Life in Antarctica: Looking back on a season at the Penguin Post Office

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The view from our doorstep. Looking from the accommodation building on Goudier Island to the historic Base A building at Port Lockroy in January 2020.

The last three months have been a strange time for all of us, and certainly not what I’d anticipated for my return from Port Lockroy. Reunions planned with friends and family were tempered by the COVID pandemic response, filtered through window glass and laptop screens, and those “what next” plans I’d made were left on ice. Potential opportunities for future work drifted away over the horizon or sank without trace, and other responsibilities have surfaced in their wake.

So despite an abundance of time that’s been available during the lockdown, it’s been exceptionally difficult to find the right mental space to reflect on my time in Antarctica at Port Lockroy.

Part of that is the challenge of finding the right language to articulate all the experiences, thoughts, emotions, and ideas I felt in Antarctica, and distil down to something palpable, unmasked by superlatives that a place of such outrageous beauty demands. Over the 110 days of our stay, I took thousands of photographs, made several short films and sound recordings, and filled my journal and sketchbook with observations. But still, it sometimes feels as if the whole thing wasn’t quite real.

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The sailing ship Bark Europa, moored up in the back bay under Jabet Peak, was one of the more unusual vessels visiting Port Lockroy during the season.

It’d taken a long time for me to reach Antarctica. I’ve always been drawn to the region, at first through a fascination with the strange and unusual wildlife that make their home on (and under) the ice, then being captivated by stories of exploration and adventure. Growing up in northeast Scotland, the polar ship RRS Discovery, in drydock in Dundee, was practically on my doorstep, and the rough country of the nearby Angus Glens and Deeside served as a training ground for some of the first to venture South.

I studied marine biology at university, holding a vague and undefined idea that it had the potential to take me there as a research scientist or in a support role at a base, however, the events of my life conspired to take me elsewhere. The cost of visiting Antarctica as a tourist was way beyond my reach, so I forgot all about the possibility for a while.

Then, a few years ago, the idea popped up again. My job in environmental education had been made redundant following cutbacks, and after a summer sailing with Draken Harald Hårfagre in Norway, I needed a paying job. I started in the warehouse of a well-known online shopping company*, working 50 hour weeks stocking shelves as they approached their peak-sales period in November. I can honestly say I have never had a less enjoyable job, although my squat and stretch game was on fire.

*That big river in South America. Not the Orinoco.

Driving home one evening, shortly before the anticipated horror of Black Friday/Cyber Monday shopping, I heard a caller on the radio request a song for the team heading to Antarctica to work in the Penguin Post Office for the season. As soon as I was in the door, I’d searched out the UKAHT website and worked out how to apply for the role. This was my way to go South.

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The ice-bound bay filled with brashy floes, making it impossible for zodiacs to land on the island and leaving us isolated.

The goal had crystallised, but it wasn’t a straightforward route to get there. When applications opened the following February, I submitted from Bermuda, days before setting out on a transatlantic sailing voyage. When we arrived in the UK a month later I didn’t get the news I was hoping for, to be part of the 12 people invited to selection, but had an encouraging note from the Ops manager to tell me to keep applying for the role.

In between other opportunities, following selection on my second time around, I got the call to say I’d been successful. I’d just been ashore to chat about moorings in Loch Spelve on Mull, for Irene, and had hopped into my wee tender, untied and pushed off. My phone rang as I was about to start the outboard, so I let myself drift out into the loch to take the call, hoping I didn’t drift out of mobile reception before I got the official nod.

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The modern nissen hut that provided our home for four months, slowly revealed by thawing snow. On arrival, it was a high as the top of the door frame and we dug our way in.
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Collecting bergy ice for a freshwater supply early in the season. Most of our drinking water was provided by visiting ships, but when the ice closed in and ships couldn’t visit, we melted ice.

The thing about the opportunity that had appealed to me most was the prospect of spending an extended period in a location of which most people only get a snapshot glimpse. To be witness to the progression of time, the comings and goings of the wildlife, and the changing season in the far South.

And that was undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Antarctica. Paying heed to changes in my surroundings: noting snowmelt or the scouring effects of excoriating wind; the swirling movement of ice floes riding on the tide; and the march of increasing day length, followed by returning night and star-filled skies as we tilted over the equinox. A muffled boom reverberating through the landscape, felt as a pressure wave in the ears as much as heard, as ice calved and crumbled from the glacier. Sculpted chunks of bergy ice which glowed with a blue luminosity, as if lit from within. There’s an ethereal quality to the place.

Then the more subtle captivating things: the shape and movement of clouds; scintillating sundogs and solar arcs; the feel of the wind, from a gentle caress to a knife-sharp slash, the ever-changing play of light and shadow over the landscape. Moments that leave one consistently undone by the beauty of it all.

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Don’t stand so close to me. A fine example of the projectile defecation of penguins. I believe there are even some papers written on why? and even how far?
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The colony surrounding the Stevenson screen at the highest point of the island.

And of course, the wildlife. The ceaseless cacophony of life in the penguin colony. Watching penguins on the island, getting to know them by their nesting locations, and following the progress of a pair, it was hard not to anthropomorphise. Or to foist a unilateral emotional bond upon them. Their swaying, tottering gait, stumpy little legs and rounded tummy, and naïve inquisitiveness around us seem to recall human toddlers, and invoked a secret desire in me to name them all.

Even so, living amongst penguins for any time, happenings in the colony show us any human connections we suppose to these creatures are tenuous. At first glance they’re putting on a chaotic avian comedy show; curious chicks playing with our buckets and brooms, throwing back their wings and chasing adults for food, always demanding more. Taking to the water for the first time, with none of the natural grace one would expect of a sea creature.

