This edition of Armchair Travel is staying in the mountains, but we’re going to the movies with a selection of my favourite mountain films.
Many of these films are documentaries or based on true events. Brace yourself for exhilarating thrills, edge-of-your-seat drama, and some of the most stunning landscapes you’ve ever seen, all from the comfort of your own sofa.
A dramatisation of the infamous 1996 expedition season on Everest, which culminated in a disasterous storm as teams made their attempts on the summit, trapping several climbers in the so-called death zone. It focuses on the friendly rivalry between mountain guides Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhall), competing to take their clients to the summit, and draws from several sources to try to give as truthful an account as possible, including books by Jon Krakauer and Beck Weathers, and the IMAX film taken at the time by Ed Viesturs and David Breashears. The heart-wrenching final call made by Hall seems straight out of Hollywood, but is devastatingly true to life.
The Conquest of Everest (1953)
A historical documentary film detailing the various expeditions to gain the summit of Everest, culminating in the successful attempt by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. It covers details of the expedition often absent from later accounts, the 282km (175 mile) trek from Kathmandu to base camp (now often completed in helicopters) by around 400 individuals, including 362 porters laden with equipment, blazing a trail through the Khumbu icefall and setting crevasse ladders, and establishing advance camps on the Lhotse Face and South Col. All filmed on a bulky film camera by Tom Stobart, which pushed the boundaries of expedition film-making. It can be found free online.
In my student life, my housemate and a few friends were aspiring mountaineers, and this was one of our regular late-night movie choices. Two climbers (Michael Biehn and Matt Craven) blag their way into an expedition team headed to the Karakoram to summit K2, the second highest and reputedly most difficult peak in the world. The majority of the film focuses on the challenging climb and even more difficult descent, and feels an authentic representation of the mountaineering adventure, with a little human drama thrown in to drive the plot. Mount Waddington in British Columbia stands in for the savage peak of K2, though establishing sequences were filmed in Pakistan.
The Summit (2012)
A documentary film piecing together the events of the 2008 K2 disaster, where 11 climbers on were killed, and a further three seriously injured. A serac (ice block) collapsed into the notorious couloir known as the Bottleneck, stripping fixed lines and sweeping away Rolf Bae of the Norwegian team, as his wife Cecile Skog looked on. Climbers faced the decision to bivouac above for the night, or attempt to “free solo” down in the encroaching night. Two or three further serac falls the following day devastated the attempts at descent and rescue by other climbers. Footage from survivors, support teams, and re-enactments filmed on the Eiger’s mordwand (North Face) tell the shattering story.
Touching the Void (2003)
A documentary re-enactment of the expedition to Siula Grande in the Peruvian Huayhuash mountains by British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. Believing Simpson dead after a huge fall in a storm on their descent, Yates makes the gut-wrenching decision to cut the rope tethering them together, and continue to base camp alone. It’s no understatement to say that miraculously, broken, exhausted, and delirious, Simpson crawled off the mountain into camp, just as a devastated Yates was preparing to leave. Both Simpson and Yates provide narration for the film, and returned to the mountain to film the climbing sequences.
An excellent documentary film following a group of six blind Tibetan teenagers who set out to climb Lhakpa Ri, a 7,045m (23,244′) peak in the shadow of Everest. Rejected by the community, and disabled by fear and ignorance of their condition and the challenging environment of their home, they find hope and support in the school established by Sabriye Tenberken, founder of Braille Without Borders. Under the inspirational leadership of Erik Weihnmayer, the first blind person to summit Everest, the group achieve far more than they ever could have imagined.
Not a film about the heart-stopping thrill of high altitude mountaineering, rather a rainy Sunday afternoon with a cuppa and cake-type film. Cantankerous, fiercely independent, eighty-something Edie (Sheila Hancock) dreams of climbing Suliven in northwest Scotland. The plot re-treads used tropes, an oldie on a last life-affirming adventure, intergenerational odd-couple friendships, small town life in Scotland blighted by boredom, but the scenes filmed on the mountain and surrounding Glencanisp Estate show off the stunning landscape of Assynt at their very best.
Free Solo (2018)
An outstanding, Oscar-winning, documentary following rock climber Alex Honnold’s jaw-dropping free solo (without ropes) ascent of El Capitan, the first of the 900m (3000′) near sheer granite edifice that dominates Yosemite Valley. Although Honnold’s astonishing achievement is the backbone of the film, it also records the thoughts of the film crew, roped climbers and drone pilots, that followed the climb; what would happen if…, how would they film…, what would happen with the footage of…?
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)
Documentary auteur Werner Herzog follows legendary climbers Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerlander in the Karakorams as they attempt to scale Gasherbrum I and II, each over 8,000m, on a single expedition. The film doesn’t linger much on the technicalities of the climb, but as with much of Herzog’s work, it focuses on the personal motivations and obsessions of the subjects, and pries into the mindset and driving forces that make people do exceptional things.
