Tuesday, 28 April 2009

22 April Union Canal Cycle

During our FRT in The Merrick last week and after much vacillated discussion, we decided to have another cycle run. We would return to the canal at Linlithgow and cycle eastward towards Edinburgh this time. During the intervening week’s sobriety nothing changed. So, today, eight of us gathered at Woodcockdale car park near Linlithgow with a variety of machines hanging on cycle racks or stuffed inside motors.

The weather of the last couple of days has been gloriously spring-like and warm. Would it be too much to ask for this to continue? We would wait and see but the morning was fair enough.
Johnny exhibited his impatience to be off by cycling annoyingly round the car park while the rest were trying to get ready. He would regret his impatience later, but for now he was raring to go. We were all fairly keen to go for there was barely a puff in the air and the sun, though gone for the moment, promised to return anytime. Yet the air was cool, too cool to hang about much in shorts. (Yes, most wore shorts today, confident that there would be no heather to sprachle through.) We set off westwards along the canal towpath towards Linlithgow.
Our first halt came at the two mile mark, at the canal basin in Linlithgow. One of those for whom this was new territory, spotted Linlithgow Palace and was for a better view. So we halted.
But the halt didn’t last long, just long enough for a picture, and we were awheel again. Davie led us off along the towpath again. One drawback of canal cycling is that the towpath regularly narrows and Indian file is the order of the day. This makes conversation difficult, especially with the person two bikes away and it was a rather quiet group that covered the next mile or so through the yellowing rape fields of West Lothian with the leader unaware of the tail-ender. But Davie set a good pace and the group stayed together.
We halted again at Park Farm Bistro for, despite the shortness of the run so far, it was some time since breakfast and coffee was called. It was taken on the picnic area on the other bank of the canal and was most welcome. At least now a group conversation could be had. But there are those who would rather move on, so move on we did.

A second drawback of the towpath was the constant dismounting to negotiate barriers at access points. While we could see a reason for these but it was a bit of a scunner having to stop, queue to get through, start up and find the pedalling rhythm again. At one of these dismounts Jimmy and Ronnie were delayed and dropped off the pace. They worked hard to catch us up with Jimmy moving through to the middle of the pack and Ronnie happy to remain at the tail. We entered a pleasant narrow wooded valley and were strung out along the path again. A sharp crack like a shot and a shout from the middle of the line had us dismounted, looking for punctures. It was only then we discovered Ronnie was missing. He’d tailed off the back and nobody noticed.
The search party found Ronnie dismounted, examining the nether parts of his machine. Sure enough, it was mechanical bother. Not the result of the gunshot-like noise but serious nevertheless. His triple chain ring had come asunder and three of the five retaining screws were missing. No time or tools for a complete refurbishment but a sufficient repair was made to enable him to complete the run, albeit with some care.

While all this was happening, those not mechanically minded enjoyed standing in the wood watching the light in the spring foliage and dappling the ground. Masses of wild onions clothed the bank where we stood and, across the canal, bluebells began to show colour. And chaffinch and song thrush sang in the trees. Ronnie couldn’t have picked a better place to break down.
The enforced rest gave us the oomph to continue the run. Leaving the wee wood behind, we ran into open countryside, through more fields of rape and past the red oil-shale bings of Broxburn. The scent of the rape was in the air; thankfully the sulphurous stench of the shale bings wasn’t and the air remained fresh.
The experts lent advice to the punctured Ian. Ian punctured a back wheel. Fortunately we were approaching a slipway with a wide area of hard standing and we pulled up here and allowed Ian to push his disabled machine to join us. Ian attended to his leaking tyre. The non-mechanical were entertained by a man/ poor soul/ eejit in joggers and tee-shirt practising Tai Chi while the experts stood round offering Ian advice. No matter how he solved the problem, it wasn’t the way we would have done it. The end result was the same, though and we were soon awheel again.

