Armchair Travel: 10 books telling the stories of cities

A selection of some of the best books that dive deeply into the daily lives of cities and the hidden worlds that lie within.

This instalment of Armchair Travel dives deeply into cities around the globe through rich and engaging histories, compelling travelogues, and works of fiction where the city setting is as much a character as the protagonists. These books really are the essence of armchair travel, capturing the character of a place and time yet unvisited.

Here are 10 of the best books that explore cities around the world, plus a bonus that looks into what makes an urban environment so alluring.
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Five Reasons Why You Should Explore Cities on Foot

There’s something about walking. Studies continually show us that walking can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, in addition to the benefits to physical health from moving our bodies just to get around.

Cities, generally, are designed to be walked. Walking means we can dictate our own tour schedules, with no peak time travel charge, and possibilities open up beyond bus stops, tram routes, and metro stations. choosing to skip out on places or stop and linger longer. It means a journey from A to B can be just that, or run through the entire alphabet of diversions en route as we invent our own routes and build new connections.

The distinctive structure of V&A Dundee, a world-class design museum that was part of the revitalisation of the Scottish city.

I think there’s so much to be gained from setting out to stretch our legs and test our bearings whenever we visit new places, or become reacquainted with the old familiar streets.  Here are my five top reasons why exploring cities on foot is the way to go.

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What I’ve been reading this season | Summer 2021

Climate Crisis

Our climate change turning point is right here, right now.

An article by Rebecca Solnit that examines our inability to recognise the impending climate crisis without a tangible catastrophe as we make our transition into the anthropocene era.

Just how historic was Western Canada’s heat wave? Nothing can compare.

An article from The Tyee outlining the devastating impact of the “heat dome” conditions experienced in North America in June and July 2021.

A heatwave thawed Siberia’s tundra. Now, it’s on fire.

A National Geographic article examining the devastating impact of fire in the boreal forests and tundra peatland regions of northern Siberia, ecosystems that lie over frozen permafrost soils.

We’re here to see the Great Doomed Thing.

A heartfelt longform essay by Robert Moor reconciling personal tragedy, as his partner survives a near-death experience, with a recuperation visit to a fragile ecosystem, and examining the idea that travel is heavy with personal meaning and ecological consequence.

Rewilding and Regeneration

Regeneration at Mar Lodge Estate.

Andrew Painting, Seasonal Ecologist for National Trust for Scotland at Mar Lodge Estate, the largest National Nature Reserve in the UK, located in the heart of the Cairngorms, describes the changes happening on a walk in Glen Quoich, Clais Fhearnaig and Glen Lui.

The Bleak Industrial Beauty of Scotland’s Heather Moorlands.

In an extract from his latest book, Stephen Rutt examines the intensive management of heather moorland for grouse shooting through muirburn, and the impact on the ecology of our uplands.

The Willow Walk: Why a team of volunteers carried 3,000 saplings into the Cairngorms

At the beginning of June, on a sparklingly clear day, I was one of the volunteers to lend a hand to transporting a few thousand downy willow saplings over the Cairngorm plateau to their new home in the Loch Avon basin. Sydney Henderson of Cairngorms Connect describes the project.

Let Kinloch Castle fall into curated decay, and become the ruin Scotland needs.

An interesting proposal from Fraser Macdonald, to recognise the continued costly upkeep of a piece of built heritage, a decadent folly, is unsustainable, and a move to managed decline, curated decay, would seem logical. And might just rock the established order in heritage conservation.

The Great Outdoors

New to outdoor adventure in Britain? Here’s how to keep yourself safe.

An excellent article by Ash Routen encouraging us to take responsibility for their own safety in the outdoors and develop a sense of self reliance as they push their boundaries. Timely too, with the number of people discovering their love of hillwalking, camping, and other outdoor activities on the increase.

‘It is treated as a commodity to be conquered.’ Can mountain tourism ever be truly sustainable?

A thoughtful piece on the damage caused to fragile mountain environments by mass tourism by Nick Drainey, and a potential slow travel solution in the form of the ecomuseum concept.

