Wednesday, 20 September 2023

It's headlamp time!

A dark night in October 2022

As the nights grow longer it's time to think about headlamps and torches and add one to your bag or, if you carry a tiny one all summer as I do, add a bigger more powerful one. It's worth checking that ones taken out of storage still work and the batteries aren't flat too. Don't get caught out in the dark!

I posted a longer piece on headlamps a few years ago and Alex Roddie has reviewed a selection of current headlamps here. Last year I reviewed some Black Diamond headlamps, two of which, the Spot 400-R and Storm 500-R (which gets the best review in Alex's piece) have since become favourites. An older model I reviewed in 2019, the Petzl Swift RL, is another favourite I use regularly.

Sunday, 17 September 2023

Nature & Conservation Book Reviews: Reflections by Mark Avery, The Lost Rainforests of Britain by Guy Shrubsole, Regeneration by Andrew Painting

Three books I've read recently each throw a different light on the complex subject of rewilding, conservation and the nature crisis (or biodiversity crisis if you prefer - I don't as the word biodiversity needs explaining so often). I think the contrasting approaches are complementary and the three books together give an interesting and important overview of where we are now. Mark Avery's Reflections is about wildlife throughout the UK, Guy Shrubsole's The Lost Forests of Britain is about a specific habitat, and Andrew Painting's Regeneration is about the recovery of a specific area. All of them are about the restoration of nature and how to achieve it. 

The three authors all write well and their books are highly readable. They're also informative, inspiring, and optimistic, something we need right now. I recommend them to everyone concerned about the state of nature and what can be done about it.

Reflections by Mark Avery

Covering all wildlife on land and water in every environment Reflections is the most general and wide-ranging of the three books. The author, an experienced conservationist and campaigner who worked for the RSPB for 25 years, starts with an overview of the dire state of wildlife. This section is depressing. The dismal effect is somewhat leavened by a chapter on wildlife conservation successes but that finishes with the question of why such success is hard to achieve on a large scale. Then there's a damning chapter on the failure of wildlife NGOs and the government to protect and enhance wildlife. This could lead to despair that anything can change but Mark Avery is not one for that and the book finishes with his look at what can be done. He puts forward some radical proposals, but his most important suggestion comes right at the end when he calls for readers to "play your part to the full .... engage your brain and then engage your muscles and get things done". 

The Lost Rainforests of Britain by Guy Shrubsole

Recently awarded the 2023 Wainright Prize for Writing on Conservation The Lost Rainforests of Britain describes Guy Shrubsole's exploration of the last remnants of rain forests left in England, Wales and Scotland after he first discovered such lush places existed when he moved to Devon. His wanderings in the forests, his meetings with others concerned about them, and his infectious delight in the wonders found in them make for an entertaining read. As well as visiting the last rainforests the author also looks at the richness of life they contain, analyses why so little of them is left, and finally considers how they can be restored. 

Regeneration by Andrew Painting

The final book of three isn't about the problems and what can be done but about what is being done on one big estate, Mar Lodge in the Cairngorms, which was bought by the National Trust for Scotland in 1995. The NTS set out to repair the damage done by centuries of abuse and mismanagement and Regeneration tells the story of how this is happening. The author, who works as an ecologist on the estate, goes out with botanists, naturalists, stalkers and more and visits the forests, moors, and mountains that make up this magnificent land - one I know quite well as I live not far away. The detailed and intense work undertaken to study and monitor and in places restore the wildlife and plantlife is fascinating and impressive. This is rewilding at work. This is what needs to happen in so many other places.


Saturday, 16 September 2023

Photography: Sony's In-Body Image Stabilisation - an accidental test

With in-body stabilisation on.
Without in-body stabilisation.

How good is the image stabilisation in Sony's a6600 and a 6700 bodies? I've just found out by accident that it works well. Until this year I didn't have a camera body with stabilisation, just lenses, and hadn't got round to seeing just how slow a shutter speed I could handhold with one.

I took a handheld photograph of my current camera and lens set-up with the Sony a6600 and the Sony E 30mm macro lens, uploaded the image to Lightroom, and was surprised to see it was blurred. A second shot was the same.

Thinking about it I realised I had forgotten two things. First that the 30mm lens isn't stabilised, unlike all my other lenses, and second that I'd switched off stabilisation on the a6600 body as I'd been using it on a tripod. (Sony advises this, I'm not sure it really matters - something else to check).