Ok, this is not really one of the greatest mountain movies ever made, but it’s firmly in the category of “so bad it’s good”. Minus the mountain backdrop (with stunning Cortina d’Ampezzo standing in for the Rockies), it’s an absolute howler of a 90’s action film filled with guns, explosions, awesome stunts, and improbable kung-fu skills, but it’s just so much fun. Exactly as you would expect from Stallone.
Which of these have you watched? What did you think?
You could walk for 500 miles, and then you would walk for 500 more. That’s just how beautiful Scotland is. Wide open moors, historic castles, picturesque lochs (what we call lakes) ancient forests, and sweeping mountains are the hauntingly beautiful backdrop for some of the finest long distance walks in the UK.
But enough havering; Scotland’s long distance routes are a fantastic way to get outdoors, and explore some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes on foot. Not only that, you’ll be treated to close encounters with nature, the freshest air, and the freedom that comes with being out in wild and remote areas.
Just because these routes take multiple days to complete, don’t be put off by the thought of not having enough time. The trails don’t have to be completed in one go, and can be broken down into bite-sized chunks to fit into weekends and single days that are just as enjoyable.
Here are, in my opinion, the greatest of the long distance trails in Scotland. The routes vary greatly in character, from waymarked cross-country trails like the ever popular West Highland Way to unofficial, often pathless, challenges aimed at experienced backpackers, like the Cape Wrath Trail.
The West Highland Way (WHW)
Finish: Fort William
Length: 154 km (96 miles)
Average time to complete: 7 days
Difficulty: moderate (Devil’s Staircase is hard)
The first, and far away most famous, long distance trail in Scotland, the WHW stretches from Milngavie, on the edge of Glasgow, to Fort William, dubbed Scotland’s outdoor adventure capital, 154km (96 miles) to the north.
The route crosses the rolling Campsie Fells into Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, following the bonnie banks of the loch into the increasingly craggy highlands. It crosses the starkly beautiful Rannoch Moor into atmospheric Glencoe, before climbing to the highest point of the trail, the Devil’s Staircase, and onward to finish at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British and Irish Isles.
The route is well waymarked, and has plenty of opportunities for re-supply stops, tearooms, and pubs on the way, with Kingshouse the most popular. Hiking is easy going for the main part, and largely avoids the high ground; Ben Lomond and Ben Lui, in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Black Mount and the Mamores can be added to the route, and it can finish with the summit of Ben Nevis (1334 metres), if your legs feel up to it.
Great Glen Way (GGW)
Start: Fort William
Length: 117 km (73 miles)
Average time to complete: 6 days
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Tracing the major geological faultline that cleaves Scotland in two, the GGW links the highland towns of Fort William and Inverness, largely following a string of lochs linked by the Caledonian Canal.
The faultline divides the Grampian Mountains to the south from the Northwestern Highlands, some of the oldest rocks in the world. Starting in Fort William, the route passes Neptune’s Staircase, an impressive flight of locks built by engineer Thomas Telford linking the Canal to Loch Linnhe and the sea. It follows the lengths of Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness* on forestry roads, before passing the pretty Isles of Ness and finishing in Inverness city centre.
The route is well waymarked, and the hiking is straightforward throughout, though it gets steep in the forests over Loch Ness. Between Fort Augustus and Drumnadrochit there is a high level alternate route, which has spectacular views over Loch Ness and along the rest of the Great Glen. It can connect with the West Highland Way in Fort William.
*Bring some monster spotting binoculars, and you might be rewarded with sightings of anything from red squirrels to red deer, ospreys and even otters.
Southern Upland Way (Scotland’s Coast to Coast)
Length: approximately 341km (211 miles)
Average time to complete: 14 days +
The longest of Scotland’s great trails, and the original coast to coast walk, this trail starts in the pretty village of Portpatrick on the west coast, and finishes on the North Sea coast in Cockburnspath.
The route follows forestry trails through the Galloway Forest Park, famed for its dark skies, and into the open moorland and rugged hills of the Southern Uplands. It passes through the highest settlements of Scotland, the border towns and villages of Sanquar, Wanlockhead, Beattock and Traquair in the Tweedsmuir Hills, and into the Lammermuir Hills before descending to the coast.
The route is waymarked, but involves long moorland crossings which can be tricky to navigate in poor visibility. Stages between resupply points can be long, and facilities are far apart, so this is better suited to more experienced backpackers.
For real hardcore hikers, the Southern Upland Way is part of the E2 European long distance trail which runs for 4850km (3010 miles) between Galway on the Atlantic coast of Ireland and Nice, on the Mediterranean.
Length: approximately 116km (72 miles)
Average time to complete: 6 days
This route traces the course of the mighty River Spey from Cairngorms National Park to Spey Bay, where the river meets the sea. Most descriptions of the Speyside Way describe the route sea to source, ending in the heart of the mountains, but I think there’s something in going with the flow of the river.
Historically, the river was used to transport timber from the pine forests around Aviemore and Abernethy to the shipbuilding industry based around the village of Garmouth, once a rival to the major British port of Hull. But for most the main draw for this trail is the famous whiskies**, the most well-known worldwide, that originate on the banks of the Spey.
