8 Great Day Hikes in Scotland (but not the Ben)

Few countries can match Scotland for a landscape so wildly beautiful and dramatic; sweeping glens, rugged peaks, historic castles, and ancient forests make it an irresistible draw for hikers.  And even the notoriously fickle Scottish weather can’t detract from the hauntingly bleak splendour of the landscape.

The most mountainous terrain in the British and Irish Isles, Scotland has 282 munros, mountains over the magic 914 metres (3000′), named for Sir Hugh Munro, compiler of the first list, inspiring many hikers to “bag” the full set.  The best rank among some of the best mountains in the world.  The highest is Ben Nevis at 1345 metres (4412′).

But it isn’t essential to claim the highest summit to reap the rewards of hiking in Scotland.  With thousands of kilometres of coastline, hundreds of islands, lochs, and hills only lesser in height, not character or challenge.  Whichever routes you chose, you’ll be treated to fresh air life, spectacular views, and that feeling of freedom that comes with hiking in wild places.

And the best part is that this is so very accessible here in Scotland, and less than a couple of hours from the biggest cities and towns, it’s possible to feel a sense of remote wilderness.  So get your boots ready for these eight great day hikes, for whichever part of the country you’re visiting.  Or include them in your plans for a Scottish road trip.

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Photo Credit: colinemcbride Flickr on cc

Arthur’s Seat

  • Base: Edinburgh
  • Route length: 5 km (3 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

Right in the heart of Edinburgh, this hike rewards you with awesome panoramic views across Scotland’s capital city and beyond.  Overlooking Edinburgh Castle, the contrasting Old and New Towns, the Scottish Parliament, and down towards the port of Leith, this hike gives a snapshot of Scottish history, and fits easily into a short break to Edinburgh.

The steep slopes of Arthur’s Seat, rising to 255 metres (824′), are the rugged remains of an ancient volcano; the same one that gave rise to the imposing rock on which the Castle sits and dominates the city centre.  Even though you’re never far from an urban street on this hike, don’t underestimate the terrain and be sure to wear suitable footwear.

This hike is also an excuse to take in the Sheep Heid Inn by Duddingston Loch, reputedly the oldest hostelry in Scotland, and where Mary, Queen of Scots used to enjoy the odd game of skittles.

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Photo Credit: Anne Young2014 Flickr on cc

Conic Hill

  • Base: Glasgow or Stirling
  • Route length: 4 km (2.5 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

This small but steep little summit is a perfect introduction to Scottish hillwalking.  Rising just 350 metres (1150′) above Balmaha, in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, the hike is just enough of an adventure for beginners, without being an exhausting expedition.  (Muddy puddles and trickling streams to explore, and a play area and public toilets in Balmaha also help to tempt families to try the route, and the Oak Tree Inn offers a rewarding brew afterwards.)

The ridgeline of Conic Hill follows the line of the Highland Boundary Fault, which also shows as the string of islands in the loch below.  As you ascend, the effort is rewarded with spectacular views across Loch Lomond and some of the grander mountains nearby,; such as Ben Lomond, the Cobbler (Ben Arthur), and the Arrochar Alps.

Conic Hill lies alongside the route of the West Highland Way long distance trail between Milngavie and Fort William, so watching hikers striding up under big packs makes your daypack seem like nothing, and the challenge very achievable.

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Photo Credit: Alan Burkwood Flickr on cc

Loch an Eilein, Rothiemurchus Forest

  • Base: Aviemore
  • Route length: 7 km (4.5 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: easy

In the heart of Rothiemurchus Forest, in the Cairngorms National Park, the circular low-level hike around Loch an Eilein is stunningly beautiful, and a superb route for walking (or toddling) with the family.  Gnarled granny pines, dark mountains, and a ruined 13th century castle are reflected in the waters of the loch that was once the secret hideaway of rogues and cattle rustlers.

The pinewoods are home to native wildlife such as red squirrels, crested tits, endemic Scottish crossbills, and the comical capercaillie, and when the sun goes down, pine martens and elusive Scottish wildcats stalk the woods.  The walk can be extended to take in Loch Gamhna, a quieter but muddier trail, or a short ascent to Ord Ban to drink in the spectacular views of the tundra-clad Cairn Gorm plateau, Caledonian pinewoods, and sparkling jewel-like lochs.

