Ben Earb or bust.

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Alison with the antlers in the snow with Beinn A Ghlo in the background.

It’s been a while!

I noticed reading through my last update that I had mentioned what I did to kill a day in Pitlochry while the car was being serviced, all very exciting stuff I’m sure you will agree, but I am afraid to report that since then there has been more Pitlochry boredom. When I took the car back to have the brakes checked as the final part of the service I was told it would take about an hour, so did not even bother to take a bicycle to help pass the time, I just thought I would stroll up to town from the garage and have a coffee while the finishing touches of the service were performed on my car. I was into the second cup of flat white when the phone rang, it was the garage informing me that the discs on the front needed replacing as did the brake pads, “Ah ok”. They could do it for me the same day but the parts would not arrive before 3:00 and it would take a couple of hours to do the work and test the brakes before I could take the car away. “Ok, that would be fine”, I said slightly reluctantly and in that manner was delivered of another day wandering aimlessly around Pitlochry. This time without a bicycle to at least get me to a fresh view. I took a stroll round Loch Faskally along a track on the edge of the loch which took me past the very expensive and rather spectacular looking Fonab Castle hotel, resisting the temptation to see how much a coffee or orange and soda might cost in there I marched onwards with no clear goal in sight. I had killed a couple of hours in the towns cafes reading a news paper and it was heading gently towards lunch so as I strolled past Pitlochry’s famous salmon ladder and the Festival theatre on the banks of the river Tummel I thought I would pop in to the Port Na Craig Inn. The Port Na Craig is quite a historic little Inn, it was built at the point on the River Tummel where a ferry was set up in the 12th Century to take monks from the Abby at Fonab across the river so they could make their way to Moulin. The Inn was established in 1650, nearly a hundred years before the battle of Culloden. This little place is really more restaurant than Inn, but it has a nice cheery atmosphere and when I was there, there was a pretty but perhaps rather daffy waitress who I took probably wrongly, to be the owner’s daughter. I opted for the lunchtime bowl of soup and salmon and cream cheese ciabatta which looked tasty, was home made and reasonably cheap, so had everything to recommend it. The waitress it turned out was a chatty one, so we discussed what to do in Pitlochry, she did not really come up with any fresh Pitlochry ideas, but she did suggest something of complete brilliance which I will do next time and her suggestion was to get on a train and go to Perth. We also discussed the weather, of course and salmon fishing in the famous salmon pool in the river just outside the Inn where there were two or three wading fishermen in heron like vigil, all very nice. A bell rang to announce my food was ready and the girl brought the soup and ciabatta to my table along with a knife and fork. She pottered off before I could ask for a spoon and was away for five minutes or so, when she came back, with a smile I gently pointed out that eating the soup with a fork had not really worked and could I try with a spoon. She went bright red, briefly matching the colour of her Celtic red hair and dashed off to get a spoon. After about ten minutes a couple and child came and sat down, they too looked at the menu and decided that the soup and ciabatta was the sensible choice, so orders taken, drinks delivered, the waitress wandered off to another room to tend to some customers who wanted to pay their bill. The bell rang again and she reappeared with the couple’s soup. The waitress then went to clear a table in the next room and on her way back asked the couple if everything was OK, the lady said, “Do you think we could have some spoons?” I tried to restrain myself and just caught the waitress’ eye as she looked briefly at me to gauge my reaction, she then looked everywhere apart from at me, in case it sent both of us in to an unbecoming fit of the giggles. The meal was great and the Inn is lovely. I thanked the girl paid and left. Close to the Inn there is a suspended foot bridge which is quite old judging by the amazing quality of its construction, I think probably Victorian in keeping with the rest of Pitlochry. This bridge takes the casual time waster across the river and back to Pitlochry high street. While crossing the bridge I noticed that it had been adorned with the now ‘de rigour’ locked padlocks of those love struck couples who feel the only way to celebrate their unwavering loyalty and fondness for one another is to clamp some cheap hardware to a bridge. Some were shaped like hearts, some were engraved with secret messages and some were scribbled on with a felt tip pens. Call me old fashioned but I just don’t really get it as a gesture. There is a bridge in Paris where I believe this whole silly thing began, which became so weighed down with padlocks that the council or Parisian municipal equivalent had to cut the locks off to avoid a structural failure. I wondered if all of those relationships came crashing back to earth the minute the padlocks were removed from the bridge? Probably unlikely. The little bridge in Pitlochry also has other adornments which the architect probably did not quite envisage, being across a river, as many a good bridge often is and in particular a salmon river, there will be lots of people with fishing rods, so the bridge is also draped in snagged salmon fishing lures. The most common of these is the now famous and effective ‘flying condom’ lure. This lure has a shiny disc of metal which spins round as the lure is pulled through the water and it has a sort of rubber tail which is presumably where the condom name comes from, needless to say the bridge is also covered in those. Somehow fitting, I thought, tokens from star crossed lovers and condoms all hanging from the same bridge. Nature always finds a balance.