Highlights of the route include Abernethy National Nature Reserve, where bogs, lochans, and pine forest are a haven for native wildlife, the impressive Craigellachie Bridge, built by Thomas Telford, and the Moray Firth Wildlife Centre, one of the best shore-based dolphin watching opportunities in the world.
**Try sampling Aberlour, Balvenie, Craigellachie, Dufftown, Glenfiddich, Knockando, Macallan, Speyside, Tamnavoulin, and you’ll forget that the alphabet has other letters too.
Finish: Stornoway, Lewis
Length: approximately 252km (156 miles)
Average time to complete: 12 days +
Difficulty: easy to moderate
The newest long distance trail in Scotland, this route connects 10 spectacularly beautiful islands in the Hebridean archipelago, from Vatersay in the south to Lewis in the north, with two ferry crossings and six interisland causeways, on the wild fringes of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Gaelic culture of the islands is framed by the distinctive landscapes; stunning silver beaches and flower filled machair, wild moors and mountains, remote crofts and tiny fishing villages, places where both recent history and ancient archaeology lie close to the surface. Look out for wildlife as spectacular as your surroundings, like minke whales, white-tailed sea eagles, and some of the most scarce birds in Britain, like the elusive corncrake.
The most challenging part of the trail follows waymarks on an undefined path across the open moorland of the North Harris Hills, and could be tricky in poor visibility, but on the whole hiking is easy going and suitable for beginners. It’s worth making some extra time to spend on the islands alongside completing the hike.
Length: approximately 161km (100 miles)
Average time to complete: 7 days
Difficulty: moderate to hard
Zigzagging back and forth across the Kintyre Peninsula, this trail starts in the picturesque fishing village of Tarbert in the north, and winds its way to the windswept beach at Machrihanish, which lies closer to Belfast than to Glasgow.
Although Kintyre is part of the mainland, the sea is never far away on this trail, and it has stunning island views of Jura, Arran, Islay, Gigha, and even Rathlin Island. You’re sure to hear the legend of Somerled (Somhairle), the Gaelic Viking King of the Isles, that claimed the land as his own by portaging his ships across the narrow isthmus between the sea lochs at Tarbert.
The trail is well waymarked for most of its length, with easy going walking, though the last section of the trail beyond Campbeltown has steep ascents and descents, tricky navigation, and boggy conditions underfoot.
Start/Finish: Blairgowrie or Alyth
Length: approximately 104km (65 miles)
Average time to complete: 5 days
Not as well known as some of the other Great Trails, this is a circular route through the wild upland glens of Angus and Perthshire, taking in Strathardle, Glen Shee and Glen Isla, once lawless bandit country. There is no official start/finish point, but the pretty towns of Blairgowrie and Alyth have good access to the trail, and it is usually walked in a clockwise direction.
The route follows ancient drove roads used to take cattle to the market towns of Alyth and Blairgowrie, and by the Caterans, 16th and 17th century cattle raiders, who give their name to the trail.
The trail is well waymarked, and the moorland hiking at a moderate level. There are several small settlements on the route, with pubs, cafes and resupply stops. A link route between Kirkmichael (Strathardle) and Cray (Glen Shee) gives the option of a shorter two day circuit. The route is waymarked but undefined, and both parts of the trail can be rough and very muddy.
Rob Roy Way
Length: 128km (80miles), alternative route via Amulree 155km
Average time to complete: 6 days (alternative route 7 days)
Difficulty: moderate to hard
Another route inspired by rogues and reivers, the Rob Roy Way links Drymen, on the edge of Loch Lomond (and the WHW), and Pitlochry. Taking in the rolling hills of the Trossachs, through forests and into Breadalbane, passing lochs and waterfalls, and on into Strathtay.
The route visits the pretty highland towns of Callender, Killin, and Aberfeldy, and Balquidder, the site of Rob Roy’s family home. A Jacobite who fought alongside Bonnie Dundee, he, and the rest of Clan McGregor, were outlawed and compelled to renounce their name and allegiance or be hunted out with hounds and killed.
The route follows tracks, minor roads, cycle trails, and footpaths, with a fair amount of ascent and descent. The alternative route via Amulree is much quieter, and avoids an 8km section on minor roads on the south of Loch Tay. Both options have spectacular views across to Ben Lawers and Schiehallion on a fine day.
Start: Rubha Hunish, near Duntulum
Length: approximately 128km ( miles)
Average time to complete: 7 days
Difficulty: very hard
Starting from the most northerly point of the island, Rubha Hunish, the route ascends steeply under the Quiraing to the Trotternish Ridge. The ridge traverse is very long and exposed, but is one of the most outstanding ridge walks anywhere in the world.
After following the cliffs from Storr, the route goes via Portree and Glen Sligachan to Elgol and Torrin, finishing in Broadford. It passes the locations of several clearance villages, tumbledown reminders that these quiet glens were once home to hundreds of people, and around the spectacular Cuillin mountains.
The trail is unofficial, unmarked, and arduous, and many sections lack a distinct path. It requires excellent navigation skills, and involves challenging burn crossings that are not possible when in spate. The route includes a long ridge traverse and clifftop walking not suited to those without a head for heights.