This might be one of the easier hikes on the list, but it will fulfil all your romantic dreams of Scotland, whether you’re Princess Merida saving the day or wishing for an encounter with a dashing highland warrior after falling through a hole in space-time.  And it gives you plenty of time to go for an ice cream in Miele’s Gelateria back in Aviemore at the end of the day.

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Photo Credit: agprysw Flickr on cc

Old Man of Hoy and Rackwick Glen

  • Base: Stromness, Orkney
  • Route length: 16.5 km (10.25 miles), or 9.25 km (5.75 miles) short option
  • Approximate hiking time: 5 hours
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

Hoy is the “high island” of Orkney, taking its name from Old Norse, and reflecting the wild, steep sided hills and sheer sea cliffs, some of the most impressive in the British and Irish Isles.  In particular, the iconic sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy; its 137 metre (449′) walls were scaled live on the BBC back in the 1960’s, and it continues to attract climbers today.

From the passenger ferry at Moaness, take the island minibus to the crofting township of Rackwick.  A well defined path leads along the cliff tops, where you’ll catch sight of the stack rising out of the Pentland Firth, and, in the right season, the abundance of seabirds whirling around it; fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins, black guillemots, razorbills, and formidable bonxies (great skuas).  Look out for hunting peregrine falcons too.

On return to Rackwick, follow the road from the hostel to find the trail through Rackwick Glen.  Look out for Arctic skuas and Arctic terns, which may come closer than you’d like, and listen for the mournful calls of red-throated divers on Sandy Loch.   As well as birdlife, you can also expect to see a wealth of colourful wild flowers and the northernmost native woodland in the UK.  And if you time it well, you’ll catch the café for a cuppa and fancy piece in Moaness while you wait on your return ferry.

This hike has an option for a shorter walk, out and back to the Old Man from Rackwick only, taking the Hoy minibus to and from the ferry at Moaness.  Book your return with the driver, especially outside of the summer season.

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Photo Credit: pauldunn52 Flickr on cc

Stac Pollaidh (Stack Polly)

  • Base: Ullapool
  • Route length: 4.5 km (2.75 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 4 hours **
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Stac Pollaidh is only small in mountain terms, but it soars 612 metres (2008′) in splendid isolation over the flat lands of Assynt, the suddenness of its eruption from the emptiness creating an otherworldly feel in the landscape.  Its glacially smoothed flanks are topped with a distinctive rocky crest, carved into a series of pinnacles and steep gullies.

This is only a short hike, but the steep and winding trail is challenging, and the true summit at the western end of the ridge needs scrambling skills to reach.  But the effort is more than worth it, as the panoramic views from the ridge are spectacular.  To the south and west, you’ll see the rugged coastline around Achiltibuie and the Summer Isles, and to the north, across the wild watery wilderness of Inverpolly Nature Reserve, lie the unmistakable mountains of Suliven and Cùl Mòr.

Its easy roadside location has led to an erosion problem on the lower parts of the hill, so please stick to the surfaced trail to reach the higher ground.  The remote location means there’s no local pub or café to repair to at the end of the hike, so you could try Am Fuaran in Altandhu or the Ferry Boat Inn in Ullapool.

**Summer conditions

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Photo Credit: GDSinclair Flickr on cc

The Cobbler (Ben Arthur)

  • Base: Glasgow or Stirling
  • Route length: 11km (7 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 5 hours **
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Heading northwards, Loch Lomond crosses the Highland Boundary Fault and is squeezed between increasingly imposing mountains.  The Arrochar Alps on the western side are a group of very steep and rocky mountains with real character. The Cobbler, also known as Ben Arthur, is the most distinctive.

At 884 metres (2900′), it falls short of Munro status, but isn’t a small hill, and its otherworldly outline of rocky buttresses and rugged peak draws attention from its taller neighbours.  Dominating the skyline over Arrochar, the rocky summit is said to resemble a cobbler at work on his bench, giving the hill its popular nickname.

The true summit of the Cobbler is a rocky pinnacle, reached by squeezing through a triangular hole in the base on to a narrow, nerve-wracking ledge, in a move that’s known as threading the needle.  After traversing the ledge, there’s a short scramble to the top.  This isn’t for the faint-of-heart, and great care should be taken in wet conditions.

However, on a clear day the views are just as impressive from the base of the pinnacle, looking out along Loch Long across the Arrochar Alps.  Be sure to glance back at the dramatic profile of the Cobbler on your descent, and end the day in Ben Arthur’s Bothy, soaking in the lochside views with your pint.

