An Architecture Tour of Ålesund, Norway

The port town of Ålesund is often considered to be the most beautiful in Norway, largely down to the distinctive Art Nouveau style of architecture of the buildings, set on a canvas of several small islands, against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains dropping sheer to the fjords below.

The famous view of Ålesund from the Aksla Fjellstua viewpoint. (Blue Clipper is tied up alongside in the mouth of the harbour, on the right hand side of the picture).

Wandering through the streets of the centre is an ideal way to explore the Art Nouveau influences throughout the town. Now I must admit, I have never studied architecture or design, or anything creative beyond high school art, so this is a guide produced by an appreciative amateur, not an in-depth lesson in architecture.

What is Art Nouveau?

Saying that, let’s start off with a little introduction into the style known internationally as Art Nouveau. It defined the look around the turn of the 20th century; Europe of La Belle Époque, the gilded age that led into the darkness of WWI. Crossing architecture, art, graphic design, furniture making, and crafting, the style was heavily inspired by dynamic forms found in nature, making use of asymmetry, whiplash lines, and ornamental motifs like flowers, trees, and insects.

In Scandinavia, Germany, and the Baltic nations, Art Nouveau was known as Jugenstil (Youth Style), in Spain as Modernisme, especially Modernisme català in Catalonia, and in the UK as Glasgow Style. You’ll recognise the Art Nouveau style immediately in the entrances to the stations of the Paris Métropolitain, on the façades of Sagrada Família and the other works of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, in the Willow Tearooms of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, in the stained glass work of Louis Comfort Tiffany and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, and in the jewellery of René Lalique.

Why is Ålesund Well Known for Art Nouveau?

The reason Ålesund has such a prevalence of Art Nouveau buildings is the consequence of one fateful night in the town’s history. At around 2am on 23rd January 1904, a fire broke out in the factory of the Aalesund Preserving Company, on the island of Aspøya, when a cow kicked over a burning torch, spreading quickly to neighbouring buildings. Fanned by strong winter winds, the blaze quickly engulfed the wooden buildings around the Brosundet fishing harbour. By daybreak, embers caught in the wind had started several separate fires on the other side of the water.

Despite the efforts of fire fighting crews, including a steam-powered fireboat, the situation was soon out of control. Residents were evacuated, grabbing what they could carry and heading out into the winter morning. In total, 850 buildings were completely destroyed, and a further 230 seriously damaged. More than 10,000 people were displaced from their homes in the firestorm, and incredibly only one life was lost, having tempted fate by re-entering her home to save personal items.

Relief funds were donated from across Norway, and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, who regularly visited the area on sailing voyages in the fjords, dispatched three ships to provide humanitarian aid to the stricken population. The reconstruction of the town became an urgent project, and following Norwegian independence after the dissolution of the United Kingdom of Sweden and Norway in 1905, a way of cementing national identity.

The result is a beautiful collection of period buildings with the bright colours, Art Nouveau ornamentation, and architectural flourishes of the prevailing Jugendstil style. Today, Ålesund is a partner in the Réseau Art Nouveau Network, which connects European cities with a rich Art Nouveau design heritage, like Brussels, Vienna, Glasgow, and Barcelona, and less well known examples, like Darmstadt in Germany, Aviero in Portugal, and Szeged in Hungary.

Ålesund Art Nouveau Walking Tour

This post will lead you on a virtual tour of Ålesund, uncovering the Art Nouveau architecture of the town, and when you finally travel there yourself, can act as your self-guided walking tour. The route starts from Skateflukaia, near the Tourist Information Centre (Turistkontoret). The walk is only around 5km at most, and will take a couple of hours to complete.

Head away from the water’s edge to find Kongens Gate, a cobblestone-clad pedestrian shopping street, and follow it to the junction with Løvenvoldgata and St. Olavs Plass. Turn left, then left again outside the Løvenvold Kino (cinema) on to Storgata. Don’t forget to keep looking up at the buildings to spot details like flowers, sunbursts, carvings and spires inspired by traditional stave churches, and even dragons. At the junction by the Scandic Hotel, turn right and head uphill into Byparken.

