Autumn in the Cairngorms is absolutely sensational. The honey-scented, purple heather-clad hills of August fade to rust-brown as slowly the trees become the main attraction. Birch and bracken glow gold against the dark of the pines, and the woodlands blaze with reds and oranges.
I had a little holiday around the area with friends that came to visit, staying in a holiday cabin on the other side of Braemar from where I live, and taking a campervan tour of the eastern Cairngorms and Aberdeenshire. I also arranged a couple of wildlife watching trips, going on a beaver watching trip in Perthshire (great success), and visiting Spey Bay to search for dolphins (no luck, though there was some great birdwatching at the river mouth).
My 40th birthday in September was a small family affair, the only opportunity for us to get together this year before Scotland’s COVID guidelines limited the size of groups we were able gather in. It was a joint celebration with my Dad and nephew Joe who had their birthdays in August, when the City of Aberdeen was in local lockdown and they were unable to have any visitors themselves. We had a BBQ in my parent’s garden to give enough space for physical distance between households, and fortunately the sun shone, and the windbreak I spent most of the morning constructing held up.
The final day of September was a golden respite from the first of the autumn storms, which left the signs of winter etched on the mountains. I made the long stomp up to Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird from the Linn of Quoich on a frosty morning, arriving early enough to find a skin of verglas over the granite tor of Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuide and tiny pockets of snow behind tussucks on the plateau, sheltering from the low autumn sun.
My seasonal job with the Cairngorms National Park Authority came to an end at the beginning of November, which left me with some free time of my hands. I’ve been out exploring more of the areas that lie on the periphery of my usual patrol routes, making the most of the fair weather and trying to keep up with the amount of walking I was doing during the summer, usually between 10 and 15km per day. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge with the lure of the indoors in wet and wild weather.
I’ve always found it a bit harder to do things at this time of year, with the combination of short daylengths and wilder weather making me feel like curling up in bed and hibernating for the rest of the season. I’ve got a natural daylight lamp for the time I spend indoors on the computer, and I’ve been making the effort to spend at least some time outdoors every day this month, as I know how much benefit it brings me. I’m aiming keep it up all through the winter.
My other interesting reads from this season can be seen here.
Podcast: January this year marked the 200th anniversary of the first sightings of Antarctica, and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust had planned a programme of events to celebrate the occasion. Due to the pandemic, those which could go ahead were shifted online and a new podcast, A Voyage to Antarctica, was created, with contributions from filmmaker Ruth Peacey, writer Sara Wheeler, and UKAHT’s CEO Camilla Nicol.
Clothing: In anticipation of winter, I’ve splashed out on a pair of the toastiest wool slippers from Glerups. After a day out walking in the hills, they’re a delight to slip my feet into to pad around the house in the evenings.
Self-care: I’ve picked up a lipsalve from Burt’s Bees to last through into the winter. It’s a lovely, tingly peppermint flavour.
Equipment: I started using a natural daylight lamp, the Lumie Vitamin L lightbox, in early October to help with seasonal affective disorder. I put it on for half an hour or so after my alarm sounds in the morning, and read a few pages of my book soaking in the light before getting up. And now I’m not going out to work everyday, I’ll put it on for an hour or so in the afternoon while I work on the computer.
Treat: It’s got to be mince pies. As they appear in the shops in late September, usually the week after my birthday, I try to get a selection of the different supermarket varieties for a taste test, to work out my preferred brand for the rest of the season. Currently in the lead position are the ones from the Co-op, although the proximity of the shop has also had a big influence. The ideal accompaniment, for a wintery weekend afternoon, is an amaretto-laced coffee, with my favourite Bird & Wild blend.
My plans to visit the New Forest and the Isle of Wight in November, then catch up with friends around the south of England have been put on hold again with the COVID lockdown in England. I’ll keep my fingers crossed things might improve by the New Year to allow me to reschedule.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for a bit of work in January, joining the refit of one of the boats I’ve worked on previously. And hopefully that will also bring the opportunity for a short holiday afterwards, though again that all depends on open travel corridors from the UK to Portugal.
In the meantime, I’ve thrown myself into planning a few long walks in my local area and further afield, completing a few online courses, and appreciating winter comforts close to home.
What have you been up to over the last season? How are you affected by the current COVID guidelines where you are?
Remember I’m always here if you need a friendly ear to listen; I’d really love to hear from you.
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*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.
Autumn in the Cairngorms is sensational. Autumn is the season of transition, when days are honeygold and light, and nights are inky-dark, afternoons are sun-warmed, while mornings are crisp with frost. Autumn is when weather plays across the landscape, changing through the months and through the course of any one day.
The honey-scented, purple heather-clad hills of August fade to rust-brown as slowly the trees become the main attraction. Rowans extravagant with red berries. Birch and bracken glowing acid green and yellow against the dark of the pines, and the oak and beech woodlands blaze with a fire of reds, golds, and oranges.