**Summer conditions

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Photo Credit: Robert F. Stokes Flickr on cc

Lochnagar

  • Base: Aberdeen
  • Route length: 19 km (12 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 7 hours **
  • Difficulty: hard

Immortalised in verse by Lord Byron as Dark Lochnagar, it is often considered to be one of the most beautiful of all Scottish mountains, although Queen Victoria had a different impression of the summit; “it was cold, wet and cheerless, and the wind was blowing a hurricane“; no doubt, she was not amused.

Lying entirely within the Royal Balmoral Estate, Lochnagar is best reached by hiking from Spital of Glenmuick, through ancient Caledonian pine forest and by hunting lodges favoured by royalty.  On the ascent to the plateau, it’s worth pausing at the bealach (narrow pass) before the boulder field known as the Ladder, to take in views of the northern corrie, an imposing rocky wall cradling a lochan in its curve.

The rocky outcrop of Cac Carn Beag, the true summit of Lochnagar, has spectacular panoramic views across Royal Deeside, the Cairngorms, and the Mounth.  A steep descent past Glas Allt falls leads to the Royal Lodge at Glas-allt-Shiel and the shore of Loch Muick.

The summit plateau has few distinctive features, and a steep northern edge, so excellent mountain navigation skills are needed in poor visibility conditions.  An alternative hike would be to follow the low level circular trail around Loch Muick beloved of Queen Vic, in the shadow of the towering mountain cliffs, followed by a tour of Royal Lochnagar Distillery and a wee dram in the tasting rooms.

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Photo Credit: Hazel Strachan Flickr on cc

Ring of Steall, Mamores

  • Base: Fort William
  • Route length: 16km (10 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 12 hours **
  • Difficulty: very hard

Many visitors to Fort William will head straight for Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak at 1345 metres (4412′).  With over 125,000 hikers a year, mainly in the summer months, it can be incredibly busy on the trails.

Experienced mountain hikers might prefer the challenge of the Ring of Steall instead.  A classic mountain route, taking in four Munros; An Gearanach, Stob Choire a Chairn, Am Bodach and Sgurr a’Mhaim, with fantastic ridge walking between peaks.

The hike begins in Glen Nevis, following the trail through the woodland to the narrow Nevis Gorge and impressive Steall Falls.  Your first challenge is tackling the wire bridge spanning the river, before starting the ascent of An Gearanach.  All in all the hike has almost 1700 metres (5580′) of ascent, including some scrambling along narrow, rocky arêtes, and makes for a long, tiring day out.

The ridge is exposed, but has spectacular panoramic views of  some of the best known Scottish mountains, such as Aonach Mor, Aonach Eagach, Stob Ban, the Grey Corries, and of course, Ben Nevis.  Put your feet up and recharge at the end of the hike at the Ben Nevis Inn and Bunkhouse.

Those that can’t spare a whole day in the mountains will enjoy the short hike to the wire bridge and Steall Falls, which were seen in some film about a wizard.  Please note, the edges of the falls can be dangerous and warning signs should not be ignored.

**summer conditions

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Photo Credit: joannamarjaana Flickr on cc

My tips for day hikes in Scotland

Whether you choose to take on one of these day hikes, or one of the many others that Scotland has to offer, there’s a few things that you should bear in mind.

  • Plan your route ahead of the walk.  Not every route is waymarked, so you need to form an idea of what to expect.  ViewRanger with Ordnance Survey Maps is invaluable for reading the terrain, and the Walk Highlands website has excellent route descriptions and photos.
  • Check the weather.  An essential part of preparation, and can be the difference between a rewarding hike or an endurance slog.  I like the Mountain Weather Information Service website and the Yr.no app.
  • Wear the right clothing, as in Scotland it’s entirely possible to experience all four seasons in one day.  Layering your clothes is important, and packing a waterproof jacket and trousers is always a good idea.
  • Pack plenty of water.  It’s important to stay hydrated during physical activity, and you may be out for longer than expected (or just want to make a nice cup of tea with a view while you’re out).
  • Take a map and compass when you head out; not all trails are clearly defined, and you may need to rely on navigation skills in poor visibility.  And GPS is not infallible.
  • If you’re hiking on your own, be sure to let someone know where you’re going, when you plan to return, and when you’re back safely.

Have a look at my packing list for day hikes for some additional tips on what to take.