Connecting People and Places: A Policy Statement on Rangering in Scotland

A document produced by Nature Scot on the tangible benefits of an effective family of Ranger services across Scotland.

What I’ve loved this season | Summer 2021

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

In early June, I was part of a team from the Cairngorms Connect project partners that carried 3,000 tiny trees up onto the Cairngorm plateau, to their new home in the Loch Avon basin. The downy willow (Salix lapponum) saplings are rare trees, which can survive in the low temperatures and high winds, and an important species in the montane scrub habitat of the upper slopes of the mountains.

Laden down with willow saplings on the plateau.

Grazing pressure from deer and other animals mean only a few scattered plants remain, often in the most inaccessible locations, and too isolated from each other to guarantee successful reproduction. The idea behind planting the new saplings is to give the species a fighting chance, and attempt to safeguard the future of the montane scrub zone as part of a larger-scale habitat regeneration project. Read more about our day here.

The crags of Hell’s Lum and the Allt Coire Domhain in spate with snowmelt.
Looking back down into the Loch Avon basin at the tiny patch of green of the willows cached for planting the following day.
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Round the World Recipes: Greek Spanakopita

While international travel isn’t possible, I’ve been playing around in my home kitchen and recreating some of my favourite foods from around the world.  I thought my take on Spanakopita, a Greek spinach and feta pie, would make a great second summery serving of my Round the World Recipes.

What is spanakopita?

A real Greek classic, spanakopita is a delicious savoury pie found in every bakery in Greece and features on the menu in most tavernas. Made with earthy-tasting spinach leaves, sweet sautéed onion, and salty-sharp feta cheese sandwiched in crispy-crunchy filo pastry, it’s actually really simple to cook but looks like you’ve made a great deal of effort in the kitchen.

Once you’ve mastered the basic recipe, there’s plenty of opportunity to get creative, and play around with different flavours and techniques. Try other green leafy vegetables, using leeks rather than onions, or adding other cheeses like ricotta or halloumi. Or try using different herbs depending on your taste.

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Gear Review | Alpkit Numo Sleeping Mat

Whether or not you get a good night of sleep (or even just a series of small naps during the darker hours) on a backpacking trip has a real impact on how much you enjoy the experience. A comfortable sleeping mat helps with rest and recovery at the end of a long day of walking or biking, turning your multi-day expedition into an enjoyable undertaking, letting you push yourself on a personal challenge, rather than make an arduous slog back to civilisation.

So what am I looking for in an inflatable sleeping mat? Mostly I want to be able to have a comfortable night of sleep*, without my hips sinking through to touch the ground. I want to be able to move in my sleep without it rustling like I’m sleeping in an empty crisp packet. And I want it to be lightweight and packable for backpacking and bikepacking trips.

*I’m not expecting it to silence the cuckoo that starts to call from around 3am anywhere in Scotland where you can see a tree during May and June.

How I tested the Alpkit Numo

I tested the Alpkit Numo with a strenuous overnight camp on the living room floor, followed by a few cheeky bivvies in locations I won’t divulge as wild camping was not permitted. After that I took it as part of my kit to complete the TGO Challenge coast to coast crossing of Scotland in May 2019, using it for 10 of the 11 days I took to complete my route.

Testing out the Alpkit Numo sleeping mat in a camp at the end of the garden.

Product description

The Alpkit Numo is a compact and lightweight inflatable sleeping mat. The dimensions are 180cm x 48cm, tapering to 43cm at the foot, and it weighs in at just 375 grams (including the stuffsack and repair kit).

Once inflated it provides 8.5cm of cushioning. The mat is inflated by blowing through a single valve, and it’s claimed just 12 breaths will inflate the chambers sufficiently to give a comfortable fill.

The Numo is constructed from quite rugged-feeling  TPU coated ripstop nylon, with some insulating hollowfill fibre in the upper part of the mat. With no foam inside, the Numo rolls up into a stuffsack giving a compact package 21cm x 8cm diameter (slightly larger than a can of cider, just a little smaller than a bottle of red wine).