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The blatant thievery and cheating in the colony contributes to soap opera levels of drama.
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The chicks are in equal measures adorable and infuriating, especially if you’re trying to transport a 20kg cylinder of propane from sone side of the island to the other, and the priority is to create minimal disturbance to their activity (mainly napping).

In reality, we watched a wholly unsentimental and more elemental existence: newly hatched chicks huddle in nests constructed with bones from ill-fated siblings of previous years; adults voiding excrement on each other, from nests highest on the rock to those below, sheathbills swooping in to eat the debris; the lurking threat of predators from the skies and the depths. Witnessing the awesome and grotesque cycle of life and death on a daily basis, alternately heartwarming then heartbreaking, always fascinating, is part of the unique Antarctic experience.

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At the creching stage, the chicks become bolder and venture away from nests to form small gangs and await a parent to arrive with a regurgitated krill meal.

Though they demand the most attention, penguins are not the only creatures that leave an indelible mark on the memory. Other birds, sleek Antarctic terns, the colour of low cloud on a soft day, and skuas, ever-observant to opportunities to pillage the penguin colonies. Sheathbills, our curious companions with their only-a-mother-could-love appearance, and monstrous giant petrels, their apparent cruelties to distressing to note here.

The uncanny song of Weddell seals, lounging on an ice floe in the back bay. The lurking menace of leopard seals, conducting secret surveillance of the shallows, waiting to surge ashore and snatch the unwary. A boulder, almost the size of a small island, that yawned deeply and transformed into a bull elephant seal.

On still days, when fog lay like a felt blanket over the natural harbour obscuring views of peaks and pinnacles of Wiencke Island, immediate sounds were dampened, amplifying the roaring silence that lay behind. The raucous colonies of penguins and blue-eyed shags muffled long enough to pick out the saltwater signals of whales taking their breaths in the silky, quicksilver water of the bay; two, no three humpbacks scouting the deep water channel on the inside of Lecuyer Point, or a lone minke making its way between the improbably named islands of Boogie and Woogie.

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Graffiti on the rocks of Goudier Island, left by the sailors and whalers of the Solstrief in 1912, one of the largest factory whaling ships to work Antarctic waters.

Port Lockroy is a rare place in Antarctica, a tiny island where the human story of the continent is writ large. Around us was the evidence of the whalers that followed the ships of the Heroic Age of exploration South, through to Operation Tabarin and the construction of Bransfield House/Base A, at the time when international relations on the ice were strained, and politics pushed to the fore. Then the era of science, where the continent was transformed into a vast laboratory of measuring and monitoring, revealed by the artefacts and oral histories of the museum, to our current-day experiences of expedition tourism and bucket-list travel.

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Base A, the first permanent British base established on the Antarctic Peninsula, and now home to the Penguin Post Office and museum.
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The incongruity of the galley view.

The wealth of stories continued with the people we met throughout the season, both face-to-face and through correspondence delivered to the Post Office. Previous Lockroy team members, experienced field guides and expedition leaders, research scientists, and former and current staff of both the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and British Antarctic Survey passed through Goudier Island during the season, enriching our understanding of the place and welcoming us to the Antarctic family like we already belonged, allowing us to become part of the ongoing history of the place.

Port Lockroy is reported to be one of the most visited sites in Antarctica, and while this season proved to be far from usual, we still welcomed thousands of people into our small world, and helped them pass on their share of wonder and awe written on the back of a postcard.

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Postcards cancelled and packaged, ready to start their journeys around the world.

Finally, all that remains is to say what a privilege it was to share such a profound experience with an incredible team of people, who started the season as my work colleagues and after four months of living in each other’s pockets, are firmly life-long friends. Sitting together on a golden afternoon by the landing site, once the day’s guests had gone, watching for the blown spray and flashes of tail flukes across the Neumayer Channel, listening to the snapcracklepop of melting icebergs, and toasting our luck with gin gifted by the crew of a superyacht and tonic scrounged from our favourite hospitality manager. Or huddled together in a cuddlepuddle under blankets and duvets to watch a film as sleety rain-lashed windows and storm-force winds shook the very building around us. These are the moments I’ll cherish most.

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The awesome 19/20 season Port Lockroy team. Photo Credit: UKAHT
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An icy evening spotting arcs and sun pillars in nacreous skies and shimmering reflections by the landing site.

Standing on the aft deck of the ship that would take us back to Ushuaia I could feel the undeniable magnetic pull from our island, tucked under the sheer rock and ice of Mount Luigi and the Seven Sisters, then a sudden snap as we rounded the headland and Port Lockroy was lost behind the rise of Doumer Island. I think a little piece of my heart was left behind.

By endurance we sauna.

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It wasn’t actually cold enough to justify all those clothes on that day. Taken as part of a photoshoot wearing our branded gear and items for sale in the shop.

Extracts from this piece were first published as posts on the UKAHT Port Lockroy blog.

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Traversing Schiehallion, Scotland’s Magical Mountain

At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.

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The view from the western end of Schiehallion, looking along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. In clear conditions, it’s possible to pick out Ben Nevis.

Schiehallion

In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion.

Reach the summit on a summer evening, and you’ll be enchanted by views of Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch stretching out towards the vast blanket of Rannoch Moor in the gloaming. Descending through the dusk you’ll catch mysterious sounds reverberating across the hillside: secret whisperings of the wee folk, or magical drumming snipe and roding woodcock?

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The first glimpse of Schiehallion appearing through the trees on the road from Loch Rannoch.