Last month I decided to go exploring up the track to Fealar Estate I have made previous attempts to cycle up there but they were all pretty much thwarted by the conditions. They do get some snow up there. On this occasion I made it about six and a half miles up the nine mile track to the lodge, the reason why I did not go any further is because the night before at the Strathardle Inn there had been some partying for a member of staff who was leaving and the highlight of the evening, or to be more precise one of the highlights of the evening  was a beer mat fight of epic proportions, so I was feeling somewhat jaded and did not want to present myself to my neighbours looking like I had not quite made it to bed. The ride was in essence an attempt to rid myself of the post party headache. The other reason why I did not go any further was because I could see the lodge from where I had stopped and it was all downhill, meaning the return trip would be about two and a half miles of uphill, having just done six and a half miles of uphill I was happy to retreat back down the glen. Meeting the neighbours can wait for another day. I have just looked up the elevation profile of the ride and the reason why it all seems to be up hill from me is because it largely is. The highest point on the track is 2205 feet above sea level which also explains the snow, I am a mere 1000 above sea level. There was a strong headwind working against me as well as I cycled up the track, so it took me about three quarters of an hour to get to the point where I stopped, absorbed the view and turned back and it took me just under twenty minutes to ride home. The return journey was hill and wind assisted and was fast, furious and fraught with sheep related danger, they just don’t hear you coming and when they spot you travelling at speed on a bicycle, they panic and run around in an unpredictable and unnecessary fashion. Jamming on the brakes on a gravel track does not result in an immediate slowing of pace it usually results in a temporary loss of control which could end unkindly. It was a great ride though and provided the desired result of clearing my party fog. I love exploring round here either by cycling the tracks or climbing a new hill, the scenery changes with every new viewpoint in an infinite way which is difficult to predict before you have done the ride or walk. Getting a view of the next glen is always rewarding, they are alike and unalike at the same time, each glen has its own presence and atmosphere which gives them all a personality, some kinder than others as is often the case with unique personalities.

While cycling up the track I had gone maybe half a mile from home when I spotted a bird gliding in a thermal on the left hand side of the glen. This was a big bird, it had broad deep wings with out stretched fingers of feathers at the wing tips and a purposeful tail. I remember talking to someone on the West coast on one of my earlier Scottish trips and he had mentioned to me that most people confuse Buzzards for Eagles. “How do you know it’s an Eagle” I asked, he just said “if it looks like a barn door, it’s an Eagle”. The bird which was gracefully playing in the air currents to the left of me was shaped like a good old fashioned imperial (pre metric) oak barn door, one with a handmade blacksmiths bolt on it and hinges of wrought iron, a solid type of barn door. Unmistakably a Golden Eagle, I have seen them on the West Coast and in the Hebrides before but in the six months or so that I have lived here this is the first one I have seen and so close to the cottage. When I took the ride up the track the lambing season had just started and I think it was probably no coincidence that the Eagle showed up at this particular time of the year. A Lambing season is probably irresistible to a hungry Eagle with possibly its own young to feed.