I switched on Steady Shot (Sony's name for stabilisation), took another image with the same settings and this time it was sharp, handheld at 1/8 second. I'm impressed and pleased with that.

Now I'll have to find out how long a shutter speed I can handhold with a camera and lens that are both stabilised. 

The photo, by the way, was taken for a forthcoming post on my camera gear for long-distance walking.

Friday, 15 September 2023

Scanning memories ......

Scanning slides is time-consuming and requires concentration. It's also fun! Looking through the thousands of slides I took in the pre-digital days of the 1980s, 1990s, and very early 2000s (I changed to digital in 2004) brings back so many memories. All those places, all those walks, all those camps! All those wonderful days, weeks, and months in wild places.

I've been going through these slides and selecting a few to scan - difficult, very difficult! - for an exciting project that is still in its infancy. There'll be more on this soon. I hope.

Young & clean-shaven!

In the meantime here's a tiny selection of the slides, covering a 20-year period and taken with a variety of cameras and lens, mostly on Fujichrome film, the early ones on Kodachrome. They were taken, from the top, in the Grand Canyon, the Pyrenees, theWind River Range in Wyoming, the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, Lapland, the High Sierra in California (2), the Canadian Rockies, and the Tombstone Mountains in the Yukon Territory.

The slides were photographed on an old lightbox with my Sony a6700 camera and Sony E 30mm macro lens mounted on a Benro tripod with a Koolehaoda tilt arm. I'm wondering if I need a better macro lens that's sharp from corner to corner and has a longer focal length. Of course it may be that the time to have a sharper lens was when I took the original pictures! 


Sunday, 10 September 2023

Perth Revisited - River Tay & Kinnoull Hill

View from the Tay Viaduct

Perth is one of those places I've been to many times but don't know that well. Many decades before I moved to the Highlands it was a place to go through on the way to the Cairngorms, usually by train, occasionally by car. In a vehicle Perth was a nightmare as back then the A9 didn't go round but through it and the many junctions were confusing especially as there were few signs. On one journey back south we went round the ring road twice as we couldn't find the right exit. We only did so when I looked at the signs out of the back window and worked out which it mist be.

Much of Perth is on the flood plain of the River Tay and unsurprisingly it floods regularly. I've been stuck there a few times or had long train journeys round the coast to Inverness to get home. I've got to know Perth's huge, echoing railway station better than I would like.

When I was involved with the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (as it was, now Mountaineering Scotland) I had regular meetings to attend in Perth and was driving down there half a dozen times and more a year. Driving because the meetings went on too late in the evening for me to catch the last train north. I soon learnt that reaching Perth was usually fast and easy but that getting from the outskirts to the centre took a very long time with a seemingly endless series of traffic lights and roundabouts to contend with. 

The escarpment on Kinnoull Hill

On all these visits to Perth I never once left the town centre or crossed the river, not even when I had time to spare waiting for a train. It never occurred to me. Perth in my head was a functional town. Pleasant enough but not of any real interest to me. I was, of course, wrong, as I have just discovered.

This came about when an Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild meeting was held in the town. I've been a member for around forty years but rarely go to meetings since moving to the Highlands as they are usually down in England.The last time was in 2017 when the AGM was held in the Lake District (see this post).  Having commented that meets were too far away on many occasions I really felt I had to attend one in Perth!

The Causeway

The meet began with a good lunch and interesting conversation in an excellent restaurant (Breizh) before we set off for an afternoon walk. Or some of us did. Unfortunately others had various injuries that prevented them accompaying us (outdoor writing and photography is clearly a hazardous business!) so just four of us set off across the river heading for Kinnoull Hill, myself, Alex and Hannah Roddie, and Felicity Martin. who had organised the meet. Felicity knew Perth well and was our guide for the walk.

The River Tay from Kinnoull Hill

A wander through pleasant parkland past the Causeway that leads to Moncreiffe Island took us to wooded Kinnoull Hill. Although only 222 metres high (lower than my house) this is an impressive hill as it falls away in a steep craggy escarpment down to the river. The views from the edge of the cliffs are superb with the river winding its way through the flatflands far below and higher hills rising in the distance. Cloud hid most of the latter but this didn't detract from the feeling of being high above the world or the beauty of the river.