The Løvenvold Kino on the corner of Storgata.

The View from Aksla Fjellstua

Byparken, a pocket-sized park at the foot of Aksla, is the starting point for the ascent up the 418 steps to the Fjellstua mountain viewpoint. By an incongruous monkey puzzle tree is a statue of Viking chieftain Hrólfr Ragnvaldsson or Gånge-Rolf (Rolf the Walker), supposedly a local lad born in Ålesund, and much better known internationally by the name Rollo, Duke of Normandy. For fans of the Vikings TV series, he’s the inspiration behind Rollo, ruthless brother of the hero Ragnar Lothbrok.

The steps are well-paved and have sturdy handrails, and benches are located every twenty steps or so, breaking the challenge of the ascent into more manageable chunks if needed. There’s no reason to rush though, as the views on the ascent are worth lingering over, and the ice cream selection at the Fjellstua as you soak in the panorama is just reward for the effort.

Almost nearly half-way. Five more minutes. Honestly.
Byrampen is an overhanging viewpoint part-way up the steps.

The view from Aksla Fjellstua is easily one of the most recognisable in Norway, and certainly among the most beautiful. Ice cream coloured buildings cluster around the harbours of the central three islands of Ålesund. The islands and skerries of wider archipelago lie dark in the sparkling water of Breidsundet to the west. And the sheer, often snow capped, peaks of the Sunnmøre Alps encircling the Hjørundfjord provide the backdrop to the south.

To return to the streets, there are several well-signposted walking trails from the top of Askla, all of which are much quieter than the steps, and give sensational views over the rooftops to the Sunnmøre Alps or the islands beyond. It takes around 20 minutes to descend from the Fjellstua.

Looking across towards the Sunnmøre Alps.

The Fjellstua is a stop on the Ålesund sightseeing train, which visits several tourist attractions around the town and has audio commentary in various languages, and is served by a hop-on hop-off bus, so climbing the stairs isn’t essential to appreciate the views from the top.

Island Hopping

Retrace your steps to St. Olavs Plass, then follow the edge of Ålesundet, the narrow channel that provided safe harbour to the historic herring fishing fleet and is now home to a flotilla of small sailing boats.  Hellebroa bridge, between the islands of Nørvøya and Aspøya, feels like the true heart of Ålesund. Crossing Ålesundet, it is the perfect vantage point for photographing pastel-painted buildings reflected in the sheltered water.

Blue Clipper in the harbour in Ålesund.

Two sculptures look over the old fishing quays near the bridge, reminding passers-by of the importance of the industry to the town. The Boy Fisherman (Fiskergutten) is said to invoke the optimism of youth, while nearby The Herring Wife (Sildkona) is a tribute to the women who processed and salted the catch ashore, ready for export across Norway and the rest of Europe.

Ålesund Art Nouveau Centre (Jugendstilsenteret)

Just over the road from Hellebroa is the old Swan Pharmacy building at Apotekergata 16, the highlight of Ålesund’s Art Nouveau offering. The beautiful interior of the shop was preserved while it continued to operate, along with that of the private residence on the upper floors, and after the business closed in 2001, it was redeveloped into the Art Nouveau Centre (Jugendstilsenteret).

Interpretation tells the story of the devastating fire in 1904, and subsequent reconstruction of the town, and explores the Jugendstil, Art Nouveau, and Glasgow Style influences that were blended with Norwegian folkloric art and Norse heritage to create a distinctive Nordic Jugendstil style in Ålesund. If design is really your thing, the centre is unmissable, as is Art Museum Kube (Kube Kunstmuseet) in the neighbouring old Norges Bank building.

Jugendstilsenteret features examples of Art Nouveau period furniture and interior design.
The old Norges Bank frontage of the Kube Kunstmuseet gallery.