Winter hiking

Winter hiking in Scotland is a serious business.  Although the hills aren’t that high, conditions can be gnarly and there’s a number of additional hazards you might encounter.  It’s 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 spending additional time assessing information about your chosen route; mountain weather, reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts.  And remembering that sometimes the best decision you make is the one to turn back.

What is your favourite day hike in Scotland?
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What I loved this Spring

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

Freelance work kept me busy through March, but I was able to spend a week away in the South Downs National Park leading a walking holiday.  Wild, windy weather made some of the routes quite challenging, but I was excited to explore a new area.  My favourite walks were on the downs around Arundel, and along the Cuckmere valley to the famous Seven Sisters viewpoint.

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The famous Seven Sisters view from just above the Coastguard Cottages on Seaford Head.

At the beginning of April I moved south to Devon, to start work as part of the crew of the traditional sailing ketch Irene of Bridgwater.  We spent the first part of the season based out of Dartmouth, visiting the nearby ports of Brixham and Salcome regularly, with a one off trip to Weymouth, where we disappeared into the fog.  Taking the lookout on the bow with only around 20 metres visibility, in a 38 metre (124′) ship, is one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done.

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Leading the way out of Weymouth harbour in the fog in the tender, with Irene following close behind.

If you ever plan to visit Dartmouth, be aware that it’s much easier to reach with a boat than on public transport or even by car.  As soon as my leave began in May, it was a rush to head north.  I had to pick up my backpacking kit and make my way to Oban, the starting point I’d chosen for the TGO Challenge.

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A glorious day to go for a walk.  Starting the TGO Challenge in Oban on the 11th of May.

I’d prepared a route to cross Scotland from Oban to my parent’s house on the east coast, planning to walk around 270km (170 miles) in 10 days, before I had to return to the ship at the end of my leave.  The first six days were hot and dry, entirely not what I’d expected for a trekking and camping trip in the highlands.  In fact, I had so much trouble with being out in the direct sunlight for so many hours a day that I switched around my rest days in Pitlochry to buy factor Scots sunblock and a pair of shorts.

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The view from the western shoulder of Schiehallion, looking back along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and the Black Corries.

The second week was much more as I’d expected, with cooler temperatures and drizzle that actually felt refreshing rather than miserable.  I added another rest day to my schedule, as I’d extended my leave for an extra week, so was able to take my time and fit my walking around the weather conditions.  It also meant I was able to catch up with a number of other Challengers in Tarfside on the Tuesday night, which has the reputation of being a fun night, and definitely lived up to it.  You can read more about my TGO challenge adventure here.

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In the col between Dreish and Mayar in poor visibility, about to descend into Glen Doll after an extremely long and tiring day.

Following the TGO Challenge, at the end of May, I had a few days in Northamptonshire taking part in the selection process for what could be some very exciting work in the winter.  As a job interview, it was one of the best and most inspiring I’d ever been to, and the highlight was meeting a group of awesome people that were also on the shortlist.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but competition will be stiff.

My spring love list:

  • Books: I’ve found it hard finding the time to pick up a book in the last couple of months, usually just managing a few pages in bed at the end of a long day.  But I did finish a couple of books: Tristimania by Jay Griffiths, about her experiences with bipolar disorder, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson, the account of an awesome expedition across the Australian desert by camel in the late 1970s.
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Tracks is one of the best books I’ve read, and I thoroughly recommend you pick up a copy.
  • Podcast: I’ve just discovered the wonderful Ologies podcast by Alie Ward, and never before have I known so much about squid.  And I thought I knew a fair bit about squid.  I’ve even been to visit Te Papa in Wellington SPECIFICALLY to see the colossal squid.
  • Clothing: I was desperately in need of a good pair of hiking pants for the TGO Challenge, and took a punt on the Alpkit Chilkoot softshell pants.  My only criticism on them was that they were TOO WARM for the ridiculously hot weather over the first week of the TGO, and I hadn’t bought any shorts with me.
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After ending up thigh-deep in a bog, again, the Alpkit Chilkoot dried quickly and didn’t have their stretchiness compromised by the crispiness of embedded dried peat.
  • Equipment: I’m still not completely enamoured of my Wild Country Zephyros 1 tent; I think I’m just not getting something right with tensioning the flysheet.  I didn’t encounter high winds during the TGO fortunately,  so I’ve got to keep trying to figure it out.
  • However, I absolutely love my Leki Makalu hiking poles.  They proved themselves to be essential during the TGO, especially for hauling myself out of various bogs, over peat hags, and supporting my knees on steep descents.  Do you hike with poles? This post has a few reasons why you should give it a go.
  • Treats: Not so much of a treat as a staple part of my TGO challenge diet: crunchy peanut butter, eaten straight out of the jar with my spork. 
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We joined the crew of Provident for the day to help move their ship from Dartmouth back to their base in Brixham.