Cape Wrath Trail
Start: Fort William
Finish: Cape Wrath
Length: Between 320 and 370km (200 and 230 miles)
Average time to complete:
Difficulty: very hard
The Cape Wrath Trail is a epic route, leading from Fort William, through some of the wildest and most remote parts of Scotland, to the northwesternmost tip of mainland Britain.
Potential highlights of the route include crossing the Rough Bounds of Knoydart, the Falls of Glomachand and Eas a’ Chual Aluinn (the highest waterfalls in the UK), Fisherfield Forest, the caves around Inchnadamph, and the spectacular beaches at Oldshoremore and Sandwood Bay.
With no official route, and several potential options taking you through Knoydart, Torridon, and Assynt, it isn’t waymarked and many sections don’t have a defined path. It is suitable for backpackers with excellent navigation skills, the ability to be self-sufficient, and wild camping experience.
Things to know before attempting a long distance hike in Scotland
The Big Yin*** once said that “there are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter”. But even the notoriously changeable weather can’t spoil the hauntingly beautiful landscapes you’ll walk through. Be sure you’re adequately prepared; check long-range forecasts and monitor the weather during your hike, pack sufficient warm layers and waterproof jacket and trousers, and know your route well enough to identify wet weather alternatives and bail-out points.
***That’s Billy Connolly if you didn’t know. Or Sir William Connolly CBE, if we’re going to be formal. Which he famously isn’t.
There will be a range of different options for accommodation on most of the trails listed above, from bunkhouses and bothies to boutique hotels and guesthouses. But for staying as close to the trail as possible and maximising time outdoors, you might choose to wild camp (I usually do).
Wild camping is permitted in Scotland, with the notable exception of the east side of Loch Lomond (on the WHW) during summer months. It is important you are familiar with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and follow leave no trace principles.
We don’t have some of the large wildlife of our neighbours in northern Scandinavia or central Europe to worry about, and you should try to avoid causing any disturbance to habitats or creatures as you follow the trails or camp.
Scottish midges have a fearsome reputation, and it’s well deserved. May and September are usually the best months for avoiding the wee beasties but still getting the best of the weather. Otherwise pack a repellent, especially for dawn and dusk, and just after rain showers.
Winter hiking in Scotland is serious, and brings a number of additional hazards to the hikes. Some of the trails above will be inaccessible to all but the most experienced backpackers. It is important to be properly prepared, and that can mean taking an ice-axe and crampons, and having the skills and experience to use them.
It also means taking additional time to assess your chosen route; researching mountain weather, reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts. And remembering that sometimes the best decision you make is to postpone the hike for another day.
Have you tried hiking any of these trails? Have you got any tips?
I’ve always had quite a fondness for working ports and harbours, and how the concrete quays and non-descript marinas are transformed for a few days every year when the port hosts a maritime festival, lifeboat gala day, or traditional boat show.
Railings are decked with bunting; boats cram into the harbour, showing their dressed overall flags; stalls demonstrating traditional maritime crafts, or hawking food and drink line the quaysides; and from somewhere, shanty singers assemble. The air is filled with the scent of Stockholm tar and smoked seafood, and the sound of fiddles and accordions.
Every May, the Belgian coastal resort and port of Ostend celebrates the maritime heritage of the North Sea, hosting traditional and classic sailing vessels from around Europe at the Oostende Voor Anker maritime festival (Ostend at Anchor in English).
The festival takes place each year from a Thursday to a Sunday towards the end of May, depending on the tides, with vessels arriving into port in the preceding days. From class A square riggers to the traditional barges that plied the coastal and inland waterways of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, over 150 vessels participate in the festival.
A large part of Oostende Voor Anker celebrates traditional craftsmanship, with a festival village filled with venues to find out more about boat-building and sail making. A variety of stalls also sell local goods and produce, including what every sailor needs, a vast selection of striped Breton shirts. I may even have picked up a souvenir or two as I browsed through.
As well as open ship tours, demonstrations and stalls, the festival also features things like walking theatre performances, musical concerts, food and cookery demonstrations, arts installations, and nautical themed talks.
My festival tips for Oostende Voor Anker
Avoid taking a car if you’re travelling from out of town. Ostend has excellent rail and coach connections to Antwerp, Brussels, and beyond, and the station is close to the festival area. The Belgian Coastal Tram is another travel alternative.
Wear shoes suitable for walking, as it’s likely you’ll do much more than you anticipate! High heels can cause damage to the decking timbers on ships, and you may be asked to remove unsuitable shoes if you take a deck tour.
Pick up a festival guide as soon as you can. It will have an event map and programme of activities to help you plan your day and find your way around.
Bring cash as some vendors won’t accept card payment.
Book your local accommodation early, as the festival is very popular.
Welcome to the first edition of Armchair Travel for 2019, and a breath of pine-fresh, mountain air for the New Year.