Things saved from the fire

A short walk from the Jugendstilsenteret on Apotekergata, the area of Molovegen near the harbour mouth is home to the handful of wooden buildings that survived the fire in 1904. Similar to the traditional buildings of picturesque Bryggen in Bergen and Gamle Skudeneshavn on the island of Karmøy, they give a glimpse of how Ålesund would have looked at the turn of the 20th century.

One of the buildings holds the Fisheries Museum (Fiskerimuseet), a small museum that details the heritage of one of the biggest fishing fleets in Europe, and keeps traditional boatbuilding skills alive. The best views of the old harbour can be seen from the small lighthouse at the end of the breakwater.

The Fisheries Museum on Molovegen and the Molja lightouse on the outer harbour breakwater.

To the Church

Finish your Art Nouveau walking tour by retracing your steps on Molovegen, then turning onto Øwregata. Any diversion into side streets will reveal more eye-catching buildings and architectural features, but continue uphill towards the imposing yellow building of Aspøya school, to lead to Kirkegata and Ålesund Kirkje.

The large stone church replaced the original that was damaged in the fire. The foundation stone was laid by King Haakon VII in 1906, and the period style is evident, especially in the arch windows. The highly decorated interior is also worth a peek if you visit during their opening hours.

Top Tips to Explore Art Nouveau Ålesund

Don’t miss the Ålesund Art Nouveau Centre (Jugendstilsenteret) at Apotekergata 16, for the context behind the design movement, a glimpse of some stunning period interiors, and some specialist collections. The centre is open Tuesday to Sunday, with entry costing 90NOK (U18 entry is free). There’s also a gorgeous café, and small gift shop in the original pharmacy.

Art Nouveau inspiration from forms found in nature.

The Tourist Information Centre (Turistkontoret) on Skateflukaia is the starting point for guided tours through the summer season, and has a selection of guides and leaflets available in a range of languages with more information about the local architecture.

Take yourself for coffee and cake in one of the many cafés or bakeries around the town as a break from your walking tour, such as Apotekeren Kafe or Walderhaug Bakeri og Konditori. I recommend trying a couple of local specialities; either fruity, slightly boozy Skilpaddekake (turtle cake) or almondy, meringue-topped Verdens Beste kake (world’s best cake).

Getting to Ålesund

Hurtigruten coastal ferries call in Ålesund daily all year round. It’s an overnight sailing northward from Bergen, or three nights on board travelling south from Tromsø. Port stops are usually brief, however Ålesund is one destination with the opportunity to spend a few hours ashore or take part in an organised excursion.

My view down Ålesundet from my bunk on Blue Clipper, tied up on the quayside on the outer harbour.

A large number of visitors to Ålesund arrive via cruise ship, with just a few hours to spend in port. Fortunately, ships dock in a central location, making a walking tour the ideal way to explore the city during a stopover.

A bus service connects Ålesund with Bergen, with the scenic journey taking around nine and a half hours.

Have you visited Ålesund? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.
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Five Reasons Why You Should Explore Cities on Foot

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Five Reasons Why You Should Explore Cities on Foot”

What I’ve been reading this season | Spring 21

Walking

How 2020 became the year of the walker

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

Is walking the most adventurous way to travel?

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

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

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

“Walking” by Henry David Thoreau

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

Winter

Having a miserable winter? Go for a walk

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

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

Following Footprints

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

Snowshoes in Scotland – More than just a novelty?

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

Country Diary: Following in the Footsteps of Nan Shepherd

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

Women Outdoors

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

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

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

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

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

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

The BAME Women Making the Outdoors More Inclusive

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

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

Cairngorms Walks: The Seven Bridges Walk in Ballater, Aberdeenshire

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Cairngorms Walks: The Seven Bridges Walk in Ballater, Aberdeenshire”

The 10 best walks in Royal Deeside, Scotland

The River Dee is one of the most impressive rivers in Scotland, rising high on the Cairngorm Plateau, before squeezing through the narrow cataract of Linn of Dee and carving a course for the coast through rolling hills backing on to high mountains, impressive pinewoods, colourful birch forest, and heather-clad moor.