Field results

Inflating the mat takes a lot of puff, and left me a little light headed after a long day of walking in the sun across Rannoch Moor, but it was pretty quick to prepare my bed for the night. The fabric and construction feels quite rugged and resistant to abrasion, but as an air mat, would be vulnerable to puncture by a sharp stone or twig.

The six large air chambers run lengthways on the mat, and the outer chambers are slightly larger to keep you quite central. The thickness of the mat means even side sleepers will be comfortable lying on it, and it didn’t rustle or crinkle during the night.

I’m really not so tall, just 1.67 metres (that’s 5’5.5″, and half is very important), so the length of the mat at 1.80 metres was perfect for me to sleep in my usual way like a sprawling starfish or the outline of body at a crime scene. If you’re much taller or broader, you may find it’s a little too short for you.

There’s some hollow fibre insulation in the upper part of the mat, but that’s all the Numo provides. However, I found it was fine during some frosty nights in early spring in Scotland, with the coldest temperatures dropping to around -5°C overnight. Any colder, or in snowy conditions, I’d try it in combination with a closed cell foam mat for additional insulation from the ground.

Two days before the end of the TGO Challenge, my mat developed a slow air leak that left me lying on the ground during the night, but thankfully insulated by the rum consumed in the Mason’s at Tarfside. Once I got home and located the leak, I was able to use the repair kit and a youtube film to patch the puncture, and so far, it’s still holding.

If my repair hadn’t worked, Alpkit offer a 3-year warranty to repair or replace the product, and have a repair station that can attempt a fix outwith that period.

Worth the money?

Absolutely. There’s no similar product available anywhere near as low cost as the Alpkit Numo, so though it’s not perfect, for backpackers on a budget, it’s ideal.

My bothy bed for the night, using the footprint of my tent to protect the sleeping mat from splinters in the table.

Conclusion

While it might be possible to find other inflatable mats that are lighter and warmer, there’s nothing else I’ve seen that matches the size and weight with the low price, making it a great budget option and a gateway into the world of lightweight camping.

The construction of the Numo feels like it would be quite resistant to wear and tear, and last well, but it’s also vulnerable to punctures that would leave you lying on the ground with no insulation. So with the caveat that care needs to be taken when locating your sleeping spot for the night, I would recommend it to backpackers and bikepackers for three seasons of expedition use.

Disclaimer: I bought the Alpkit Numo sleeping mat with my own money after all the bills were paid. This is my honest review after several months of use.

If you’ve got any questions about finding a sleeping mat to suit you, leave a message in the comments below.
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Armchair Travel: 10 of the best books about cycling adventures

A selection of some of the best books about cycling adventures and exploring the world by bike.

This instalment of Armchair Travel sets out on a two-wheeled adventure, looking at some of the best books about exploring the world by bicycle. These books capture the beauty and simplicity of a self-propelled adventure, whether you’re planning to take inspiration for your own trip or just travel vicariously and avoid being saddle-sore at the end of the day.

Here are 10 of my favourite books about engaging pedal-power and travelling on two-wheels.
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What I’ve been reading this season | Spring 21

Walking

How 2020 became the year of the walker

In this article, Alan Franks explores how the shrinking of our personal geographies imposed by travel bans and lockdown restrictions to manage the Covid-19 pandemic played out with a deeper, more textured connection built through local walking.

Is walking the most adventurous way to travel?

Leon McCarron shares experiences and lessons learned from many miles travelled on foot, including the idea that walking connects conversations as much as places.

Werner Herzog: ‘The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot’

An interview with Herzog about his friendship with travel writer, fellow walker, and subject of his latest film, Bruce Chatwin. The piece explores the idea that the focus of travel should be on the pursuit of curiosity and ideas, rather than arrival in the destination.

“Walking” by Henry David Thoreau

A classic essay by Thoreau, first published in 1862. A long and absorbing read from one of the key figures in the development of nature writing.  Make yourself a coffee and settle in, and I’d be interested to hear your take on this in the comments below.

Winter

Having a miserable winter? Go for a walk

A piece by Dan Rubinstein with a Canadian perspective on walking through the winter in a landscape shaped by Covid-19, and the opportunities moving slowly through our surroundings can bring.