Davie, who was the one amongst us to have done this cycle, suggested we run only as far as the motorway where we would find tables for lunch. This was generally agreed. Davie lies. When we got to the motorway there were no picnic tables; no tables of any kind; no stones to act as tables; no flat grassy area on which to put tables. In fact there was no place for lunch. Anyway, as Rex said above the noise of the traffic, the planes on the flight path to Edinburgh airport, the train just passing on the railway and the tractor in the field, it was a wee tad noisy. We ran on yet. Just as Davie was on the point of panic about the distance we would have to return, the seekers of the lunch place, Paul and Rex, stopped. We would go no further but return to the canal basin we passed a few miles back. This we did, and lunch was finally taken leaning against the walls of the basin building.
The return journey was faster than the outward. Davie led as off again. He was enjoying himself today and kept the pace easy. Past Tai Chi slipway we ran. (No gesticulating eejit this time) Rex hailed us from the rear. He too was having mechanical problems with a soft rear tyre. Suspecting a puncture, he had us stopped while he checked it out. But there didn’t seem to be a leak and some extra air seemed to do the trick. We were off again.
Somehow, Jimmy and Paul had got to the front and settled into a steady rhythm of elevens or twelves and covered the next two mile or so at this speed. The rest kept up though. Then Johnny, who was beginning to suffer for his long lie-off, shouted from the middle for the infirm and those with bike problems to be in front. We suspect he really wanted the pace eased for himself but wouldn’t admit it. Did he get a slower run? Did he heck! Ronnie, he of the major mechanical problem, went out first and was joined by Allan. The pace was kept up only slowing momentarily to duck under the many bridges that crossed the path then upped again.
Back through the wee wood with no slowing, back past the site of the chain wheel disaster and back past the morning’s coffee stop. And yet the pace was kept up. Johnny was really suffering now. Davie took pity on the poor soul and called a halt at Linlithgow basin. Johnny was glad of the rest, once he managed to sit down on a proper seat.
A group of primary school children were getting canoeing lessons in the basin and kept us amused as we sat in the afternoon sun. Knew how difficult it is to control these things. The breeze caught the boats and sent them westward, despite the efforts of the children to manoeuvre them elsewhere. At one point it looked as though three wee lassies were Edinburgh bound and disappeared under a bridge. It took a fair effort from the instructor to lasso them and tow them back. We could smile at their antics for we left such things behind us when we left the classroom.
Allan, Rex and Jimmy led away from the basin. We though the pace was fast enough but obviously Jimmy didn’t. With a mile to go he accelerated way and raised the speed to around eighteens. The only one who went with him was Rex and the two raced it out to Woodcockdale. The rest came in as their speed allowed. Poor Johnny trailed in last.
A distance of around twenty-seven miles was sufficient for our first cycle since Rothesay back in September.

Distance (return) 41.6 km
We returned to the King’s Arms in Fenwick for refreshment. We were joined here by the sick Robert who, though too ill for the outing, couldn’t resist a pint and the Ooters banter. A good end to a good day.

report by Jimmy
photos by Johnnie
video by Rex
3D map by Paul

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

15 April Fairlie High

The sign at the railway station read ‘Fairlie High’. It probably was fairly high for we had already walked up through the town from the car park at sea level to reach it. And Fairlie High it might have been but it was not nearly as high as we were for. Though our destination wasn’t as lofty as we have gone of late, at over four hundred metres it was still fairly high.
When the eight of us – Alan, Paul and Peter were the missing ones - left the cars at the bay car park we felt the wind, an easterly wind, fresh and cold. Jaikets and bunnets were worn from the off though Davie persisted with his shorts. We had to move briskly to stir the blood and build up a heat. Yet, at Fairlie High we had already come into the shelter of the buildings and the trees of Fairlie Glen.
The path climbed on the side of the glen above the sandstone gorge of the burn past the ruins of Fairlie Castle.

It was very pleasant climbing in the shelter of the wood and hearing the wind soughing in the tree tops. Spring flowers decked the floor of the wood; primroses, celandines, bluebells and one yellow thing unknown to the naturalist added colour and wild garlic added scent, aroma or stink according to your preference. However you look at garlic, this was still a pleasant part of the walk.

There came a bifurcation in the path, one track designated ‘To the waterfall’ and the other ‘To the moor’. We decided to leave the waterfall for the return journey and took the path for the moor. This climbed fairly steeply now and left the shelter of the trees after a while. We were now back into the teeth of the wind. And the path continued to climb high above the gorge where the wee burn ‘louped amang the linns’ on its way down past us.
Rex led on the steeper section onto the moor and, as is his wont, set a fair pace until he was called from the rear for a view stop.

Overcast conditions and a general haze combined to restrict the view to a few miles today. Fairlie lay below us and the iron ore terminal at Hunterston threw its concrete and steel tentacle into the sea to the south of the town. Cumbrae was visible to the west with Millport showing well. But beyond this there was nothing to take the interest as the haze swallowed up the rest of the world. There was nothing in the view to hold us and the wind was chilling. We set off again, upward yet.
Eventually the path dropped to meet the burn. We felt the burn glen might offer the best possibilities of a sheltered coffee stop for there was no sign of the gale easing. So, once over the burn and in the lea of some exposed rock, we stopped for early coffee.