Planning my route

I was taking part in the 2019 TGO Challenge, a coast-to-coast crossing of Scotland on foot, and wanted to include a few mountains on my route from west to east. As it happened, dropping a few planning pins into my ViewRanger map put one close to the peak. After a few days of low-level walking, I reckoned I’d be limber enough to take on the mountain and make a west-to-east traverse of Schiehallion.

From the east and west the peak looks like a perfect pyramid; from north and south, a long whaleback ridge with a more gentle rise to the top. It stands in isolation, easily picked out on the skyline ahead of me as I left Glencoe and crossed Rannoch Moor.

Schiehallion Traverse

  • Start Point: East Tempar Farm*
  • Finish Point: Braes of Foss
  • Distance: 10km
  • Hiking time: 4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Map: OS Explorer OL49

*Note: There is nowhere to leave a vehicle at East Tempar. Parking is available at Braes of Foss carpark (approx. 7km on the road) or in Kinloch Rannoch (approx. 3.5km on the road). I walked along the road from Kilvrecht Campsite, approximately 9km.

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Go slow, baby lambs. Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Sign on the roadside at East Tempar.

The glorious May weather had stayed another day, so despite not being in any particular rush to get underway, I’d been up since 6am with the sunshine, packed my tent (shaking off drifts of tree pollen that had accumulated through the previous evening), loaded up with drinking water, and hit the road to get to my starting point for 9am. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.

From East Tempar Farm a hill track rises gently through sheep pasture, gaining around 350m in a little over two and a half kilometres, to the base of the towering west flank of the mountain. The track continues on to the tumbledown shielings at the col at the head of Gleann Mor, the dale between Schiehallion and the Can Mairg hills to the south.

Gleann Mor is reputedly just as magical as the mountain that looms above. According to legend, the fairies of Schiehallion make their home in Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fhir, a cave in the upper reaches of the glen, and the doors leading into Elfhame (fairyland) marked by tussocks of white heather.

There might be little real evidence of fairies on Schiehallion, but the region wears its history close to the surface. Old shielings are a reminder of the traditional cattle grazing way of life in highland glens, and traces of hut circles and ancient cup-and-ring marked rocks a connection to a more distant and mysterious past.

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Hillside haggis tracks in the heather.

My route led upwards, over rough ground cut only by deer tracks contouring the slope. I snapped a couple of quick pictures, along with some of some grouse droppings, to perpetuate the haggis myth with which we were teasing my French and Romanian crewmates. Haggis is “…un cochon d’Inde écossais indigène. C’est vrai.” True fact.

There wasn’t a breath of wind when I reached the first boulder field, a patch of fractured quartzite exposed amongst the heather tussocks and spongy lichens. Higher above, the first false summit of my climb marked the point where the vegetation began to yield to the rock, with just sparse turf between the boulders.

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The summit. Or is it?

The Schiehallion Experiment

The splendid isolation and arresting symmetry of Schiehallion caught the attention of the Royal Society as a place to observe the “attraction of mountains”. In the summer of 1774, Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskylene and surveyor and mathematician Charles Hutton gathered data on the tiny deflection of a pendulum against the position of the stars, revealing the gravitational pull of the mountain.

Between astronomical observations and a survey of Schiehallion’s shape and composition, the experiment provided evidence of Newton’s theory of gravitation, and of the density and shape of the entire planet. During the development of the experiment, Hutton pioneered the concept of contour lines to show relief in cartography, helping me greatly with my TGO challenge route planning.

The Schiehallion experiment is commemorated by a plaque at Braes of Foss, and the eagle-eyed can spot the footprints of Maskylene’s parallel observatories on the north and south flanks of the mountain.

The Summit

Into the boulder field proper, the true summit rose up behind the last false peak, identifiable this time by the small gathering of people on the rocky outcrop. Tucked into hollows on the northern side of boulders were tiny patches of snow, none larger than my backpack, holding on in the 20°C heat. I scrambled up the last six or seven metres to the top, and turned to take in the view that had been at my back during the climb.

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From the summit, I could see across the Tay Forest and Loch Tummel to the Beinn a’Ghlo in the east, south to Ben Lawers, and north to Ben Alder. But the view to the west was the best. The eye skims along the shining surface of Loch Rannoch into a golden-blue haze over Rannoch Moor. On the edge of visibility, I could just make out the Black Mount and Glencoe, where two days ago I’d caught my first glimpse of this peak.

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I took a long break to rehydrate, and devoured a packet of Tuc sandwich biscuits that were by now mostly cheese-flavoured dust. This won me the friendship of a springer spaniel called Saoirse, waiting with her dog-dad for the rest of the family to join them at the top. I hunted around and found the spiral carving in the rock. More likely a modern addition than ancient art, but still a reminder that for many the mountains are spiritual spaces.

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Descent

The route across the boulder field was indistinct, but the following the ridge easterly with the natural compass of the sun was moving in the right direction. Skipping over the loose rock in the boulder field for a couple of kilometres, trying unsuccessfully to pick my way along Saoirse’s chosen route, I found a worn track and reached the top of the path. The way down was much simpler than the way up, dropping down the flank of the mountain on a well-surfaced route.

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I reached the carpark at Braes of Foss in mid-afternoon, glad to be able to refill my water supply and find a spot of shade for a cuppa and spoonful of peanut butter. It had been another long, draining hike in the sun. I still had another few kilometres to go to reach the end of my planned route for the day, to the access road for Foss mine, where I was to meet my lift.