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Traditional Brixham Trawlers like Provident often had red sails, coated in ochre to protect them from the sun and salt.

What’s next:

With the TGO Challenge done and dusted, it’s back to work on Irene.  We’ll be based out of Oban, sailing around the islands of the Inner Hebrides and taking our guests kayaking and walking.  I hope it will also mean we’ll get plenty of fresh seafood on our menu too.  I’ll also have a bit of time in my next leave to explore the islands on my own, and can’t wait to get to know this area much better.

Then we’ll relocate south to be based out of Newlyn, with sailing voyages planned to Brittany and the Scilly Isles.  I’m really excited about the Scillies, somewhere I’ve never been to before but heard lots of good things about.  And I should have the opportunity to spend a bit of time in Cornwall walking the coastal path and swimming in the sea.

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds.

I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to in spring, or any plans you have for the summer. 
Let me know in the comments below.

10 of Scotland’s Greatest Long Distance Trails

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.

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Buachaille Etive Mòr, at the head of Glen Etive, has one of the most distinctive mountain profiles in Scotland. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

The West Highland Way (WHW)

  • Start: Milngavie
  • 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.

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The Commando Memorial between Spean Bridge and Gairlochy commemorates the elite Allied forces trained in the area during WWII. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

Great Glen Way (GGW)

  • Start: Fort William
  • Finish: Inverness
  • 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.

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The picturesque harbour in the village of Portpatrick on the Rhinns of Galloway. Photo Credit: RobinD_UK Flickr on cc

Southern Upland Way (Scotland’s Coast to Coast)

  • Start: Portpatrick
  • Finish: Cockburnspath
  • Length: approximately 341km (211 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 14 days +
  • Difficulty: hard

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.

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Craigellachie Bridge over the River Spey.  A Scottish country dance tune was composed in its honour; appropriately its a strathspey.  Photo Credit: Junnn Flickr on cc

Speyside Way

  • Start: Aviemore
  • Finish: Buckie
  • Length: approximately 116km (72 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 6 days
  • Difficulty: moderate

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.

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Traigh Seilebost is just one of the stunning sandy beaches on the west coast of Harris. Photo Credit: isleofharris365 Flickr on cc

Hebrides Way

  • Start: Vatersay
  • 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.

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Dunaverty Bay at the southern tip of Kintyre may have been where St Columba first arrived in Scotland. Photo Credit: Photographic View Scotland Flickr on cc

Kintyre Way

  • Start: Tarbert
  • Finish: Machrihanish
  • 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.

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The Cateran Trail connects villages and glens on old drove roads and trails used by cattle rustlers. Photo Credit: luckypenguin Flickr on cc

Cateran Trail

  • Start/Finish: Blairgowrie or Alyth
  • Length: approximately 104km (65 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 5 days
  • Difficulty: moderate

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.

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Loch Tay is was the location of as many as 18 crannogs, artificial islands inhabited from the Bronze Age.  A reconstruction lies on the southern shore of the loch.  Photo Credit: Douglas Hamilton ( days well spent ) Flickr on cc

Rob Roy Way

  • Start: Drymen
  • Finish: Pitlochry
  • 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.

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Trotternish Ridge and the Quiraing are formed from a series of landslips, creating an awesome landscape. Photo Credit: Bill Higham Flickr on cc

Skye Trail

  • Start: Rubha Hunish, near Duntulum
  • Finish: Broadford
  • 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.

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Cape Wrath, or Am Parbh, is the most northwesterly point of mainland Britain, and much of the area is used for military training.  Photo Credit: tomdebruycker Flickr on cc

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

  • Weather

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.

  • Wild Camping

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.

  • Wildlife

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

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?
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Taking on the TGO Challenge

In May each year, like a flock of migrating birds, three hundred or so backpackers take part in a coast-to-coast trek across Scotland.  The TGO Challenge takes participants from across the globe through what can be some of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes in Europe.

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Looking down into the Great Glen from the Monadhliath.

What is the TGO Challenge?