The positivity we feel during or after a walk, no matter the weather, isn’t happenstance. Rather, it’s the result of how our brains respond to natural environments, including tiny pockets of urban green space, and how we process information accumulated at a pedestrian four to six kilometres per hour.

Following Footprints

Tracing tracks and trails left in the snow gives Ben Dolphin an insight into the winter habits of local wildlife on a snowshoeing trek near his home in Fife. A taste of what this incredibly snowy winter was like while we languished in lockdown.

Snowshoes in Scotland – More than just a novelty?

A guide to getting out into the Scottish hills on snowshoes by Alex Roddie, including what to look for when buying a pair.

Country Diary: Following in the Footsteps of Nan Shepherd

Winter wanders around Creag Dubh in the Cairngorms connect Merryn Glover with the rich details found in the work of Nan Shepherd.

Women Outdoors

The shocking murder of Sarah Everard, who went missing in London in early March 2001 after walking home alone from seeing a friend, raised a huge amount of discussion in online forums and prompted some thoughtful responses examining the experience of women taking part in outdoor activities, particularly when solo or in isolated locations.

Sarah Everard: Why women shouldn’t have to risk their freedom for safety

Some great analysis of advice given to women, personal safety strategies, and the conflicts and complexities that exist in the discussion and development of solutions from The Conversation.

If anything is going to change, a dramatic culture shift is needed. The widespread prevalence of violence and harassment also needs to be acknowledged – and challenged – without putting the responsibility on women.

Reclaim these Peaks – Women’s Safety Outdoors is Everyone’s Problem

Ruth Keely shares responses from conversations on social media, and examines how the perception of threat from harassment and violence results in women altering or mitigating their participation in activities.

The BAME Women Making the Outdoors More Inclusive

An article from the Guardian profiling three inspiring women, Zahrah Mahmood, Riane Fatinikun, and Omie Dale, who challenge us to recognise additional barriers to accessing to the countryside exist for women of colour, and are challenging perceptions, encouraging participation, and making the outdoors more inclusive.

Our outdoors are for everyone. Safe, enjoyable access to outdoor space should not be a privilege.

What I’ve loved this season | Spring 2021

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

At the end of March I packed up my stuff to move house again, after a winter in Aberdeen, to relocate to Ballater, in the heart of the area I cover as part of my job as a seasonal ranger for the Cairngorms National Park. I’m glad to be back on Deeside, and have some fantastic locations to visit available right from my doorstep.

The weather early in spring was stunning; bright warm afternoons following crisp mornings where the temperatured dropped below freezing overnight. Perfect conditions to get out on some of the walks around Ballater, like the Seven Bridges route along the side of the River Dee.

Stopping by a pool on the riverside in Strathdee, near Braemar, to listen to the frog chorus. It’s hard to make out in the picture, but I counted over one hundred toads in the pool.
A wander up Glen Ey, near Braemar. Despite the low cloud and occasional drizzle, some excellent wildlife sightings from ground-nesting wading birds to soaring raptors overhead.
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Cairngorms Walks: The Seven Bridges Walk in Ballater, Aberdeenshire

Ballater, in Aberdeenshire, is a gateway to the Cairngorms National Park and a popular base for visitors looking to explore the Eastern Cairngorms and Royal Deeside areas. The picturesque town arranged in a grid around a large green on the banks of the impressive River Dee, has longstanding royal connections, a rich and interesting history, and good access to the more wilder parts of the countryside.

The view along the River Dee to the west of Ballater.

The River Dee rises high on the Cairngorm Plateau, tumbling around 137km (85 miles) down to the sea in Aberdeen. It has the reputation as one of the finest salmon fishing rivers anywhere in the world, and is a protected area for wildlife, like the salmon, otters, and freshwater pearl mussels found in its waters. The area on the south side of the river is also protected in recognition of its importance for golden eagles.

This walk shows off some of the most beautiful landscapes of the middle reaches of the River Dee, and had some excellent opportunities for spotting wildlife.