On the way round the road, I decided that the TGO Challenge could wait for another day, and rescheduled my rest day for the next morning. I’d take the chance to buy some sunblock, and just enjoy the shade for a while. It was a real treat to get into Pitlochry that evening, pick up a takeaway and some cold beers, and sit in the garden of my friend’s house celebrating reaching half-way across Scotland on the top of that magical mountain.

Schiehallion East Path

  • Start / Finish Point: Braes of Foss carpark (£2/full day)
  • Distance: 10km return
  • Hiking time: Usually between 3 and 4 hours (depending on how long you enjoy the view for!)
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Map: OS Explorer OL49

Most hikers visiting Schiehallion follow a different route to the one I took, starting and finishing in the carpark at Braes of Foss, and following the East Schiehallion path. In a rare case of mountain rescue, where the mountain itself was the casualty, the path was constructed by the John Muir Trust to manage erosion and protect delicate vegetation on the lower slopes of the mountain. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.

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A plaque commemorating the Schiehallion Experiment by Nevil Maskylene and Charles Hutton at Braes of Foss, with the mountain behind.

The route is clear and obvious, though there is no waymarking, tackling the east ridge of the mountain in zigzags that avoid expanses of bog but still gives hikers glimpses of wildflowers and bog plants. The area is also home to wildlife like red deer, black grouse, and ptarmigan.

After around 3.5km the path reaches the boulder field on the top of the ridge.  Here the route is undefined to the summit, crossing loose rocks and scree, so care and attention to navigation is needed over the final 2km, especially if visibility is reduced.

Incredibly, thanks to an initiative by the FieldFare Trust, the first third of the route has been approved as wheelchair-friendly, with the remainder of the route to the summit deemed accessible at an individual’s discretion, making Schiehallion the first wheelchair-accessible Munro in Scotland.

Descend by retracing your steps to the boulder field to the path, and return to the carpark.

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Starting to feel the power of the sun. Walking in the mountains needs preparation for all weather conditions.

What to wear for hiking in Scotland

Though the warm, windless conditions on the day of my hike suited shorts and a t-shirt, that’s not what I would usually recommend for a day in the Scottish mountains. The best clothes for hiking are thin, quick-drying layers, and well-fitting, supportive boots.

The temperature can be quite different once you reach the summit, and a good rule of thumb for planning is that for every 300 metres (1,000′) it will be around 2°C colder. On a windy day, this will feel even more.

Walking trousers are robust but breathable, and usually have good pockets for gadgets and snacks. Shorts will normally be ok in fine weather, but if you’re going to venture off the beaten path and bash through the heather it can be uncomfortable. Gaiters will help protect your trousers and keep them dry and clean. They also double up as a dry mat for sitting on the ground when you stop for breaks.

A waterproof jacket and pair of trousers are always a good idea in Scotland. Even if there’s no rain in the forecast, conditions can be unpredictable, and a waterproof layer can break the chill of the wind.

A fleece or light sweater will keep your core temperature toasty when you reach the top. A warm hat, buff and pair of gloves will be useful in most conditions, but don’t underestimate the sun. There’s no opportunity to escape into the shade on most Scottish mountains. A broad-brimmed hat and something covering your shoulders could be important in summer to prevent heat exhaustion.

What other equipment will you need?

  • A backpack to carry your gear (with a waterproof cover)
  • A map and compass (and GPS)
  • Walking poles – optional
  • A good supply of water and snacks.

Tips for solo hiking

  • Be prepared for the hike with the right clothing and equipment.
  • Plan your hike in advance, and work out the time you will need, factoring in breaks on the way.
  • Always take a map and compass, and know how to use them. Even if you use a GPS.
  • Tell someone where you are hiking, and remember to let them know once you’re back safe.
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Armchair Travel: 10 Films about the Ocean

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This edition of Armchair Travel is returning to the seas for a selection of my favourite films with an oceanic flavour.  Many of these films are documentaries or dramas based on true events, though there are a few tales of thrilling adventure and suspense. 

  • Losing Sight of Shore (2017)

A documentary account of the Coxless Crew, a team of women rowing 8000 miles unsupported across the Pacific Ocean from California and Australia.  With pit-stops in Hawaii and Samoa, they spend around nine months at sea, overcoming extraordinary mental and physical hardship.

  • The Big Blue / Le Grand Bleu (1988)

A dramatised account of the friendship between two leading freedivers and their intense love of the ocean.  A beautiful, dreamlike film about the raptures of the deep.

  • A Plastic Ocean (2016)

The documentary film that first brought awareness of widespread plastic contamination in the ocean, and the devastating consequences on the health of the ecosystem, to the wider public. An essential film everyone should see, and a launchpad to take action.

  • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Steve Murray plays an oceanographer bent on revenge against the mythical jaguar shark that ate his partner in this Wes Anderson comedy clearly inspired by the documentary films of Jacques Cousteau.

  • The Cove (2009)

An Oscar-winning documentary following activist Ric O’Barry as he details the practice of driven dolphin hunting in Taiji, Japan, alleged to kill more cetaceans than the well-known Antarctic whaling industry.  It contains some brutal scenes, so may not be suitable for all audiences.

  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

I’m not sure who I’m in love with more; James Mason as brooding and mysterious Captain Nemo, or the Kraken that battles with the Nautilus.  Ok, it’s the giant squid.

  • The Endless Summer (1966)

A classic surf documentary following three surfers as they travel the globe in search of the perfect wave.  Locations visited include then-unknown breaks at Raglan, New Zealand, Cape St. Francis, South Africa, and Labadi, Ghana, as well as the big wave mecca of Hawaii’s North Shore.