This area of Aberdeenshire has attracted travellers long before association with Queen Victoria and Balmoral Castle earned it the epithet Royal Deeside, and a position firmly on the tourist trail to the Highlands. The corridor of the River Dee was a easy route between east and west, into the heart of the Cairngorms from the coast, and a safe refuge for drovers, riders, and raiders passing through the mountain passes and wilder lands to the north and south, around the majestic peak of Lochnagar.

The towns of Aboyne and Ballater, and the village of Braemar (one of the highest villages anywhere in the UK), Dinnet, and Crathie are the main settlements in the area, and any could be the ideal base for taking these walks. Braemar is only around one and a half hours drive from Aberdeen, so these walks are all easily possible as part of a day trip out from the city.

These are 10 of my favourite walks on and around Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire, in the eastern part of the Cairngorms National Park; opportunites to slow down your travel through the area and explore deeper into this stunning part of Scotland.

The 10 Best Walks in Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire

Continue reading “The 10 best walks in Royal Deeside, Scotland”

Armchair Travel: 10 Books About Walking

A selection of the best books about travelling on foot, from arduous hikes in far-flung lands to rambles much closer to home, and meditations on the nature of walking.

A few years ago I learned about the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, which translates into English as the Christmas book flood, and was immediately hooked by the intention. Icelanders gift family and friends with new books on Christmas Eve, with the idea that the evening is spent reading together in cosy company gathered around the fire, while sipping hot chocolate, mulled wine, or a traditional Icelandic concoction of ale and soft drinks known as Jolabland*.

*It sounds very much like a shandy made of Guinness and Fanta if you’re tempted.

So for this festive instalment of my Armchair Travel Series, I encourage you to cosy up by the fire among friends and family, and crack open the spine on a new book about an adventure on foot (or given the lateness of this post, treat yourself to an e-book download). The list includes feats of endurance in remote and challenging environments, more gentle rambles close to home rich in observations of history and nature, and some journeys on foot where the landscapes tramped are as much internal insights as outwith the mind.

Here’s my selection of the best books about walking.
Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Books About Walking”

The Two Lochs Walk in Abernethy Forest

The Caledonian Forest once covered much of the highlands of Scotland, spreading over the land as the last glaciers retreated and eventually disappeared. But over many thousands of years of human activity that manipulated the wildland, only around 1% of the original temperate rainforest coverage remains in Scotland.

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In the cool freshness under the pine canopy in Abernethy Forest.

Remnants of the Caledonian Forest are unique habitats, home to some of the rarest species in the British Isles, like the endemic Scottish crossbill, secretive pine martens and wildcats, and the majestic capercaillie. In fact, around 5,000 species have been recorded in areas of old-growth forest, ranging from the towering Scots pines to the tiny beetles living under the bark of the trees, with plants, lichens, fungi, and other wee beasties in-between.

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Exploring the woodland on an autumn morning.

Abernethy Forest National Nature Reserve on Speyside protects a huge area of Caledonian Forest, as well as rivers, lochs, moorland, and montane plateau. The nature reserve in Cairngorms National Park extends all the way to the summit of Ben Macdui, at 1,309m (4,295′), the second-highest summit in the British Isles.

Loch Garten and Loch Mallachie are beautiful forest lochs, fringed by granny pine trees on three sides, with views of Bynack More and the Cairngorm plateau in the southeast reflected in the dark water. In spring and summer, the lochs are excellent for watching ospreys fishing.

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Gnarled pines and dark water in Loch Garten

Abernethy Forest Two Lochs Walk from Boat of Garten

  • Route length: 10km (6 miles) circular route
  • Ascent: 118 metres (387′)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2.5 – 3 hours
  • Difficulty: moderate

A walk to Loch Mallachie and Loch Garten from Boat of Garten. You can find more details about the route, including a map, on my ViewRanger.