Ian, our esteemed leader for the day – he had a map and had been here once – took this opportunity to inform us that there was no path from here on, we would have to make our own way through the heather. Jimmy took this comment literally so, coffee break over he set off upward through the heather; through the coarse heather, through the knee-deep heather, through the heather that grabbed at our legs. And Davie had shorts on. Rex joined Jimmy on setting the pace. Bad move for the rest of us who struggled through the deepening heather. Robert struggled. Allan struggled. Ronnie suggested that next week we should all meet at his place and spend the day walking through his hedge for it would be just as easy as this. What Allan thought of it we are not quite sure but no doubt he will tell us when he recovers the power of speech. Rex and Jimmy stayed just sufficiently out of earshot to avoid hearing the comments thrown in their direction.
Eventually the he-men of the Ooters halted to allow us mere mortals to catch them up. Then they were off again. We struggled upward in their wake. Per ardua ad astra or something. The heather gave way to rough grasses through which ran quad-bike tracks. The sadists waited for the suffering there. Relief! And it was here that Davie succumbed to the wind and donned his trousers.
The slope eased with the easier walking and we found ourselves on the flank of Kaim Hill quicker than we expected. But the wind hadn’t eased. We tilted our head into it and walked across the hill to the trig point that marked the summit. From this top we could look south over Knockendon reservoir and glimpsed the coast some three miles away. But we saw nothing else in this direction. Nor did we hang about too long in the wind to examine the view.
Around us the yellow-brown grasses clothed the knobbly undulations of the Fairlie Moor, running upward to a high point on Blaeloch Hill. This was to be our next and highest objective of the day at 407m. The nature of the terrain and the light of the day belied the scale of the moor making things look higher and further away than they actually are. Blaeloch Hill looked miles away and the climb looked long and hard.
The tough two led us off the top of Kaim. The ground was rough again and we came off that hill every man for himself, each choosing his own tussock to fall over and bog to squelch through, and we were scattered all over the hillside. But the drop was short and somewhere along here the sun attempted to break through and there appeared to be a warming of the wind. Was our weather improving?
Between Kaim and Blaeloch Hills rises the lump of Lairdside Hill. When we reached the lea of this, the supermen stopped and lunch was called. And a very agreeable lunch stop it proved to be. We were well sheltered from the gale and the sun made its hazy presence felt. We warmed up nicely.

The peece-stop was also where Jimmy discovered he had left his coffee on the kitchen worktop. We feel that, now he has reached sixty, his advanced age (or the whisky) is beginning to tell. Silly auld bugger. But sufficient coffee was proffered to slake his thirst and top up his caffeine levels. Perhaps it was the extra strength of Johnny’s coffee that did it but Jimmy was packed up and ready for the off long before some of the rest of us had finished our lunch.
Now we tackled the long, steep climb onto Blaeloch. But, as has already been said, the scale of these hills is deceptive and the climb wasn’t nearly as long or as steep as was suspected. Needless to say, supercharged Jimmy led the way and it took a supreme effort from Ian, our leader, to overtake him and reach the top of Green Hill first. The rest of us were strung out on the slope but the over-caffeinated one waited on this top for the slower of us to gather. Blaeloch was now only a few hundred metres to our right. And the weather was improving. A hazy sun shone and wind had lost its bite. It would not be too difficult a walk over to Blaeloch.
But we never made that top. Robert and Jimmy went left, claiming they had heard Ian say that we were missing out that summit. Whether they had misheard or not, we all followed them and so we missed out Blealoch. We made our way over more rough ground over a nondescript lump of moorish hill to an unnamed rise. ‘Typical Jimmy route’ suggested Ian as we trudged through knee-deep tussocky grasses. And the effort of overcoming this rough stuff was telling on some. Ronnie had to make a diversion. Why he had to do this should remain confidential to the Ooters but suffice to say that there was plenty of moist sphagnum to ‘dicht his bum wi’’. He was greatly relieved when he found us waiting for him in the lea of another knobble.
More rough stuff and a bog had to be negotiated before we found a top where we could look down on the sea once more. The coast lay below us, brighter now than it was before but no less hazy, and, down to our left the Fairlie Burn cut its glen downward towards this. From our position fairly high on the moor we saw our morning coffee stop and it was down towards this that we turned our steps.
For the first time since leaving our morning halt, we found easy going. The grass on the slope was shorter and the way was downward. It was definitely easier going. We came down to our path of the morning in no time at all and followed it fairly high above the Fairlie Burn.
Then there came the split in the path where the other branch pointed us towards the waterfall. Some reneged at the thought of another few hundred metres but Ian, Jimmy, Davie and Rex made the sojourn. Was it worth it? Like Johnson’s view of the Giant’s Causeway, it was worth seeing but not worth going to see. But it added something to the day for those who had made the effort. And they rejoiced in telling us about it as we walked down to the castle.
Robert, in the lead for a change, stopped when he found a clump of small white flowers growing in a thin clump of soil in the split of a tree. ‘Wood Sorrel’ said the naturalist and had us taste the fresh spring leaves. Most declined the offer. Davie tasted nothing but Ronnie identified the tartness that would add zing to salads if you were that way inclined. We reserve judgement until we see the outcome of Ronnie’s tasting.
From the castle we wandered casually back by Fairlie High to sea level and the parked cars.