  • Chasing Coral (2017)

A poignant record of the ecological collapse of a section of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in a coral bleaching event triggered by rising sea temperatures, including a painstakingly created time-lapse sequence.

  • End of the Line (2009)

The first documentary to focus on the impact of unsustainable pressure on global fisheries.  Over a quarter of the world’s fish stocks are being exploited close to extinction, and a further 50% at close to their maximum capacity.  Important viewing for everyone that chooses to eat fish.

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A beautiful beach for a swim.  Or is it?
  • Jaws (1977)

The best film ever made, and the reason that I always hesitate for a moment before getting into the water while wild swimming. Even in the north of Scotland.  Even in a freshwater loch.

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Have you watched any of these films?
Which of your ocean favourites would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.

 

A mysterious walk to the Rollright Stones

Legend claims that these enigmatic standing stones on the edge of the Cotswolds are a local chieftain and his band of warriors, petrified by a powerful witch, fated to forever stand watch from their lofty location.  However, this megalithic complex, which spans more than 2,000 years of Neolithic and Bronze Age development, has more mysteries for you to discover.

rollright_1_smNatural chunks of golden Cotswold limestone, the characteristic stone used in local buildings, their great age is evident in their pitted and weathered, and lichen-spattered surfaces.  The standing stones known as the Whispering Knights are earliest, dating from between 3,800 and 3,500 BCE, the early Neolithic period.  The King’s Men stone circle is late Neolithic, around 2,500 BCE, and the single King Stone is from the Bronze Age, approximately 1,500 BCE.

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The Rollright Stones have been reported on throughout recorded history, attracting visitors from the local area and further afield.  Antiquarian William Stukeley, who pioneered the scholarly investigation of Stonehenge and Avebury, made early investigations in the mid-18th century, leading to their eventual protection as one of the earliest Scheduled Ancient Monuments in England.

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The Whispering Knights

The Whispering Knights are the easternmost stones, so named as their position suggests a group leaning in conspiratorially, plotting against the one who would be king, and the oldest of the three formations at Rollright.  It’s believed that they are a “portal dolmen”, a burial chamber that would have originally looked like a stone table (like something from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe), and the entrance to an otherworldly realm.

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Archaeological exploration of the chamber inside the stones uncovered the disarticulated bones of several individuals, along with pottery from early Neolithic, Beaker and Bronze Age cultures, suggesting it was one of the earliest such monuments in Ancient Britain, and was in use over many centuries.

The King’s Men

The closely-spaced stones known as the King’s Men mark a ceremonial circle around 33 metres in diameter, and are reputedly uncountable.  If you make three circuits of the stone, counting the same number every time, you’re entitled to wish for your heart’s desire.

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There may have once been as many as one hundred, standing shoulder to shoulder in a near-perfect circle, with two stones on the outside marking an entrance portal opposite the tallest stone.

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The design of the stone circle is similar to others in the Lake District and in Ireland, and may have been constructed by people from those areas for their ceremonial gatherings.

The King Stone

Standing alone, just below the crest of a low rise, the King Stone is thought to have been erected around 1500 BCE to mark a Bronze Age burial ground.  Excavations in the 1980s revealed the remains of wooden posts marking the locations of human cremations in the surrounding land.

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The unusual shape of the stone is only partially due to erosion of the limestone.  Souvenir-hunters and superstitious cattle drovers en-route to the mart in Banbury would chip off fragments as lucky charms against evil.

The Witch and the King

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According to folklore, the notorious witch, Mother Shipton, accosted a petty king out riding with his army on the edge of the escarpment, tempting him with the promise of greatness.

Seven long strides thou shalt take, says she
And if Long Compton thou canst see,
King of England thou shalt be!

The fighting men gathered in a circle to await the outcome of the challenge, while the knights gathered in close counsel.  But the foolhardy chieftain, blinded by thoughts of king hereafter, took seven long strides, stopping just short of a low rise on the edge of the hill to the cacking of the witch.

As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of England thou shalt not be!
Rise up stick and stand still stone, For King of England thou shalt be none;
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, And I myself an elder tree!

It didn’t sound like that great a deal for old Mother Shipton; through possibly preferable for a witch to being tortured, burned, or drowned.  In later years the stones gained a reputation for fortune-telling; to dance naked through the stone circle and whisper to the old king would reveal the identity of your one true love.

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Walk: The Rollright Stones from Long Compton

  • Route length: 13km (8 miles) circular route
  • Ascent: 245 metres (800′)
  • Approximate hiking time: 4 hours
  • Difficulty: moderate

The route starts in the Warwickshire village of Long Compton, by the Red Lion pub, heading east on farm tracks and bridleways, before ascending the escarpment to Great Rollright.  On the edge of the village, the route joins a waymarked long-distance trail known as the D’Arcy Dalton Way, named for a local rights-of-way campaigner, to follow the ridge of the escarpment westwards.

After passing through woodland, you’ll see the Rollright Stones to your right.  From this direction you’ll approach the Whispering Knights first, followed by the King’s Men, and finally the King Stone on the far side of the road.  Retrace your steps to the D’Arcy Dalton Way, and continue on to the picturesque hamlet of Little Rollright.

This entire hamlet, once owned by one of the Oxford University colleges, was sold a few years ago; the manor house, rectory, five cottages, and a handful of farm buildings and barns were listed for a cool £18 million.  One of the new residents is an award-winning cheesemaker, who produces a lovely-sounding, squidgy, stinky, reblochon-like cheese that I need to track down.

From Little Rollright head northwards following the waymarked Shakespeare’s Way long-distance trail, descending the escarpment back towards Long Compton.