The weather outside might be frightful, though not as bad as conditions in some of the books I’ve recommended, so in this post I’m planning on making myself a massive mug of cocoa, wrapping up an a blanket, and vicariously scaling the heights in ten of my favourite books about mountains…
Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer
Dispatched by Outside magazine to write about increasing commercial expeditions on Everest, journalist and mountaineer Krakauer becomes eyewitness to the 1996 disaster. On summit day, with several teams tackling the mountain, a fierce blizzard left several climbers stranded in the death zone* (above 8000m / 26,000′), with eight ultimately losing their lives. Buy it here.
*The altitude above which atmospheric pressure of oxygen is so low, it is considered insufficient to sustain human life for an extended period.
Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination – Robert Macfarlane
A compelling cultural history of how we discovered our love for the mountains, at one time considered nightmare-inducing, monster-filled voids, and continue to indulge that magnetic fascination, alongside a personal account of Macfarlane’s attraction to climbing and eventual rejection of the pursuit of thrills. Find it here.
What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die.
The White Spider – Heinrich Harrer
A classic of mountaineering, detailing Harrer’s legendary first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, a notoriously challenging climb nicknamed Mordwand (Murder Wall, punning on nordwand, the north wall). He provides accounts of several tragic expeditions in the history of the mountain to give context to the achievement of his team. Get it here.
It was a hard decision to pick this book over Seven Years in Tibet, an account of Harrer’s escape from a PoW camp in British India into the Himalayas, where he becomes a mentor to the Dalai Lama. It might make it into another list in future.
Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering – Rebecca A. Brown
The literary tradition of mountaineering may seem to mark out high-altitude peaks as a predominantly male space, particularly from the early colonial period of planting flags and appropriating land. But women have been present from beginning of recreational mountaineering, challenging the historic societal belief that we are too delicate to just go out and do what we want to do. This book gathers lesser known stories of awesome women from the early days of mountaineering, and reveals that their goals, the need for challenge, the longing to explore, are every bit as relevant and inspiring today. Pick it up here.
My Side of the Mountain – Jean Craighead George
I think I was around 10 when I read this, and despite not really being as enamoured of reading as I am today, completely devoured it. I still don’t really understand why I don’t live in the hollowed-out heart of a hemlock tree on the side of a mountain, with just a kestrel for company (though my childhood dog was named Kes…). Give this book to any young people in your life, or read it together, to share the freedom of nature and the outdoors, and the excitement of an adventure. Find it here.
Everything was white, clean, shining, and beautiful. The sky was blue, blue, blue. The hemlock grove was laced with snow, the meadow was smooth and white, and the gorge was sparkling with ice. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud. I guess I laughed because my first snowstorm was over and it had not been so terrible after all.
Jean Craighead George
Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dylatov Pass Incident – Donnie Eichar
This is not a book for everyone, but this is EXACTLY the kind of book I’d recommend my sister, dad, and cousins. But not my mam. If you love true horror stories and the unexplained (and piña coladas), you might be aware of the Dylatov Pass incident and the mysterious disappearance of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains. If not, be prepared for shredded tents, bare footprints in the snow, mysterious radiation, violent injuries, and no explanations for what happened on a winter camping trip on a peak called Dead Mountain. Get it here (if you dare).
Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Walk Home – Nando Parrado
You may know this story already. The 1972 Andes air crash was written about in the book Alive, and turned into a film starring Ethan Hawk, but Parrado was one of the survivors, and this is his personal memoir. His courage and perseverance in crossing the mountains to find rescue, and honesty and insight into survival in the aftermath of the crash, make for a moving and inspiring book. Pick it up here.
The Ascent of Rum Doodle – W.E. Bowman
Some books can’t really be read in public, unless you’re prepared to be stared at for making great, snorting, guffaws of laughter that bring you to the point of accidentally peeing yourself (such as anything by Gerald Durrell, Tony Hawks, and this). A genuinely hilarious parody of the classic alpinist mountaineering epic, it nails the spirit of the genre so accurately, it was thought that W.E Bowman was the pseudonym of a big time mountaineer rather than someone who never in their life ventured to the Himalayas. Read it in companionship with No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. Pick it up here.
Space Below My Feet – Gwen Moffat
Moffat is a remarkable woman, rejecting traditional gender-roles of post-war society and living a transient life in the wilder parts of the UK with several hitch-hiking expeditions to the Alps. As a climber she broke new ground, tackling some of the toughest challenges in Europe and becoming the first woman to qualify as a mountain guide, paving the way for others to follow. She often climbed barefoot in summer conditions, claiming better connection to the rock. Now in her 90s, she recently contributed to a BBC Radio documentary based on her book, worth checking out if you can find it. Get the book here.
The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd
A little known book that was almost lost to time, this tribute to the Cairngorms is an outstanding piece of nature writing, transformative and heart-soaring. A spare, sparkling reminder that when spending time in the mountains, there are times where gaining the summit is just an insignificant distraction. It teaches us to slow down, look closely, and feel deeply to know our surroundings. I’ve recommended this book to everyone I know. READ IT NOW! Buy it here.
However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.
A recent biography, Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock, explores more of her mountain exploration and writing. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s firmly on my TBR list.
What is your favourite mountain book? What would you recommend to me?
This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you. These help me to continue to running this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures. Thank you for supporting me.
*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.