Once again The Merrick in Seamill was chosen for our post walk refreshment. There is a certain attraction in this pub that we haven’t quite put a finger on yet. There are those who say if we do put a finger on it, we will be immediately arrested.
Report by Jimmy
Photos by Johnnie

8 April Naewhere

Naebody came and naebody went,
Maist o’ us were somewhere else,
Even thaim that were naewhere,
Went elsewhere.
Jings! I wish I’d hae been there,
Tae see a’ the fun.

Monday, 20 April 2009

dynorod job

No dynorod job this week due to a severe sinus infection. Operation postponed until 4th May. Doubt if I will be fit enough to manage the planned cycle this Wednesday.

Monday, 13 April 2009

1 April Glen Afton – The Four Tops for the fourth time

The year's at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hillside's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven -
All's right with the world!
~Robert Browning

We were promised another splendid day on the hill when the sun shone early in the morning, bathing the hills in warming spring light and filling Glen Afton with cloud. It looked as though we might have a superb sunny day with a temperature inversion to look out on from the heights. We all relished the thought. But, as we gathered at Jimmy’s place in Cumnock, the cloud had gathered and the sun was gone. And when we drove into Glen Afton, the temperature inversion had gone as well. It now looked like another overcast day on the hill.
At ten minutes to ten we left the fisher’s car park in the glen and walked the mile and a bit down the road to Blackcraig Farm road-end and the old pony track for Kirkconnel. We were for Davie’s ‘Four Tops’ again. This was old ground for most, only Allan and Ian were newcomers, but it is a good walk and one worth doing again and again. And we were doing it again, for the fourth time as Ooters.

Davie set the pace down the road, and a brisk pace it was. We think it might have something to do with the new boots he was wearing for the first time today. But he assured us he would slow up when we started the climb of the old track. We accepted his assurance albeit reluctantly for we know Davie. He may well have slowed up on the climb but it was difficult to tell as he and Rex disappeared into the distance leaving the rest of us gasping in their wake. Robert in particular felt the pace on this upward section, going from the front to near the rear in a matter of minutes. And the fast two continued to set the pace until they were eventually hailed from the rear by the struggling group demanding a coffee break. They screeched to a halt at the sheep fank where we all gathered for a breather and a caffeine boost.
The landscape was beginning to open up for us and the view to the top of Glen Afton was good, even under the cloudy sky. Steyamara was the main focal point. This was pointed out to Allan as our last top of the day. Allan’s response was that now we have seen it can we go directly to the pub? His new-found love of the hills is beginning to show.
Despite the overcast sky and the coolish southerly breeze, the air by the sheep fank had the feel of spring in it. This feeling was heightened by the burbling of a whaup, heard but not seen, and the singing of the skylark above our heads. We had a very pleasant coffee break. We might have remained seated at the sheep fank for much longer but the mountaineers were eager to go.