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Short sections of the route follow minor roads without a footpath, so care must be taken especially in late autumn afternoons.  The sections on footpaths and bridleways can be muddy, and as they cross through farmland, be aware of grazing livestock, particularly if you’re walking with a dog.

Find details of this walk, including a route map, on ViewRanger.

An alternative circular route to the stones starts and finishes in the village of Salford, near Chipping Norton, around 8km (5 miles) and ascending over a more gentle gradient.  Parking is also provided on the roadside adjacent to the Stones if you prefer not to walk; the monuments are all within 500m of each other.

The Cotswolds are England’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), stretching across Gloucestershire, west Oxfordshire and south-west Warwickshire.  The rolling hills lie between the river valleys of the Thames and the Severn, with an abundance of quaint towns and villages of golden stone houses nestled into their folds.  The Rollright Stones are located on the Cotswold Edge, an escarpment on the northern edge of the hills, to the north of Chipping Norton.

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Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the Ocean

I’ve put together a selection of my favourite books with an ocean theme, including nature writing, biography, and childhood favourites. 

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I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent almost all of the spring and summer of 2019 working as a deckhand and wildlife guide on board Irene of Bridgewater, a traditional gaff ketch with over a hundred years of history, exploring the stunning coastline and islands around the British and Irish Isles, with occasional trips to the other side of the channel too.

I know I’ve already presented you with a selection of sailing adventures in this Armchair Travel series, but I just can’t stay out of the ocean.  So here are some of the books that have excited and inspired me about the sea.

A series of essays making a luminescent meditation on the meaning of the sea.  Stories of swimming, shipwrecks, salvage, memorials, and unsustainable development form the bones for ideas of anthropology, science, history, and philosophy unveiled in beautiful literary prose.

Past and present, myth and reality, wild nature and human lives flow together in this beautiful but challenging retelling of a Maori legend.  Two narratives weave together: Kahu, a young girl seeking recognition from her grandfather, an elder of the tribe; and the poetic migration of the whales reliving the legend of Kahutia Te Rangi, the whale rider. Thoughts on race and prejudice, and the balance between preserving tradition and moving with the times in indigenous cultures makes this much more than an average young adult read.

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The seashell I hatched out of. FACT

Most of us will know of Rachel Carson from her seminal work Silent Spring, documenting the environmental crisis arising from the indiscriminate use of pesticides.  But her first and most enduring passion was marine ecology, brought vividly to life in this work by creating a personal connection to individual creatures inhabiting different niches in the marine and coastal environment.  This is a beautiful book to share with young people.

The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.

Rachel Carson

  • The Kon Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl

This is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions sailing a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Callao in Peru to the remote Tuamoto archipelago.  I don’t know if it’s possible to convey just how influential it’s been in my life.  I first read it when I was around 10 years old, and fell in love with the idea of living a life filled with adventures; with learning about sailing and navigation throughout history and human migration and movement; with studying marine ecology and oceanography.  I even have a copy in the original Norwegian which has helped me with learning the language.

A summertime coming-of-age novel where the protagonist, nature obsessed 14-year-old Miles O’Malley, discovers a giant squid washed up in Skookumchuk Bay, and accidentally becomes a prophet for a local cult.  A beautifully written book that captures both the mystery of the ocean and the uncertainty of adolescence perfectly.

Another swirling and surging work examining how the sea shapes our lives and our sense of otherness.  Personal experiences and travels lead to thoughts on swimming, poetry and literature, and philosophy connecting notable characters from Byron to Bowie, Melville to Woolf.  I read this while landlocked through the winter, in between signing off from one ship on the Algarve and joining another in Devon, and it kept the salt air in my hair and sand between my toes.

  • The Silent World – Jacques-Yves Cousteau

A classic book by a pioneer of underwater exploration.  This is Cousteau’s autobiographical account of the experiments and trials leading to the development of SCUBA equipment, or aqualung, along with Phillipe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas, and their transformation into “menfish”.  It’s the reason why my internal voice while I’m diving has a French* accent.

*goood moaning.  I didn’t say it was a good one.

There cannot be too many books by Carson on your TBR list, but I’ll hold myself back by only recommending these two.  In this, she tells the story of the oceans, from their geological origins and the beginnings of life, through early exploration and discovery, increasing scientific understanding of processes and systems, to the impact human activity is having.  The dawning of the Anthropocene.  It’s hard to grasp that this book was written in 1951, nearly 70 years ago, given the prescience of the writing, and is just as fresh and relevant today.

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Hanging out with bow-riding dolphins.

A collection of travel and nature essays crafted on journeys around the coast of the British and Irish Isles and Scandinavia, though that word doesn’t quite feel right for describing the pieces of poetic reflection and personal remembrance that shine like wet pebbles picked from the shore.  A masterclass in the art of observation.

Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.

Kathleen Jamie

A familiar figure to many from her TED talks, National Geographic articles, and Mission Blue movement, Earle has a depth and breadth of knowledge equal to her subject matter.  The writing is straightforward and accessible, and her passion shines through in every page as she details all that ails the oceans.  But what is most shining about this book is that despite the overwhelming negativity of the content (overfishing; resource extraction; pollution; biodiversity loss and species extinctions; habitat degradation and destruction; plastic contamination; and how the health of the ocean is vital to our own), the message is that there is still time to take action.

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Which of these books have you enjoyed? Do you have any Ocean themed recommendations for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.

 

This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

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 also 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 Sanquhar, 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 (80 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 an 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.  You must be 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 several 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 correctly.