At first, RED January (Run Every Day), sounded like a ridiculous challenge; who can run every day for a month? (How far do I have to go to count?) Who actually wants to? But I really wanted something to kickstart my year, and needed something to give myself a bit of a boost through a difficult time of year.
Really it’s Do Something Every Day January, which doesn’t sound nearly as big or as scary. The flexibility of the challenge let me set my own targets, such as being physically active outdoors for at least 15 minutes every day, and explore activities other than running to contribute to my goal.
Running into the North Sea on January 1st with my cousin Nicola
It was just a quick dip, but my feet did leave contact with the sand, and a few swimming strokes occurred.
I was really starting to enjoy it. Even the night runs in the rain. Checking off the days in my calendar gave me a real kick*, and I began looking forward to parkrun on Saturday mornings (there’s a little smug feeling you get from running first thing in the morning and knowing you don’t need to do anything else for the rest of the day).
*And it also helps make you feel like you’ve accomplished something with your day, even if all it was was a walk around the park.
Winter weather was the biggest factor in the challenge, followed by dark evenings, making it difficult to summon the motivation to go outdoors at times. However, I would feel a buzz afterwards, from that rush of endorphins, followed by a sense of calm and relaxation, and that’s what I tried to focus on.
I found some of the runs mentally tough, had heavy legs that made things hard going, and felt a few aches and pains over the month. But tiredness from running and fresh air has helped me to sleep much better, which also helped with my mood.
The RED January community
One of the best aspects of the challenge is the community feeling created through social media. REDers connect through the #REDJanuary hashtag and provide each other with encouragement to get active, or just the safe space to unload and work through thoughts and emotions weighing on them.
On the sleety, soggy winter evenings when the sofa was far too tempting, posts on Twitter and Instagram would give me the motivation to move. Seeing pictures of others, soaked, mud-covered, sweaty, or reading their stories of feeling much too down, or anxious to go out, but still going anyway, helped me to go too.
My 2019 RED January Stats
Distance run: 58km
Distance hiked: 39km
Practical conservation days: two
Open water swims: just one!
Parkrun PBs: two
Average time outdoors every day: 2 hours 20 minutes
Thank you for your support
While all charity challenges are about raising funds vital to continuing their work, for Mind, working on mental health, it’s just as important to raise awareness. Getting people talking, opening up the conversation about mental health, and removing the stigma that pushes people into hiding conditions.
My fundraising target was just small, but January is a tough month for many, so I’m so grateful for everyone who donated to the cause. And so happy to say that I met the target!
For many visitors, the historic university city of Cambridge is almost the definition of Englishness and academia (well, unless you have any kind of connection to “the Other Place*”). Imagine lounging around on college lawns; punting, poetry, and jugs of Pimms; cycling down cobbled streets in a cap and gown; late-night discussions on existentialist philosophy…If only it was possible to become intellectual by osmosis.
But the city, through the colleges and museums, inspired many residents to strike out for new horizons in search of adventure and new discoveries. Cambridge also received specimens, artefacts, treasures from around the globe, and journals filled with ideas that continue to inform and inspire visitors to look further afield, and make plans for their own expeditions.
So to help you get your bearings and set off on a successful expedition, this is my vagabond guide to spending time in Cambridge like a true old-school explorer.
*Oxford, I meant Oxford.
Punting on the Cam
If the sun is shining, there’s no better way to get an introduction to the historic heart of the city than from a punt gliding down the River Cam. These flat-bottom boats are the more accessible way to get out on the water (unless you’ve got great potential as a varsity rower), and propelled and directed with a long pole that pushes against the riverbed. It requires a bit of skill, and a lot of practice, to make it look as effortless as river guides manage to.
The Backs, the landscaped lawns of several colleges that line the riverbank, is the most popular destination for punters looking to soak up the scenery. You pass landmarks like the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College, reputedly Queen Victoria’s favourite spot in the city, and the Mathematical Bridge at Queen’s College, a wooden bridge which despite appearing to describe an arch is constructed entirely of straight timbers. Float downstream and make the plans for your next expedition.
If you fancy the challenge of guiding your own punt, and have the balance to back up the romantic idea, the cost of hiring one is between £25 and £30 per hour, for up to six people (make sure you punt Cambridge style rather than Oxford style) if you don’t want to raise eyebrows and elicit a barely audible tut from observers). Or you can sit back and let someone else take the strain on a guided tour. It takes around 45 minutes and is usually between £15 and £20 per person, though you can often make a saving with advanced booking online. Many guides are students, and give an insight into the day-to-day life of the university and studying in such a historic setting.
If you’re tight on time or budget, a walk on the banks of the Cam and through the Backs is still recommended for the views of the colleges; honey-coloured stone bridges, outstanding classical architecture, weeping willow trees, carpets of spring blossoms, and students lounging around on the lawns (or sheltering from a wet and windy winter day).
It’s probably illegal to visit Cambridge as a tourist and not take in at least one of the university colleges on a tour, but with 31 constituent colleges I’d say the risk of historic building fatigue is real. Though each has their own character, I’d go with either King’s College or Trinity College (or both if you’re inclined). Check opening times in advance, as they can be closed to the public for reading weeks and exams.