Talking of birds, my garden collection has increased and so has their bird food consumption, I saw a lesser spotted Woodpecker for about three days which discovered there were peanuts on offer and would not leave them alone. It became quite tame, then no sooner had it arrived, when it vanished. These birds are amazing when you get a chance to see them up close, I have some binoculars which are an advantage and up close many of our wild and visiting birds look like they should be more at home in the tropics. The woodpecker was a bright white with black spots and flashes of red. The peanuts are currently being eaten by the resident Siskin population a small yellow bird, the males of which are a dazzling yellow. They are feisty little things and there is often a food related aerial dog fight between two or three of them around the feeder. I now also have a Pheasant which comes to visit regularly, about four Wood Pigeons and of course the Red legged partridges are still here. I keep surprising the Partridges around the garden and almost without fail they will panic, take to the air and fly straight into a wall, fence, tree or shed roof. I honestly don’t quite know how they survive all of that battery.

The bird feeder has been feeding a large group of brash and rather noisy Tree sparrows, I think they account for most of the food consumption, so I was slightly amused the other day when I caught a glimpse of a fresh and unusual bird perched on a garden fence post just to the left of the house. I could only just see it from the corner my sitting room window. I had never seen anything like it before, it was a raptor, a very small thrush sized one but unmistakably a bird of prey, it was beautiful in a discrete blue grey sort of way, with a light brown chest and with what looked like little ermine tails down its apron, it was stately and had a sort of house of lords look to it. I did some research and it turned out to be a Merlin. The bird book described it to a tee and informed me that the Merlin’s favourite dish is Tree Sparrow, happy days, a fat Merlin and less bird feed to pay for, a ‘win win’ outcome unless of course,  you are fond of the Sparrows.

The birds here seem to come and go in waves, driven presumably by migration cycles and the onset of spring. When I moved here from Sussex, living as I did in a beautiful location right next to Chichester harbour, I really thought I would miss the Curlews and Oyster catchers which make up so much of the harbour sound scape, then about two weeks ago I was lying in bed and I thought I heard the plaintive cry of a distant Curlew. I remember thinking it odd to hear a Curlew all this way inland but I have subsequently discovered that they are ground nesting birds along with Oyster catchers and Lapwings or Peewits as they call them up here and the moors and glens must provide a pretty good reasonably predator free environment for them to raise chicks. I am now surrounded by Curlews which has added another dimension to the more usual sheep and cattle noises I usually hear around the cottage.

Spring is beginning to take hold finally. I went to Wiltshire for a friend’s wedding a couple of weeks ago and while I was away we had about six to eight inches of snow on the garden according to my local chums, I think that was winters last blast and the following week saw the temperature rise to a heady 25 degrees Centigrade at one point. I did not quite know what to make of that and a few of my friends got quite burnt in the unexpected heat of those unusual conditions. Being new to this place, life here  is a constant learning curve, as each season unfolds so do different aspects of my immediate landscape and the surrounding countryside. I have no idea what has been planted in the garden and it is only once things start to bud or bloom that I am beginning to get a picture of what might have been hidden for all of those winter months. It’s like opening presents, more or less every day something else makes its self-known which I am really enjoying. One or two surprises have been of the nettle and dock variety so a strimmer will have to be obtained, the lawn mower is already on its way and I hope it hurries up as I can more or less hear the lawn growing around me. Last night we had the first rain in months and the river levels are so far down I am beginning to wonder whether the fishing potential in the river by the cottage is going to live up to its earlier spate driven promise. The spring rain seemed to turn on the smell of the moorland and woods which are either side of the cottage, the air was full of fresh meadow and pine this morning which managed to blast its way through the final nasal restrictions of the man cold I am now more or less rid of. The larch trees that I have only known as dark and rather austere, looking down from their raised hillock by the big shed, they are now showing fresh green needles which has given them warmth and substance. I have a weeping birch tree which similarly is beginning to show tiny filigree leaves in miniature which look lace like in the spring light. I have a number of cherry or plum trees all of which are in blossom at the moment, there is a broom bush which is about to explode in a burst of yellow and I was very pleased to discover a number of those quintessentially Scottish trees, the Rowans in the garden. I am not good at spotting tree types by shape and bark but once the leaves come out, the identification process becomes much clearer.