The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual self-supported hiking event across the highlands of Scotland, from the west coast to the east.  Created by mountaineer and writer Hamish Brown, the first event was held in 1980, and it has grown to become one of the best known backpacking events in the world, drawing participants from across the UK and Ireland, and as far afield (and as foreign to the Scottish Highlands) as Nigeria, Oman, and Barbados.

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Where the idea began; a little bit of inspiration I picked up in a second-hand bookshop on the way.

Unlike other multi-day hiking events, the TGO doesn’t define a route for participants to follow.  Rather, route planning is part of the challenge, giving hikers a unique flexibility to cover the geographical area and set various objectives for themselves.  A maximum of fifteen days is permitted to cover the distance, which is usually averages around 290km (180 miles).

Challengers sign out from one of around a dozen settlements on the west coast, between Torridon in the north and Portavadie in the south, and end their trek on the eastern seaboard anywhere between Fraserburgh and Arbroath (though a cairn and plaque at Scurdie Ness lighthouse near Montrose claims to mark the “official” end point).  Routes can be low-level, follow defined trails and paths, take in a number of summits, avoid the road network as much as possible, be completely cross-country, or any combination of the above, and experienced vetters are able to provide advice.

The Challenge is non-competitive, but in addition to the skills needed in planning a route, participants also have to be competent in navigation, including map and compass work, self-reliant in remote and upland areas, and able to handle the famously unpredictable Scottish weather.

My TGO Route

Since receiving confirmation of my place in the Challenge in November, I’ve been poring over maps and guidebooks to work out the route I want to take.  My intention is to start from Lochailort, a small village on the Road to the Isles between Fort William and Mallaig, and make my way to the fishing village of Gourdon, on the south Aberdeenshire coast.

Joining the dots between the two coasts will be around 290km (180 miles).  There will be a few ups and downs on the way too.  It will be a test of my stamina and endurance, not to mention my ability to pack light and the qualities of “suck it up” and “get on with it”.

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My planned finish point on the east coast of Scotland.

I have, I think*, an advantage over most challengers, in that I’ll be able to finish the event by dipping my toes in the sea on the east coast at the end of my parent’s front garden.  All within reach of a hot bath, comfortable bed, plenty of cups of tea, and a washing machine; exactly what I’ll need after two weeks trekking across Scotland. (if I’m really lucky, someone might also do my laundry, but I’d better not push it at this stage of the plan).

*I’m also pretty certain that my dad will send me up into the loft to sort out all the boxes that have been there since I went to university the moment that I arrive.

Planning and preparation

The potential for “four-seasons-in-one-day” weather means that my equipment and clothing has to be able to cope with the full range of conditions from horizontal sleet to (just whisper so you don’t jinx it) warm sunshine.

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Route planning on ViewRanger.

I don’t imagine that in any way I’ll be a lightweight backpacker, not with my fondness for junk food (haribo; I’ll mainly be surviving on haribo, and possibly peanut butter) and collecting shiny rocks, seashells, and antlers that I find.  However, I need to get my kit together and work out how I’m going to manage to walk with it all.  This is an experience I want to be able to enjoy, not one to be endured.

What I loved this winter

Where I’ve been

Unlike the last couple of seasons, I’ve not travelled particularly far and wide in the last few months.  Since returning from the Algarve at the beginning of November, I’ve been based in the UK, and making the most of the opportunity to get out and about while I look for work.

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Christmas brought clear crisp weather to the Aberdeenshire coast; ideal for long walks and star-filled nights.

Over Christmas and New Year I headed north to Aberdeenshire to spend time with my family.  The crisp, and clear weather was perfect for long walks along the coast, with the odd dip in the icy North Sea, and into the hills of the Angus glens.  And short winter days quickly gave out to long dark nights, filled with stars and the arc of the Milky Way (although unfortunately no glimpse of an aurora), and a driftwood bonfire on the beach.

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Lazy winter days spent beachcombing, reading good books, and spending time with family.
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Love my favourite beach at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve.
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Celebrating Hogmanay on the beach with a midnight bonfire.

There was also enough time for a visit to Dundee to explore the new V&A museum, as well as some of my old favourite destinations in the city, like McManus Gallery, Clarke’s bakery and RRS Discovery.

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RSS Discovery alongside her new neighbour on the Dundee riverside, the V&A

Back in Bedfordshire, I got out and about in the Chilterns often, especially around Dunstable Downs and Ashridge Estate, for long walks, trail runs, and the pleasure of just spending time in the woods, watching the turn of the seasons.

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The occasional sunrise run was brilliant for starting my day the best way.