King’s College Chapel
In a city of outstanding historic buildings, King’s College Chapel(£9 entry for adults, Cambridge students and alumni can bring in a couple of guests for free) stands out as the real highlight. The building is just spectacular, one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in the country, with a soaring fan-vaulted ceiling and magnificent stained glass windows. They were spared by Oliver Cromwell in the Civil War, and packed up into boxes during the Second World War for safety, though Cambridge (and Oxford) were said to have been spared the worst of bombing attacks in return for similar leniency toward the German university city of Heidelberg.
Of course, the building is just a backdrop for the world-famous chapel choir. Hear them sing at evensong daily, twice on Sunday, and rejoice, or just marvel at the acoustics of the space. (If you miss the performance, you can catch up at Christmas Eve with the broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols.)
The roof of King’s College Chapel is said to rate very highly in The Night Climbers of Cambridge, an anonymous work from the 1930s that inspired the first urban explorers and placers of traffic cones in high places. Experience the thrill of the night climbers with a trudge up the top of the tower of Great St. Mary’s Church (£4 adults; open until 17.30/16.30 winter). A 123-step spiral staircase leads to a panoramic view across the college rooftops, and the chance to catch the winter sunset over the city.
Cambridge has an abundance of exceptional museums, catering for almost every interest, but a true explorer would be most interested in those that inspire with stories of adventures and reveal insights into our understanding of the earth, the creatures we share our planet with, and our own beautiful and diverse cultures. All listed below are free to visit.
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the north pole
Polar Museum at Scott Polar Research Institute
In 19012 Robert Falcon Scott and his team reached the South Pole, only to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had reached first, almost five weeks earlier. Scott and his entire polar party died on their return trek to base. The Polar Museum is part of the Scott Polar Institute, founded from part of the relief fund established in the wake of that fateful expedition as a memorial to the explorer, and now a global leader in the fields of climate science and glaciology.
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the north pole
Mural at the Scott Polar Research Centre depicting the earth viewed from the south pole
If, like me, you’re a fan of tragic explorers who had to eat their boots to survive an icy death, this is your spiritual home. It gathers together artifacts and material that tell tales of hostile conditions, tireless tenacity, and survival against the odds (balanced with stories of heroic failure), focusing on the feats of the likes of Scott, Shackleton, Franklin, Peary, Amundsen, and Nansen (my hero). The collections include photographs and sketches, clothing and equipment, journals and letters.
Alongside the relics of exploration and discovery, the museum holds a collection of items revealing the material culture of Arctic peoples. Scrimshaw (etched bone or ivory)from Siberia. A knife with a reindeer horn handle, a harness and traces for a reindeer-drawn sled, and skis from Sápmi (Northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula). Beaded and embroidered kamiks (soft-soled boots) stitched from sealskin, a kayak covered with drum-tight skin, and several examples of tupilak, figures carved from walrus ivory and inhabited by a magical lifeforce, from Greenland.
But by far the most affecting items** are the letters written by the expedition chief scientist, Edward Wilson, to the family of Lawrence Oates, and from Scott himself, to his wife and young son, Peter.
Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.
Robert Falcon Scott
**I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences
The oldest and most traditional of the University of Cambridge museums, the Sedgewick Museum was established in 1728 and looks as though it hasn’t changed since. Think tweed, dust, and glass-fronted cabinets filled with curios that take you through the 4.5 billion year history of time, Darwin’s favourite rocks, dinosaurs, Mary Anning‘s interesting things, and a metre-long model of the Burgess Shale Hallucigenia***.
***If the words Cambrian Explosion don’t make you just a tiny bit excited, are we even friends?
Museum of Zoology
Recently renovated, this museum is filled with collections that reveal stories of survival and evolution, exploration and extinction across the animal kingdom. These include specimens gathered on expedition by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, creatures amassed from hydrothermal vents by ROV, and the strawberry-pink deep ocean Goblin Shark, harvested from your worst nightmares. The highlight is the awesome, in the truest sense of the word, skeleton of a Fin Whale, its 21 m (70′) length suspended over the entrance to the museum.
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
This small museum gathers together a diverse selection of art and artefacts from the nearby and faraway, long ago and right now, to tell fascinating stories from human history. Among the most interesting is the collection of material from the Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook in the 1770s, which sits alongside more contemporary items from the region to illustrate the movement and migration, and relationship with the environment, of Pasifika peoples.
This fabulous museum is stuffed with art and antiquities from around the world, and an excellent way to while away a rainy day. The galleries hold thousands of treasures ranging from illuminated medieval manuscripts, sculptures from ancient Mediterranean civilisations through to Barbara Hepworth, works by Dutch Masters, French Impressionists, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and an extensive collection of watercolours by J.M.W. Turner.
Explore by Bike
After hours poring over museum exhibits, journals, and artifacts to feed your travel inspiration, you may well be in need of some fresh air. Cambridge is Britain’s leading cycling city, with miles of dedicated cycle lanes, riverside and canal paths, and virtually no hills. The council website has maps available to download.