It also means taking additional time to assess your chosen route; researching mountain weather, taking account of reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts.  And remember 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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Armchair Travel: 10 Books on Mountains

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books with a mountain setting, including accounts of expeditions, favourites from my childhood, biography, and nature writing. 

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Welcome to the first edition of Armchair Travel for 2019, and a breath of pine-fresh, mountain air for the New Year.  The weather outside might be frightful, though not as bad as conditions in some of the books I’ve recommended, so in this post, I’m planning on making myself a massive mug of cocoa, wrapping up in a blanket, and vicariously scaling the heights in ten of my favourite books about mountains…

Dispatched by Outside magazine to write about increasing commercial expeditions on Everest, journalist and mountaineer Krakauer becomes an eyewitness to the 1996 disaster.  On summit day, with several teams tackling the mountain, a fierce blizzard left several climbers stranded in the death zone* (above 8000m / 26,000′), with eight ultimately losing their lives.

*The altitude above which atmospheric pressure of oxygen is so low, it is considered insufficient to sustain human life for an extended period.

  • Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination – Robert Macfarlane

A compelling cultural history of how we discovered our love for the mountains, at one time considered nightmare-inducing, monster-filled voids, and continue to indulge that magnetic fascination, alongside a personal account of Macfarlane’s attraction to climbing and eventual rejection of the pursuit of thrills.

What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die.

Robert Macfarlane

A classic of mountaineering, detailing Harrer’s legendary first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, a notoriously challenging climb nicknamed Mordwand (Murder Wall, punning on nordwand, the north wall).  He provides accounts of several tragic expeditions in the history of the mountain to give context to the achievement of his team.

It was a hard decision to pick this book over Seven Years in Tibet, an account of Harrer’s escape from a PoW camp in British India into the Himalayas, where he becomes a mentor to the Dalai Lama.  It might make it into another list in future.

  • Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering – Rebecca A. Brown

The literary tradition of mountaineering may seem to mark out high-altitude peaks as a predominantly male space, particularly from the early colonial period of planting flags and appropriating land.  But women have been present from the beginning of recreational mountaineering, challenging the historic societal belief that we are too delicate to just go out and do what we want to do.  This book gathers lesser-known stories of awesome women from the early days of mountaineering, and reveals that their goals, the need for challenge, the longing to explore, are every bit as relevant and inspiring today.

I think I was around 10 when I read this, and despite not really being as enamoured of reading as I am today, completely devoured it.  I still don’t really understand why I don’t live in the hollowed-out heart of a hemlock tree on the side of a mountain, with just a kestrel for company (though my childhood dog was named Kes…).  Give this book to any young people in your life, or read it together, to share the freedom of nature and the outdoors, and the excitement of an adventure.

Everything was white, clean, shining, and beautiful. The sky was blue, blue, blue. The hemlock grove was laced with snow, the meadow was smooth and white, and the gorge was sparkling with ice. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud. I guess I laughed because my first snowstorm was over and it had not been so terrible after all.

Jean Craighead George

This is not a book for everyone, but this is EXACTLY the kind of book I’d recommend my sister, dad, and cousins.  But not my mam.  If you love true horror stories and the unexplained (and piña coladas), you might be aware of the Dylatov Pass incident and the mysterious disappearance of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains.  If not, be prepared for shredded tents, bare footprints in the snow, mysterious radiation, violent injuries, and no explanations for what happened on a winter camping trip on a peak called Dead Mountain.

You may know this story already.  The 1972 Andes air crash was written about in the book Alive, and turned into a film starring Ethan Hawk, but Parrado was one of the survivors, and this is his personal memoir.  His courage and perseverance in crossing the mountains to find rescue, and honesty and insight into survival in the aftermath of the crash, make for a moving and inspiring book.

Some books can’t really be read in public, unless you’re prepared to be stared at for making great, snorting, guffaws of laughter that bring you to the point of accidentally peeing yourself (such as anything by Gerald Durrell, Tony Hawks, and this).  A genuinely hilarious parody of the classic alpinist mountaineering epic, it nails the spirit of the genre so accurately, it was thought that W.E Bowman was the pseudonym of a big-time mountaineer rather than someone who never in their life ventured to the Himalayas.  Read it in companionship with No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby.  

Moffat is a remarkable woman, rejecting traditional gender-roles of post-war society and living a transient life in the wilder parts of the UK with several hitch-hiking expeditions to the Alps.  As a climber she broke new ground, tackling some of the toughest challenges in Europe and becoming the first woman to qualify as a mountain guide, paving the way for others to follow.  She often climbed barefoot in summer conditions, claiming a better connection to the rock.  Now in her 90s, she recently contributed to a BBC Radio documentary based on her book, worth checking out if you can find it.

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A little known book that was almost lost to time, this tribute to the Cairngorms is an outstanding piece of nature writing, transformative and heart-soaring.  A spare, sparkling reminder that when spending time in the mountains, there are times where gaining the summit is just an insignificant distraction.  It teaches us to slow down, look closely, and feel deeply to know our surroundings.  I’ve recommended this book to everyone I know.  READ IT NOW!

However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.

Nan Shepherd

A recent biography, Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock, explores more of her mountain exploration and writing.  I haven’t read it yet, but it’s firmly on my TBR list.

What is your favourite mountain book?  What would you recommend to me?
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This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

What I loved this season: Winter 2018-19

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 is 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

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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.  It’s 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 its 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.

 

This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

Armchair Travel: 5 Travel Podcasts

This newest edition of Armchair Travel steps away from previous form, to bring you inspiration and escape from the everyday through some of the podcasts I’ve enjoyed.