What I’ve done

I set myself a challenge to start the year; undertaking to make time every day to get outside and do some kind of physical activity for Red January, and at the same time to fundraise for Mind, the mental health charity.  I live with depression, and through the winter often find there can be more bad days than good, so try to take steps to manage my condition.  I’m extremely pleased to say I met both of those goals, and discovered a real love for my weekly Parkrun at Rushmere Country Park at the same time.

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RED laces help you run better: FACT!

In mid-January I headed to Wiltshire, to the Team Rubicon UK HQ, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, on what was possibly the coldest night of the year to pitch a tent.  Team Rubicon are a disaster response organisation, working around the world in communities devastated by natural disasters to aid in the immediate aftermath, and to help build resilience against future events.  In an intense few days I completed my basic induction to TRUK, and the Domestic Operations training course.  I’ve got a blog post coming soon about the experience, and what it might lead to next.

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After an awesomeinduction and domestic ops. training course, I’m now a qualified TRUK Greyshirt.

Unseasonably warm weather in late February (as much as 18C, just a week or so after the snow) made it easier to continue getting outside for runs and walks almost every day, and to try my hand at a new pastime; forest bathing, spending time immersing myself in the sights, sounds and smells of the woodland.  It was the perfect way to remedy to a stressful couple of weeks while I moved into a new flat.

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Watching the change of the seasons in the woodland.

The first brimstone butterflies, nuthatches tapping on tree trunks, jays, hazel catkins bursting open, showers of hawthorn blossom, and the very first leaves.  On warmer, damp evenings frogs and toads are on the move to the nearby pond, and I’ve been out with the local Toad Patrol group, rescuing amorous amphibians attempting to cross the road.  Spring is well and truly on the way.

 

My winter love list

  • Books: Winter is always the best time to get lost in a good book.  Dark evenings and wild weather teamed with a cosy spot to sit and a wee dram.  Over the last few months I’ve read Erebus by Michael Palin, RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR by Phillip Hoare, and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.
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Getting stuck into a good book is one of the great pleasures of a Christmas holiday.  Along with a good slug of amaretto in your coffee.
  • Film: The Little Prince, an excellent animation based on the classic children’s book (and standard text for studying French) by Antione de Saint-Exupéry, that explores the idea of wonder, exploration and excitement and how it changes as we grow older. 
  • Clothing: I’m still rocking those toasty warm White Stuff flannel pyjamas at every opportunity, usually teamed with the biggest, softest blanket scarf that my sister got me for Christmas.  Its a combo that’s been especially welcome after REDJanuary runs in the rain and sleet.
  • Equipment: I picked up a new tent in preparation for the TGO Challenge in May.  After researching various  possibilities and budgets, I decided on the one-person Robens Starlight 1, which seemed ideal.  Unfortunately, there was a manufacturing flaw in the tent delivered to me, so after a bit of faffing around trying to get a replacement, I’ve actually ended up with a Wild Country Zephyros 1.  I’m hoping to get out soon to put it through it’s paces.
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The Robens Starlight 1 one person tent.
  • Health: I’ve started taking vitamin D supplements, which have been suggested to help lift a low mood at this time of year.  We naturally get it from exposing our skin to sunlight, something that can be hard to come by in higher latitudes in winter.
  • Treats: My winter treat has been finding a cosy spot to curl up and read, along with a cheeky glass of amaretto and ice.  I’ve also found a shot in a flask of coffee is lovely on a cold winter day on the coast (a tip from Ebby the kayaker on the Isle of Wight).

 

What’s next:

I’ve got a few things already planned for the spring, starting with my first experience of leading walking tours.  I’ll be exploring trails in the South Downs National Park and surrounding areas, and sharing the experience with a group on a walking holiday.

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Planning and researching a route for the TGO Challenge has been an enjoyable diversion over the winter months.

Then the TGO Challenge is quickly approaching , with just over two months to train for a self-supported crossing of Scotland from the west coast to the east.  I’m planning on a few nights of camping, testing out different food for the trek, packing  and re-packing my backpack, plus plenty of walking days in preparation.

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Cheers to the New Year and the new advdentures it will bring!

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds in spring.

I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead. 
Let me know in the comments below.

In Search of Martians on Horsell Common, Surrey

For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice on the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.

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The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.

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Much closer to the closer to the original story, although with the flourish and excess of 1970s prog-rock, and by far my favourite version, is the musical by Jeff Wayne, with the solemn voice of Richard Burton narrating the story. If you’ve never heard it, I insist you treat yourself to all of its epic awesomeness.