Alison, a friend from Sussex, came to stay for a few days. She was taking part in the ETAPE Caledonia which is an 81 mile cycling challenge. The ETAPE is a big event and according to the chap in the bike shop in Pitlochry about 5000 people take part every year, the council shut roads and infrastructure is setup to accommodate all of the extra people. Pitlochry as you can probably imagine has a love hate relationship with the event. Alison was joining a number of her friends from the ‘Biking Belles’ cycle group she is a member of in Sussex. I think eleven of them made their way to Pitlochry for the event which I thought was a pretty good turnout. Alison came and stayed with me for three days before I handed her back to the Belles. The first day I thought we should go up a hill. Now I know this sounds slightly selfish but I have done most of the hills which surround the cottage so I decided upon Ben Earb. Ben Earb is sort of on the way to the Dalmunzie Castle Hotel in the Spittal of Glenshee and while the Hotel is at least a good half an hour’s drive away, it is as the crow flies only about four miles walk across the hills. I have always thought it would be a good place to walk to for Sunday lunch once the weather is better, so I am afraid I used Alison’s first walk as a sort of scouting trip for lunch at the Dalmunzie at some future point. The walk went well and we were kept on our toes looking for discarded antlers of which Alison finally found three. Ben Earb is 2631 feet high and is therefore a mountain described in Scotland as a Corbett. We made good steady progress over the lower hills and braes, aiming for the trig point which we could see in silhouette on the top of the mountain. We stopped from time to time to look at the view, or point out a deer, or notice some other feature, or just to take a mental note of what to aim for on the way home. We found a route which skirted to the right hand side avoiding the steeper scree and rocky slopes of the more direct route. We finally made it to the top and were rewarded with the most astounding three hundred and sixty degree view that I have seen since moving here. It was a reasonably clear day with a bit of cloud just under three thousand feet. I knew that because I could not see the top of Beinn A Ghlo our nearest Munro (mountain over 3000 feet). But we could see the Gairngorms proper to the North still very much with snow and Schiehallion and the Grampian mountains to the west and with Glen Shee and perhaps little glimpses of Lochnagar to the East. It was stunning. I could not quite see the Dalmunzie Hotel which should have been quite obvious and which was sort of, one of the founding reasons for the exploration. We strolled along a ridge which dipped down and looked like it would deliver us back down the mountain to the lower valley before the ridge climbed once again to the next mountain top of Lairig Charnach , as we were coming down the ridge Alison pointed at a building, asking “what’s that”, ah ha, the Dalmunzie Castle Hotel, with its turrets glistening in the light. I had been looking slightly in the wrong direction and now I know where it is, lunch is a definite possibility. On the way back we wandered through what I believe was probably a ‘Lek’. A Lek is a spot where Black grouse males advertise themselves to females and fend off other males. I didn’t know this while we were doing the walk but was educated by a nature program on the TV and now recognise what we had walked through. There were a large number of Black grouse males concentrated in one fairly small area and at least one was doing a sort of jump into the air display which I took to be a ‘push off and leave us alone’ sort of message but now know to be fairly typical ‘lekking’ behaviour. The next day Alison and I embarked on a road trip to visit some old family friends of hers who live in Lairg. I like Lairg and so was happy to go for a drive, the journey also gave Alison an insight into other bits of the Highlands which she otherwise would not have seen. We had a lovely lunch in a very pretty little croft house up a track just outside town with her friends and an uneventful drive home, “in a good way”. The following day I delivered Alison back to the ‘Belles’ in time for their 9:45 training ride. I was hoping that the walk had not ruined her too much, I think she took it all in her stride. She completed the ETAPE course in good time and there were no dramas so all’s well that ends well.

Oh no it’s drizzling, sorry must go and get the washing in…

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