more serious consequences! However if nothing else this last year has taught us how to cross rivers safely, but I would suggest caution if trying to cross here during the winter!

Crossing Point
Once safely across we made our way up to join the south bank path. This was a wet, boggy area up and around the rapids and small waterfalls and it all looked quite picturesque as only this type of river can. Once around the shoulder we dropped down into a bowl like meadow with short cropped grass and, sheltered from the northerly wind, a very pleasant sun trap. Fortunately - and unlike us - we had done a little bit of research on our objective before we set off so we knew we were not looking for anything spectacular in the way of caves and it did take a bit of spotting, but jings if you need to hole up in a cave for a while this is where you'd want to be even if you might want to pick a better cave! The Laird of Balnamoon was a leading Jacobite who hid for many months after the fiasco at Culloden in 1746. Despite a substantial reward on offer he was never betrayed and eventually he was granted a reprieve and allowed to return to his estates near Brechin. So a happy ending I think.

Can you spot it? - It's right in the centre of the picture

You wouldn't want to be a fat fugitive!!
Not the most comfortable spot, (yes that is a flask but it wasn't ours and I'm pretty sure it didn't belong to Balnamoon!!).
But look at the view from the front door!
We had a very nice picnic lunch down by the river and without the wind it felt warm enough that it could actually have been May after all! While Mo did a bit of sun worshipping I climbed up the northern end of the bowl for a look at the last waterfall of the day and to photograph the area where the glen finally comes to an end. We were in a truly remarkable place.

Sun Worshipping

White's Pool
Our last waterfall of the day

Towards the head of the glen
The last thing worth mentioning at this point was seeing a bird I'd never seen before. Now don't misunderstand me I'm no bird watcher but generally when we're walking the birds look familiar, I don't always know their names but I do know I've seen them before. But this time I knew I'd never seen this one before so it took a bit of patience going through the RSPB website until I came across the Ring Ouzel, a blackbird sized bird with a distinctive white bib on its breast.

The Ring Ouzel, (photo curtesy of the Shropshire Birder)
 Finally, tearing ourselves away from the perfect spot, we retraced our steps back down the glen and crossing the river at the same point as before. The only difference on the way back was that we found a path much higher up in the heather that was easier walking than along the rivers edge but other than that it was a pleasant walk and, with the wind now at our backs, we made excellent time.

We had left the car at 09.30 and wandered back to the car park just before 4 o'clock. All in all a fine day.
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