The double cassette of the album was our family “car tape”, the soundtrack of many childhood road trips through the Scottish highlands with our caravan in tow. Just hearing the opening chords evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics by the side of the road, of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes; the adventure of being outdoors.

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The Woking Martian by Warofdreams on CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=940898

So this small corner of Surrey heathland, near the commuter town of Woking, has a bit of a special draw for me. It’s here, on Horsell Common, that cylinders fired from the surface of Mars in flares of luminous green gas first fall to earth, landing…

…not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and half away.

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The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of aggregate quarrying rather than an extra-terrestrial impact. On the crisp January day that I visited, the shallow pond in the centre was frozen, and footprints are set fast in the icy orange sand. Like a child, I have to plant my footprints in the spot where the Martians landed, before continuing onto the heath.

The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one. But still they come.

The open heathland rolls away into dark pine woodland, frosted heather and bracken a patchwork of green, brown and gold, framed by the reddish trunks of the Scots pine and paths marked out in the burnt orange of fallen needles and sand. Silver birches, with papery white bark, catch glittering dew drops on their dark ruby twigs, flashes of light in darker corners. Bright yellow gorse flowers among the mass of spines are a reminder of the mild weather that makes this frozen day an exception this winter. Its a landscape to be viewed leisurely, at different scales, both close-up and in sweeping views into the distance.

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Lowland heath, like Horsell and other nearby areas in the Thames Basin, is not a remote forbidding planet where no living thing could survive, but a rare and vital habitat. Globally there are more hectares of tropical rainforest, and like rainforest, the diverse botany of lowland heath makes a rich environment for insects and spiders, lizards and snakes, which in turn support a range of birds, just as rare as Martians might be. In the summer heathland is used by ground-nesting species, like curlew, woodlark, and nightjar, which are extremely vulnerable to disturbance from walkers.

Much of the remaining areas of lowland heathland are found in densely-populated, highly urban landscapes like South East England and much of the Netherlands, where pressure on them for leisure and recreation is high. Careful management by organisations like the Horsell Common Preservation Society and Thames Basin Heaths Partnership work to balance the pressure of visitors against the conservation of the habitat.

We stay as long as cold toes can take, before heading to nearby Heather Farm, an area of wetland regeneration adjacent to the common, that was until very recently the site of a massive mushroom farm. Reedbed-fringed lakes and scrapes are found where there was once concrete hard-standing and a series of corrugated tin hangars filled with fungi. Even better is the new café by the water’s edge, where birdwatching can be done with a mug of hot chocolate to hand.

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Curiosity and Inspiration: Exploring Cambridge like an Adventurer

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.

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King’s College Gatehouse, the boundary between town and gown.

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.

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The view from Magdelen Bridge. Photo Credit: alasdair massie Flickr on cc

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.

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What punting through the backs on a summer day should look like. Photo Credit: Paul Gravestock Flickr on cc

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).

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Bicycles racked up under the arches at the Institute of Plant Sciences, Cambridge University

Cambridge University Colleges

The University, founded in 1209, is the second-oldest (after Oxford) in the English-speaking world, fourth-oldest worldwide, and can boast of a plethora of notable alumni, including many names from the realm of travel and exploration: George Mallory, Vivian Fuchs, Thomas Cavendish, Agnes and Margaret Smith, and Robert Macfarlane, to name just a few .

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.

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The Gibbs’ building and front lawn at King’s College.  Don’t dare walk on the grass until you’re appointed a Fellow of the College.  Or you’re a duck.

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.)

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The magnificent stained-glass West Window of King’s College Chapel, and the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world.

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.

Museums

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.

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.

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.

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Artifacts from the Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage.  No boots.

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.

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Iguanadon toes

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***.

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Burgess Shale Hallucigenia model in the Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences

***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.

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An evocative headdress carved from a deer skull.  Possibly plucked from that weird recurring Wickerman-themed dream you have.
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Ducks through world cultures #13

Fitzwilliam Museum

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.

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Rows and rows of bicycles outside the Fitzwilliam Museum.  Beware while you walk, as cyclists weave in and out of pedestrians and traffic.

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.

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Low horizons, big skies, and flat fenland landscapes. Photo Credit: elstro_88 Flickr on cc

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.

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The original Fitzbillies Chelsea Buns

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?
Comment below to let me know.
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