The Seven Bridges Walk from Ballater

  • Route length: 8.7km (5.4 miles) circular route
  • Ascent: 126 metres (413′)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 – 2.5 hours
  • Difficulty: easy

A  circular walk along the River Dee to Polhollick suspension bridge from Ballater, with an optional diversion to Knock Castle. You can find more details about the route, including a map, on my ViewRanger.

The Old Railway Station in Ballater, where the walking route begins and ends.

From the tourist information centre in the old railway station in Ballater, head through the town southeast along Bridge Street, towards the bridge over the River Dee onto South Deeside Road. The Royal Bridge, opened by Queen Victoria in 1885 and surviving a number of great floods on the river, is bridge number one on the walk.

The River Dee from the Royal Bridge in Ballater

Directly across the junction is a fingerpost sign marking a well-surfaced trail into the woods; follow that up a short rise then turn to your right to find the route towards Bridge of Muick, marked with blue waymarks. Do not walk along the roadside here, as it is a winding country road with no safe footway for at least one kilometre.

Follow the trail through the woods for a short distance to reach the huge pink granite edifice of the Mackenzie Monument, with views across the River Dee to Ballater. It commemorates Sir Allan Russell Mackenzie, 2nd Baronet of Glenmuick, who was closely involved in civic improvements in Ballater and a good friend of the royal neighbours at Balmoral.

The Mackenzie Monument overlooking Ballater and the distinctive pudding-bowl shape of Craigendarroch beyond.

After approximately 1km, the route joins the road for a short distance by the cottages to cross the second bridge, over Brackley Burn, before joining a track running parallel to the road for around 200 metres. At the end of the track, the route emerges on a bend in the road just before Bridge of Muick, the third bridge on the route. A large plaque on the corner notes that on this spot in 1899, Queen Vic, in the company of Sir Allan of the monument, inspected the local regiment, the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders, prior to their deployment to South Africa in the Boer War.

The route follows the straight road for around 700m to a junction with a gravel road just before Dalliefour farm, passing fields often used for grazing heilan coos, those photogenic shaggy-haired highland cattle, both with the more familiar red-dun and traditional black coats. At this point you can make a diversion to Knock Castle, a 16th century ruin with a colourful history, adding an extra 2km to the route, or continue along the gravel road towards Polhollick.

Highland cattle grazing on the riverside, with a view of Craigendarroch beyond.

The gravel road runs almost dead straight towards the forestry plantation of Dalliefour Woods (also spelled Dallyfour and Dalhefour within the space of two grid squares on the OS Map), passing another field of coos, and the tiny wee cottage that is my dream house. The track has great views over to Ballater, nestled under the oak-clad slopes of Craigendarroch, and is always a good location to look out for raptors, hares, and roe deer.

The route through the pine plantation wood between Dalliefour and Polhollick.

At the far edge of the wood the white-painted suspension bridge of Pollhollick comes into view, bridge number five (the fourth is an indistinct culvert on the forestry road, over a small burn running from behind Knock Castle). The bridge was fabricated by Abernethy and Co of Aberdeen in 1892, who produced several similar suspension bridges that cross the Dee, and gifted to the local people by Alexander Gordon of Kent. It was seriously damaged in the extreme flooding that followed Storm Frank in December 2015, but is now fully restored.

Polhollick Suspension Bridge

Over the bridge, the track dog-legs away from the river towards the main A93 road. Cross the road, and follow the waymarking to pick up a track that runs along the top of the embankment parallel to the road. Descend the steps to cross the A939 at the junction, and continue on the track for another 250 metres, emerging on the side of the A93 at Bridge of Gairn. Cross the road, then the sixth bridge on the walk, to find a waymarked track between the houses and farm buildings.

The narrow footpath becomes a wide, well-surfaced track leading the last kilometre and a half back into Ballater along the riverside. It was intended to hold the final stretch of the Deeside railway line towards Crathie and Braemar, but due to Victoria’s objection, it was never constructed. The final bridge on the route is a small wooden bridge that crosses a steep drop down to the water, known as Postie’s Leap. According to local legend, a postman fell or leapt to his doom after being jilted the night before the wedding. It’s a beautiful viewpoint back along the River Dee.

Looking back along the final section of the trail through the oakwood at the foot of Craigendarroch.