I love the flexibility that listening to podcasts and audiobooks gives.  Unlike with reading a book, I can get deeply engrossed in a story or conversation as I walk or run, drive my car, or soak in the bath.  (I’m quite obsessive about the condition of my books*, and there’s no way I’d allow anyone, even myself, to risk taking them into the steamy, damp bathroom).  I even listen to podcasts while I’m working as a bosun on a ship, perched aloft in the rigging to serve, seize, and whip.

*Fold corners over?  You’re now on the list of people I don’t lend books to, along with other barbarians like my Dad and my oldest friend Shel.

So here are five of my favourite podcasts to travel without moving.

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  • From Our Own Correspondent.

Longform journalism podcast from the BBC that blends travel reportage, political analysis, and stories that lie behind recent headlines.  I love listening to this on Radio 4 as part of my Saturday mornings when I’m home, for the content, but also for the lessons in how to present an engaging piece of writing.  Listen live to BBC Radio 4, or follow here.

  • 80 Days.

Presented by three self-proclaimed “history and geography geeks”, the 80 Days podcast is dedicated to discovering lesser-known countries and territories around the world, through their history, politics, landscapes, and culture, including places like Rapa Nui, Sápmi, Birobidzhan**, and the Kuril Islands.  Dive in to the podcast here.

**Yeah, me neither.

  • Travel Tales Beyond the Brochure.

The Barefoot Backpacker dives into a different theme in each episode, talking about concepts like why bucket lists can be a bad idea, reverse culture shock, or travelling in your home town, as well as offbeat destinations like Vanuatu. Follow the conversations here.

  • She Explores.

A podcast bringing forth voices of women doing things outdoors, from exploration and adventure, working in outdoor industries, arts and music, to environmental awareness and activism.  It has a strong North American influence, but reaches out to cover women around the world.  Find it here.

  • Curiously Polar.

Presented by an experienced polar tour leader and a nature photographer, this podcast covers the colder corners of the globe.  Topics have somewhat of a science and exploration focus, ranging from the Global Seed Vault in Spitzbergen, the history of the whaling industry, how to walk in snowshoes, marine mammal sex, and where exactly Santa Claus lives. Find it here.

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Birds do it, bees do it, but just how do fin whales do it?  Picture courtesy of Mario Branco.

You can find all these podcasts through their own websites or via various playing platforms like itunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and Spotify.

Which travel podcasts do you follow?
Leave me your recommendations in the comments below.
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Photo Journal: Stormbound in Skudeneshavn, Norway

The name Norway derives from Nordvegen, the north route, a network of sheltered sounds, straits and fjords along the country’s coast providing a shipping route protected from the wild North and Norwegian Seas.  Karmsund, the narrow channel between the mainland and the island of Karmøy, a Viking stronghold, was the final part of the route we’d  follow before emerging into the open water of Boknafjorden, north of Stavanger.

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Gamle Skudeneshavn, the old town, on the island of Karmøy, is considered to be one of the best preserved historic towns in Norway,

We make our approaches to Haugesund shortly before 4am, following a couple of large supply vessels into the port, and picking up the sector lights of the first of the channel markers.  Unlike previous night’s sailing, this was pilotage, picking out lights marking the edge of the channel and counting off the buoys, and in familiar water (I sailed here on Draken Harald Hårfagre in the summer of 2013).

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The wind had died away in the evening, and Karmsund was millpond flat in the lee of the island. With first light we picked up the beginning of the open water swell, rolling in across from the North Sea ahead of the coming weather system, and at the 7am watch change, we handed over a slate grey sea streaked with white horses, and the news that we’d put into Skudeneshavn rather than try to run ahead of the storm for Lerwick or Peterhead.

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Entry into Skudeneshaven is through a channel, only 30 metres at the narrowest just past the lighthouse at Vikeholmen.  After a couple of hours punching into the swell we find our line into the harbour, and start dropping sails for arrival.  I’m sent to the bowsprit to call distances and look out for traffic in the harbour (I’m rubbish at estimating distances) as rain starts to sheet down.

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Skudeneshavn was bustling herring port in the 18th and 19th century, a boom town during the age of sail, where fishing and shipping brought wealth to the locals and drew in workers from the rest of the region.  Now traditional herring drifters in the harbour have given way to vast oil rig supply ships and small leisure boats.

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We slide into the wind shadow of an immense oil rig supply ship with a helipad several stories above the tip of our mast, and try to find a berth big enough for the ship.  The harbour narrows down, lined with old buildings, and small boats are tied up on every quay.  The wind pushes us to one spot, and we quickly make fast, though this involves running up one lane and down another, and hopping into a garden.

The old town, Gamle Skudeneshavn, is a winding warren of narrow cobbled lanes, quays and jetties, and traditional whitewashed timber buildings, built by the master boatbuilders that were based here, in a tight jumble around the water’s edge.  The town still bustles through the summer, as a popular holiday getaway from nearby Stavanger, and the host of several heritage festivals, including Skudefestivalen, the largest traditional boat gathering in western Norway.

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Squalls blowing in from the south pushing waves up and over Vikeholmen.

In late autumn, the streets and the shore are far quieter, as weather systems sweep in from the Atlantic Ocean bringing regular wind squalls and rain showers.  Coastal walks become bracing, but there’s always a cosy corner in town to find hot coffee and waffles to warm up.

As the crow flies, we’re less than 15 nautical miles from the island of Utsira, imagined remote and stormbound yet so familiar from the Shipping Forecast, that regular incantation that masters the weather for mariners.   Violent storm 11 is every bit as terrifying as it sounds.  We’ll be staying here in harbour for some time.

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