From the steam railway station in Boat of Garten follow signage for the Speyside Way trail towards Nethy Bridge, crossing Garten Bridge over the River Spey on the way out of the village. Across the junction of the road is a small carpark with interpretation panels and maps of waymarked routes into the forest.

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Forested islands in Loch Mallachie, with the view to Bynack More behind.

Follow the red route for approximately 1km, then take the right-hand track at the fork, heading south for a further kilometre. At the next junction, take the narrow left-hand fork, and head in an easterly direction.  The path undulates and sweeps round to the southeast through the trees, towards Loch Mallachie. Ignore the myriad paths along the lochside, turning sharply north when you reach the last one, to lead to Loch Garten, the bigger of the two lochs.

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Loch Garten, famous for its fishing ospreys in the summer months.

From the carpark alongside Loch Garten, it’s possible to make a diversion along the road at the top of the loch for around 700m to the RSPB Osprey Centre. It’s a must-do in spring, while the birds are sitting on their nest. Otherwise, follow the blue waymarking northwest alongside the road for a couple of kilometres to meet up with the Speyside Way.

Cross the road to follow a wooden walkway for just over 150m. This was constructed on the edge of a small forest lochan, to give a closer view of the habitat. Look out for spawning frogs and tadpoles in the spring and darting dragon and damselflies in summer.

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Woodland walks in Abernethy Forest

From here you have two options: continue to follow the Speyside Way alongside the road back to the forest carpark, or pick up the forest trail with red waymarking just as you reach the first cottage on the road. The red route is just under 2km through the trees, and returns to the carpark where you entered the forest.

Retrace your route back over Garten Bridge and into Boat of Garten. There are a few cafes and coffee shops in the village where you can find refreshments, such as the Gashouse Café and Cairngorm Leaf & Bean, though some will close for the winter. There’s also the Boat Country Inn if you need something stronger after your walk.

Getting to Boat of Garten:

  • The village of Boat of Garten is connected by a scenic stream railway to Aviemore (nearest mainline railway station) and Grantown on Spey.  Trains run between the Easter and October school holidays.
  • The bus service between Aviemore and Grantown on Spey will stop in the village, and on the roadside approximately 2.5km (1.5 miles) from the RSPB Osprey Centre.
  • Route 7 of the National Cycle Network connects Boat of Garten to Aviemore or Carrbridge, with options for on-road or largely off-road cycling.
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Even in late autumn, the forest is filled with interesting sights, sounds and scents to explore.

What to look out for in Abernethy Forest:

Spring: Red squirrels; crested tits, siskins and endemic Scottish crossbills; frogs and frogspawn in pools and puddles; and the arrival of the first ospreys in mid-March.

Summer: Ospreys fishing on the lochs; great spotted woodpeckers, tree pipits, and redstarts; tree-nesting goldeneye ducks; woodland wildflowers; and dazzling dragonflies and damselflies.

Autumn: The roar of rutting red and roe deer; wild greylag and pink-footed geese coming in to roost at dusk; wildfowl like teal, wigeon, and whooper swans; and incredible fungi formations.

Winter: Gnarled, lichen-encrusted ancient pine forest, with views of the sub-Arctic tundra plateau of the Cairngorm Mountains across the iced-over lochs.

Tips for Responsible Watching Wildlife in Abernethy Forest:

The Two Lochs walk is a popular route in Abernethy Forest, especially during the osprey season, so to help protect the forest and wildlife you should follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the advice of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and RSPB on any signs.

If you’re hoping to see capercaillie, the best way is to walk on the forest trails in the early morning as they will often come to the paths to gather grit. Bear in mind that for this part of Scotland that will be between 4am and 5am in May, June and July. Avoid leaving the paths in the forest as you could be disturbing ground-nesting birds.

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The edge of the Cairngorm plateau from Loch Garten.

In drier areas of the forest, you’ll see big mounds of pine needles, which are the nests of wood ants. These can grow up to a metre high, and can be home to well over 100,000 individual ants. Standing deadwood is as valuable to wildlife as living trees, especially the invertebrate life of the forest, and a good indication of the quality of the habitat.