“October is the coloured month here, far more brilliant than June, blazing more sharply than August. From the gold of the birches and bracken on the low slopes, the colour spurts upwards through all the creeping and inconspicuous growths that live among the heather roots – mosses that are lush green or oak-brown, or scarlet and the berried plants, blaeberry, cranberry, crowberry and the rest. “
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
The final day of September was a golden respite from the first of the autumn storms, which left the signs of winter etched on the mountains. I made the long stomp up to Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird from the Quoich on a frosty morning, arriving early enough to find a skin of verglas over the granite tor of Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuide and tiny pockets of snow tucked behind tussucks, sheltering from the low autumn sun.
The first snows of winter dust the high plateau from early October, replenishing snow that lies year round in dark hollows on northern slopes, and draping a silver cloak across dark hills beneath bleached out skies. In this transitional time, overnight snowfalls cover mountain trails and reveal tracks, deer, ptarmigan, hares, melting away just as quick.
In the gloaming, as the dark draws in earlier every day, and on days that are dull and overcast, the colours glow on the hills. The radiant magic of the trees in fall. A last brief blaze of sunlight as they retreat before the winds of winter that whip the leaves from their branches. Cool, wet south-westerly winds that sweep in from the Atlantic, that lay damp orange carpets of larch needles on the forest floor.
Night falls after short days, wood smoke-scented and velvet-textured, filled with a full moon and a scattering of stars.
Have you visited the Cairngorms in autumn? Share your tips for things to see and places to go with me in the comments below.
A long read from the Guardian newspaper exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the future of the global tourism industry, the hit to local economies, and ways to reinvent the sector in a more sustainable model.
A piece from the Washington Post in June that summed up the appeal of the late chef and travel writer Anthony Bourdain, particularly his understanding that food was a common language to share stories across cultures and experiences.
Endurance runner Rosie Watson explores opportunities for new ways of working and living in a time of climate crisis and environmental change, following the enforced pause of the COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdowns.
An article marking the 175th Anniversary of the formation of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays), and landmark legal challenges that ensured continued protection of ancient drove roads and passes through the Cairngorms.
A response to a newspaper article forecasting the death of the Gaelic language in Scotland by Charles (Teàrlach) Wilson, posing questions about deeper impacts of tourism on rural and island communities, and how people are central to rewilding a landscape.
Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And that is the only way forward.
I’m from a rural area in the northeast of Scotland, and I have spent my career working in conservation, environmental education, and countryside access across the UK, with the occasional diversion into nature tourism and outdoor recreation in the UK and Northern Europe. I write here about my interests in travel, the outdoors, expeditions at sea and on land, and connecting with nature.
I occupy space in this world that is exceedingly white. I do not have to fight for my place in these areas due to the colour of my skin.
While I like to think I am not racist, I’m a beneficiary of the structural racism that winds through our society like bindweed, and that through my silence in not it calling out when I see it, I am complicit. It is vital we, as white people, start to see what has long been evident to Black people, however uncomfortable it may feel in the process; it’s time to grasp the nettle.
To start, we must educate ourselves. By being better informed, we can find a way to see more of the landscape that surrounds us, and be better allies to people of colour. We can start to open outdoor spaces that were once and are still exclusionary, and amplify the voices of those that are underrepresented in our fields.
An old Guardian article which probed the slave-owning history of Britain, and the legacy of fortunes made from the labour of enslaved people and the compensation for their emancipation. It ties into a two-part BBC documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, which is still available to view on the iPlayer.
An informative blog post by Eulanda and Omo of Hey, Dip Your Toes In! laying out ways in which we can learn from, support, and advocate for the Black people in our lives, and ensure others aren’t excluded from opportunities arising from our white privilege.
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.
Leah Thomas introduces intersectional environmentalism and sparks a conversation on the need for anti-racism to be a cornerstone of climate and social justice.
This is just a beginning. I understand that it will not be quick or an easy process, and there will be times where I get it wrong, but it’s time to be idle no more. No lives matter until Black lives matter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Extracts from this piece were first published as posts on the UKAHTPort Lockroy blog.
Some of the things that have captured my attention over the past few months, inspired by similar blog posts by Alex Roddie and Chris Townsend. A collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful readings from around the internet that I want to share with you.
Like many of you, the COVID-19 lockdown turned my life upside down. Plans I’d made as I prepared to leave Antarctica have been completely shelved, any potential opportunities remain just that. Both the travel and the outdoor industries where I’ve usually found work have had to shut up shop and furlough staff. I’ve signed up as a volunteer, but it has taken time for organisations to process the volume of applications they’ve received.
So, I’ve encountered an abundance of idle time in the last week or so. It’s been an unexpected chance to indulge in the things that are usually side-lined for more pressing tasks. For me, it’s reading for pleasure. In the last week, I’ve been able to immerse myself in a few good books to help fend off the cabin fever.
While lockdown has clipped my wings, and travel is an impossibility right now, a book can take the mind flying anywhere beyond the immediate four walls. Here’s what I’ve read, and my to-do list for the coming weeks.
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.
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…
I’ve long had a fascination with the far north. This short hike near Qaqortoq, in southern Greenland, is a classic introduction to a tundra environment yet not too remote and challenging given the location, and ideal for a solo hike. A circular route of around 12km, there are plenty of diversions to take in the tops of surrounding hills for outstanding views to the iceberg-littered outer fjord and inland, through rocky spires to the distant ice sheet.