We were to follow the old pony track for a while yet. This old Victorian pony track is now in various states of repair. From the farm to well above the sheep fank it has been gouged out by modern machinery and has been left rough and strewn with boulders. This was hard going and we were stretched out once again. But we eventually came to the old, smoother surface and this made for easier walking, especially when as the slope eased. However, we also found the first wet patches of the day. The track-side ditches are clogged up and the moss spills over the track in many places. These soggy areas were unavoidable and tested Davie’s new boots to the limit. And through this wet, we came to the summit of the track.
Now we had a view northward over the East Ayrshire farmland as far as Auchinleck. Eastward, Nithsdale was filled with the cloud we had seen in Glen Afton earlier in the morning but the hills beyond were clear - perhaps the folk of Nithsdale were getting the temperature inversion we had hoped for. And this eastern view increased in scope as we continued the walk.
We left the track to run its course towards Nithsdale and took to the hill. This was the steepest part of the day according to Jimmy. We took him at his word and trudged ever upward. Steep it might have been, but it wasn’t a long steep and it soon eased onto the broad, flat top of Blackcraig. This is an interesting top, the only rocky one in the group and extends over a considerable plateau. Rocky outcrops break the thin soil providing shelter for alpine plants. Deep hollows hide sphagnum bogs and lure the unwary into knee deep mires. We had no option but to wade through some of the shallower of these bogs to come the half mile or so across the top to the trig point that marks the highest point of the plateau.
The view was westward now. Immediately in front of us was Windy Standard. (‘So that’s what it looks like’ said those who had been on this top earlier in the year.) Behind this, Cairnsmore of Carsphairn still held a cornice of snow making it look higher than its two and a half thousand feet. Beyond this, the northern end of the Rhinns of Kells also held snow cornices. The Awful Hand range in the blue distance was patched with snow, showing Merrick at its best, and it was suggested we should go there some day. The sun shone on these western hills and it looked as though it was heading in our direction. We were hopeful.
Some wanted to lunch at the Blackcraig trig point for this was the highest point of the day but we were in a cool breeze and others suggested we wait for the next top, Blacklorg. A compromise was reached when it was suggested we ate in the col between the two tops where we might be out of the wind. Full marks must go to the advanced pair of Rex and Robert who found us a dry, sheltered spot with a view eastward over cloud-filled Nithsdale to the Lowther Hills and Tinto. We ate and rested long. It was turning into a day for long stops.

And as we sat, the sunshine arrived. It was to stay with us for the rest of the day and turn the afternoon pleasantly warm.
In terms of distance, we were more than half way through the walk but in terms of time and effort we were well through our day with the bulk of our climbing behind us. The climb from the peece stop to the top of Blacklorg was easy, well much easier than it looked, and we found ourselves on the second of our four tops standing in the spring sunshine, admiring the view, almost in three-sixty degrees now. We might have spent some time here but we have amongst us those who would rather move on. So, on it was.
Down the line of the old dry-stane dyke we went, beside the fence, through more soggy patches and came to a col between Blacklorg and Cannock Hill. There is a superb view down the glen from this col and Jimmy stopped to take a picture. He was consigned to the rear of the group thereafter for the Ooters are not known for waiting for snappers. Now came the short climb onto Cannock. Rex showed his athletic ability by running up the slope. Some wished him well in his attempt and some reminded him he was an auld man. But this burst of athleticism was only so that he could get high to the front to take a picture. Oh! How we suffer for our art! We hope the picture was worth the lung-bursting effort. Needless to say Rex was first to the top and Jimmy was last.

‘We’re making good time’, said the wise one, he of the new boots. Robert looked at the rocky stub of our last top some mile and a bit away, down and along the ridge. ‘Twenty minutes should see us there’, said he. Jimmy said, ‘A good half and hour’. We set off to test their estimates.
Robert and Alan took off like men on a mission, determined to prove the twenty minute theory. Jimmy, Allan and Ian took their time. They knew it would be half an hour. We were strung along the ridge as the fast sped on and the slow took their time and everybody else straggled somewhere in between. Who was right? Well, Alan and Rex made it in twenty with Robert a minute behind. The slow panted up six minutes later with Jimmy gasping that he hadn’t ettled on some p_p_p_person trying to set a land speed record. (These weren’t his exact words but it’s what he meant. He still reckons sensible folk would take half an hour.) We rested on the peak for a few minutes taking photographs and allowing the speedy to recover before attempting the descent through the rough grass and boulders we knew to be waiting for us.

The descent isn’t as we remembered it. A rudimentary path has been established by local hill-men and this eased the down-slope for us. Rex led the way but it was the tail-enders of Davie and Allan who saw the wildlife. A large hare sped off from under their feet making their hearts pound, as if the slope hadn’t already been doing just that.
Twenty minutes later, and fluttering hearts a bit calmer, we gathered at the dam of Glen Afton Reservoir.
The usual comments on the disgraceful state of the fountain and road weren’t made today for we were full of the joys of a good walk on the hill on a super spring day. We walked casually down the few hundred metres to the fisher’s car park.
Once again, the watering hole chosen for this area was the Mercat in Cumnock. Sadie, the good lady of the place, had promised stovies and duly obliged. While mine host, Ian, poured the refreshment, Sadie served platefuls of the warming stew. We were royally treated by the pair and all for a very reasonable cost. (There was still a smile on our treasurer’s face.) And the ale was good. There is little doubt that we will be back here

Report by Jimmy
Photos by Jimmy, Rex, Johnnie