Wildlife refuge areas should be given a wide berth if you choose to go wild swimming in either of the lochs; these are the sheltered bays, particularly at the southern and eastern sides of the lochs, especially in the autumn when the lochs are important roosts for migratory birds.

Want to try this walking route for yourself? Why not pin this post for later?

What I loved this season | Summer 2020

Where I’ve been

After returning to the UK from Antarctica, I spent most of the previous season in COVID lockdown at my parent’s place on the coast of Aberdeenshire.  I haven’t travelled much further afield this season either, just relocating to the other side of the county to start working for the Cairngorms National Park Authority as a Seasonal Ranger.

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Looking up Strathdee on a moody afternoon, towards my home for the summer at Mar Lodge, near Braemar, Aberdeenshire.

It’s been really exciting to get out and explore Royal Deeside, visiting sites that I’ve known since as a child, and discovering new places I’d never been to before. I’d been really worried about finding work this summer, with the sectors I usually work in completely closed down and existing staff finding themselves furloughed or even facing redundancy. So I feel extremely grateful to have this opportunity, especially when I thought working in the berry fields might have been the only option for the summer.

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Views of Lochnagar and the White Mounth Munros from the Forest of Ballochbuie. The view of there from here.
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Views across the glen to Ballochbuie from the hills between The Stuic and the side of Lochnagar. The view of here from over there.

My only trip away from the area was a very personal one to spend a few days in Caithness, meeting up with family and friends to visit old haunts and remember times past. Despite the emotional circumstances of the visit, it was good to see the sea and sky in a different place for a short while.

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Hanging out on the pier in Thurso, watching dolphins swim in the bay.
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Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of mainland Britain, from Old Castlehill
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Watching the wind in the summer barley

What I’ve done

My current base in the Cairngorms, near Braemar, has been fantastic for getting out into the hills for hikes, and on most of my non-working days, I’ve been able to spend most of the time outdoors. I also stay very close to a couple of mountain rivers with excellent swimming pools, and have tried to fit in a dip at least a couple of times a week.

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The Punchbowl on the River Quoich.
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The mysterious entrance to Burn o’Vat

I’ve not actually done any overnight camps on my recent hiking trips, wimping out after seeing the midges that have been plaguing the campers I speak to on my ranger patrols. Although there are a few places that are always midge hotspots, it just seems like this is an especially prolific summer for the midges. I think I’ll wait for the end of the season before I venture out with my tent for a few nights.

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Forest walks on old trails near the village of Dinnet.
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Big skies over the Muir of Dinnet.

I had the good fortune to meet the local ghillie fishing his beat while I was out on patrol one day, and managed to arrange a fly fishing lesson. There’s still a long way to go before I master my casting technique, and I’m pretty sure that if a fish ever took the fly it would end up with me screaming and falling overin the river, but it was a really enjoyable morning on the Dee, watching the fish and dragonflies, listening to the birds, learning to read the movement of the water.

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Learning to fly fish on the River Dee.

My Summer Love List

Books: I’ve been getting down to some serious study and preparation for taking a Mountain Leader training course in the Autumn, so my Mountain Leader Handbook and the Navigation in the Mountains textbook have been indispensable.

I’ve also picked up the Cicerone guides Walking the Munros (volumes 1 and 2) to plan a few more hill days and mini-expeditions for my day’s off.

Interesting articles and blogs I’ve read can be seen here.

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The things I’ve loved this season.

Podcast: I discovered the Out of Doors podcast from BBC Scotland after they interviewed my colleague Duncan about the work of the Seasonal Rangers in the Cairngorms National Park. I got hooked by the eclectic range of subjects they discuss, and the warm, cosy feel of the show.

Clothing: Despite what you might think, summer weather in Scotland can be pretty warm at times, so a pair of lightweight but hardwearing trousers suitable to wear as part of my Ranger uniform was really important. My Rab Valkyrie trousers have a great fit, excellent quality, and meet my requirement for POCKETS!