From the edge of town you have two options: continue on the riverside footpath around the back of the golf course towards the caravan park, or follow the track towards the houses to meet the roads that will lead you back towards the Old Railway Station.

There are several cafes and coffee shops in Ballater where you can find post-walk refreshments, such as The Bothy and the Bridge House Cafe, though some close for winter. There’s also the Balmoral Bar, if you’re in need of something stronger, and Shorty’s Ice Cream Parlour, for a sweet treat on a hot day.

Knock Castle Extension:

Knock Castle is a ruined, but still imposing, 16th century towerhouse, in a commanding location below the Crag of Knock, overlooking the River Dee and guarding the entrances to Glen Muick. Knock was home the Gordon family, who held a longstanding blood feud with their neighbours, the Forbes family. It is typical of the homes of the landed gentry of the time, and visible beneath the windows are shot holes for defensive pistol fire to deter raiders.

The ruins of Knock Castle.

On one winter trip to cut peats for fuel, the sons of the families met in a violent clash, which left all seven of the Gordon lads dead. Their severed heads were displayed on their peat cutters as a warning to those that might think to cross the Forbes’. Overcome on hearing the news, their grief-stricken father tumbled down the turnpike staircase to his death, ending the family line.

Rather than following waymarks at the junction near Dalliefour Farm, continue along the road for around 400m to where the road bends to the left. Follow the rough grassy track leading uphill into the woods, where it meets a gravel road and you’ll have a first glimpse of the castle. Follow the gravel road westward for around 300m to find a stile that gives access to the field surrounding the castle. Retrace your steps back to Dalliefour to resume the circular walk. The diversion adds around 2k.5 to the total length of the walk.

What to look out for around Ballater

In town: Impressive buildings constructed from local granite; royal accreditation on shop fronts; numerous connections to Queen Victoria; the sweet scent of Deeside Confectioners, an old-fashioned sweetie shop near the Old Railway Station; the sound of bagpipes.

On the hills: A glimpse of dark Lochnagar beyond the hills that guard the entrance to Glen Muick; the bellowing of rutting red deer stags in autumn; distant golden and white-tailed eagles; the steep track up Creag Dubh used in the Highland games hill race.

In the fields: Charismatic heilan coos (highland cows), both with the familiar red-dun coats and more traditional long black coats; big, glossy black Aberdeen-Angus cows; the flash of white that signals roe deer scarpering into the distance; red kites hovering overhead and buzzards perched on fence posts.

The rounded hilltop of Craigendarroch seen from the Seven Bridges walking route.

In the forest: Old oaks at the foot of Craigendarroch; jays and red squirrels making acorn stashes for winter; fantastic fungi formations; plantations of Scots pine at Dalliefour; buzzards resting on high branches; blaeberries and lingonberries among the heather in the understory.

By the river: Salmon making their way upstream, especially between August and November; ospreys fishing; riverside birds like dippers and kingfishers; sand martin roosts in sandy riverbanks.

Getting to Ballater

Ballater is approximately 40 miles west of Aberdeen and 18 miles east of Braemar. The 201 bus service from Aberdeen bus station connects towns and villages along the A93 as far as the village of Braemar.

The view upriver from Royal Bridge in Ballater

There is a large capacity for free parking in the town, making it an ideal base to leave vehicles and explore further afield by bicycle and on foot, especially into rural areas with limited parking like Glen Muick. Electric vehicle charging is available in Ballater.

Route 195 of the National Cycle Network connects Ballater to Aberdeen and other towns and villages on Deeside, on a largely off-road route along the Deeside Way. The multi-use long distance trail follows the route of the old Deeside railway line from Aberdeen to Ballater.

What else do you need to know?

The route is marked along its length, so a map isn’t essential, however it’s good practice to have one with you for longer walks. Simple maps with the route can be picked up from the tourist information centre at the Old Railway Station in Ballater, or you can use OS Explorer 388: Lochnagar, Glen Muick and Glen Clova.

While out walking in the countryside, you should follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the advice of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and local landowners on any signs.

Want to try this walking route for yourself? Find the details on ViewRanger.
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