To get around the city there’s a couple of inexpensive cycle hire schemes, such as Mobike and ofo, with plenty available in central locations. Download the app for your chosen scheme, find a bike, scan the code to unlock it. Once you’re done, park the bike up and lock it. Simple.
For adventures further afield, there’s a couple of places where you can pick up a bike for a day’s hire to see more of the Cambridgeshire countryside. The chalk downland of Gog Magog and Wandlebury Country Park may cause you to re-evaluate the idea that there’s no hills in the area, but they make up for it with the view from the top.
Or follow National Cycle Network route 11 to Wicken Fen, a spectacular National Nature Reserve that’s one of the oldest in Britain. The wetlands sparkle in summer with dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies, moths, and an inordinate number of beetles. Look out for herons, hen harriers, kingfishers, and the hardy Konik horses. When the season is right, listen for booming bitterns, drumming snipe, and the plop of a water vole sliding into the water.
Eat and Drink
Aromi, on Bene’t Street, is an awesome Sicilian-Italian bakery, with huge pizza slices, fresh foccacia sandwiches, and an abundance of yummy things. Sit in and linger over a coffee, or pick up a picnic to eat in the park.
Mediterranean Falafel, in the market, makes the tastiest wraps from their awesome falafels. I visited with a vegan Israeli friend who raved about how good the food was, and I feel they are particularly qualified to know good falafel and hummus.
Michaelhouse Café, in a converted medieval church is great for breakfasts and lunches, with a good selection of sandwiches, soups, quiches, and casseroles. Close to the city centre, and a perfect coffee and cake stop between museums and colleges.
Fitzbillies, just over the road from the Fitzwilliam museum, has been a Cambridge institution since the 1920s. Kirsty, the Cake Manager****, suggested I try their famous Chelsea buns, sweet and sticky, and made on site to the same traditional recipe since the first days of Fitzbillies. They also do a full brunch menu and a very sophisticated afternoon tea (with or without a glass of bubbles) of finger sandwiches and scones, but it’s likely you’ll have to wait a while for table space.
The Eagle, a pub on Bene’t Street, is well-known as the place where regulars Francis Crick and James Watson announced that they’d “discovered the secret of life” (sidelining Rosalind Franklin and her vital work in the process). A blue plaque on the wall commemorates the event, as does a beer called DNA.
The Mill, a picturesque pub on the banks of the Cam near the punting stations, has a great selection of craft beers, traditional pub food, and board games.
The Maid’s Head, on the village green in Wicken, is a traditional thatched pub dating from the 13th century. It’s the sort of place to drink real ales, tuck into a ploughman’s lunch and watch cricket being played.
****Cake Manger #lifegoals
Have you visited Cambridge yet?
What would you recommend that visitors should see or do?
Though I’m not a fan of making New Year’s resolutions, especially not of the New Year New You variety*, or keeping a bucket list of travels, adventures and destinations, I do find it useful to make a short list of things I hope to do over the next year. It’s a simple exercise, and I scribble down notes in my journal to look back at through the year and help me focus on what’s important.
*breaking them is usually much more enjoyable, and far more achievable.
My goals for 2019
Live more sustainably. And travel sustainably as possible too. Without getting overly morose, the clock is ticking and time to act is short. A report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last autumn warned that we have only twelve years to ensure global warming is kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even a further half a degree will significantly affect the impacts of drought, extreme heat, flooding, and storms, on people and our planet.
Habitats and ecosystems are diminishing, oceans are overwhelmed with plastics, and species are disappearing. And the vast gulf of inequality that exists between the poor and the wealthy means many millions of people on this planet will suffer terribly before I am more than inconvenienced.
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
Do a long-distance hike. I think you learn so much more when you travel through a landscape at walking pace. I’m going to be taking part in the TGO Challenge in May, a backpacking challenge to cross Scotland on foot from the west coast to the east coast, wild camping as I go. I’m planning on taking 12 days to complete the hike, so I’ll be looking to build up to that with shorter hikes over the next few months.
Watch the stars. It means spending more time outdoors, away from the distraction of TV and the internet, and venturing out into wilder, more remote areas, where views of the night skies are unbroken by light pollution.
Dive. I’m a qualified scuba diver, actually a BSAC Dive Leader (roughly equivalent of a PADI Dive Master), with over a hundred logged dives. But it’s been years since I’ve been in the water, after suffering a dental barotrauma** on a training dive in Stoney Cove. I’m well out of practice and all my kit is out of test, but I love being underwater and want to get back to it so much.
**Pressure changes and a badly-done filling by my dentist resulted in a cracked tooth. Which then led to root canal treatment, almost eighteen months of faffing about, and a huge amount of anxiety about being in the water. Then I split up with my main dive buddy, and everything was shelved for another few years.
Do something new every month. Taking pressure off the beginning of the year, this will give me the chance to focus on something different every month; a brand new experience or challenge, learning new skills, or putting things I already know to the test.
So here’s to the New Year, full of things that have never been, and all the things that are yet to come.
What plans do you have for 2019? Do you make a list for reference too?