Equipment: To go with the new trousers, my most essential piece of equipment this season has been a spray bottle of permethrin treatment which I use on my clothing. I work in areas where ticks, and other biting insects, are prevalent, and it’s really important to be aware of the risk of Lyme disease.

My only real vanity is sunglasses, and I found a great pair from a company called Waterhaul. As well as providing a good level of UV protection and looking good, I chose these as they’re made from recycled plastic fishing nets. The company are a social enterprise, and recover discarded nets from the beaches around Cornwall to turn into the frames. I love them so much.

I picked up a brand spanking new pair of hiking boots too, which I absolutely love. They’re Scarpa Peak GTX boots, and the blue and orange colour matches all the rest of my gear. Including my tartan pyjamas.

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Important pyjama – hiking boot coordination.

Treats: I picked up a bottle of my favourite Rock Rose gin from their gorgeous wee distillery shop, and a small bottle of their sloe gin, perfect for an autumn afternoon warmer when the weather turns a bit colder.

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Bottles of Rock Rose gin on the shelf.

As rangers for the National Park, we get supplied with a few Clif bars to keep us going, so I’ve been testing out a few of the different flavours. My current favourite is Peanut Butter Banana. 10/10 would recommend for your next trip to the hills.

What’s next?

Autumn is my favourite season, and this year I’ve got a bit more to look forward to. It’s my birthday, and this year it’s a big one as I turn 40 in September. I can’t quite believe it.

I’m also in the process of booking a Mountain Leader Training course, to consolidate my skills and move on to the next level. I’m really excited about it, but also a bit nervous.

One of the things I love most about autumn in Scotland is cold, crisp mornings to go walking in the woods. Looking out for fungi and falling leaves, listening to the roar of deer on the hillsides, then finding a cosy spot by a fire to read and watch the weather out the window. I’ve got a few more days in hand this season, and some friends are planning to visit, so I’m really excited to be able to get out and show them around my home.

What have you been up to over the last season? Have you started to get back to some sense of reality?
Remember I’m always here if you need an ear; I’d really love to hear from you.

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

What I’ve been reading this season | Spring 2020

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.

Nature and the Outdoors

The volcanic eruption of Whaakati / White Island in December 2019 was truly shocking. In this essay, Alex Perry examines the events to challenge our perception of risk in the outdoors.

Sarah Thomas’s country diary mirrors my own star-seeking night walks early in the lockdown period, before the northern summer nights encroached.

Instead of taking part in the 41st TGO Challenge in May, I joined the virtual challenge on social media, and enjoyed this dive into the history of the event from Chris Townsend.

Ronald Turnbull reminisces about the land left untrodden while we are in lockdown with a wander through the bogs and flows of the British Isles.

A lovely post by Ramblers Scotland President Lucy Wallace, about finding joy in noticing the small things about the turning seasons.

During lockdown I contributed to the Slow Ways project by mapping a series of routes in Scotland. This article introduces the initiative to a wider audience.

Environment

An acoustic exploration of solastalgia, the pang of future loss of astonishing natural beauty in a rapidly changing environment, in the Antarctic, revealing how listening can be seeing.

These times are certainly unprecedented. While I was in Antarctica, and the rest of the world was waking up to COVID-19, the continent experienced extraordinary temperatures.

A deep dive into the history and the uncertain future of our global oceans in a warming world.

Life in Lockdown

Through the tragic story of the Bealers, Eva Holland explores the idea of control and choice over a time and place to die in this thoughtful essay.

A deeply honest piece by Jamie Lafferty about being the outsider in your chosen career, and finding that success is balanced on a knife-edge.

A powerful piece of writing by Ursula Martin about the slowly unravelling monotony of life in lockdown.

This essay by Rebecca Solnit dissects the foundation rocking clarity brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, and optimism for the future as connections are rebuilt.

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.

Continue reading “Traversing Schiehallion: Scotland’s Magical Mountain”