Kinnoull Tower

Perched right on the edge of the cliffs is Kinnoull Tower, a folly built by the Earl of Kinnoull in the early nineteenth century. Apparently the crags reminded him of those along the Rhine Valley in Germany. There are many castles there and he thought that Kinnoull Hill should have one too. 

The mixed woods on Kinnoull Hill are lovely with a rich mix of trees. Walking through these we arrived at a summit cairn and a most extraordinary and fascinating viewfinder-cum-information plaque erected in 1948 as a "record of historic sites in Perth city and neighbourhood together with mention of other places of interest in the near and distant countryside ".

View from the Tay Viaduct

Leaving the summit we descended through the woods back to the river and the 440 metre Tay Viaduct that carries the railway across the river and over Montcreiffe Island. Our walk ended with excellent views of the river and the island from the pedestrian walkway on the viaduct. 

I look on Perth more favourably now. I'd like to explore more of its surroundings and make up for all those times I could have but didn't. So thanks to Felicity Martin and the OWPG. 

Friday, 8 September 2023

Cairngorm Heatwave

My camp with Meall a' Bhuachaille in the background (which I couldn't see from the tent)

Early September’s very hot weather called for a night in the hills but not for a big walk in the heat. I decided that a wander round the long northern ridge of Cairn Gorm would be ideal. It’s a favourite place that’s very accessible yet very quiet (no Munros or Corbetts!) On this trip I met a few walkers heading back from An Lochan Uaine near the start and no-one else. On the second day I did see some tiny figures heading up the path to the summit of Cairn Gorm. I didn’t join them, preferring solitude.

To avoid the hottest part of the day I didn’t set off until late afternoon on the path through the forest to An Lochan Uaine and Ryvoan Pass and then onto the path that leads to the Lairig and Laoigh and Bynack More. I wasn’t going to either of those though and soon left the path for the secretive twisting little glen leading into An Garbh-choire (the rough corrie – there are quite a few with this name in the Highlands).

Once off the path my pace dropped dramatically and the effort of walking increased similarly. The way into the corrie is rough itself, a mass of deep heather and dense grassy tussocks. I’d noted the arduous terrain on my last visit here back in 2017 (see this post) but I hadn’t remembered just how tough the going was. The heat didn’t help. Even though the sun was low enough that I was in the shade the air in the narrow glen was still and stifling.

Eag a' Gharbh-choire. I went up the slope on the left.

On my previous visit I’d stayed in the heart of the corrie and clambered up the centre of the stony ravine called the Eag a’ Gharbh-choire (Notch of the Rough Corrie). This time I decided to climb the side, high above the rocks. I’m not sure it was any easier.

Evening light

Beyond the Eag a’ Gharbh-choire I reached a shallow flat boggy area with a trickle of a burn running through it. I camped at the end of this before the next climb, a pleasant site if rather bumpy. A breeze kept away the midges. The low sun was turning the hills golden brown. I watched it set over shining Loch Morlich, leaving a sky streaked with orange. A fine night to be in the hills.

Loch Morlich after sunset

During the night I woke feeling chilly and zipped up my half-open sleeping bag. The temperature was 4.7°C. The tent flysheet was wet with condensation and dew. The wind had dropped.

Watching the sunshine approach

Waking again at dawn I watched the sun slowly creeping down the hillside towards me. I have done this so many times. Lying in my sleeping bag waiting for the warmth to reach me always feels wonderful. There were some midges around so I lit mosquito coils in the porch then sat back and drank my morning coffee while waiting for the bright sunlight to reach me.

They vanished as soon as the sun hit the tent. Within minutes the temperature was 25°C and I was outside, the tent suddenly feeling stuffy and oppressive.

Stac na h-Iolaire

From camp I climbed past craggy Stac na h-Iolaire and up the long Sron a’ Cha-no ridge. The heat felt like it was bouncing off the pale granite and I was soon drenched in sweat. With no need to hurry I stopped often for water and to sit and watch the astonishing blue of the sky and the magnificent hills. Bynack More looked impressive across Strath Nethy.

Bynack More

My last stop was at an unnamed little rocky top with a spot height of 1028 metres. That would be the high point of the walk. Far below the green forest looked cool and inviting. I wanted to be down in the shade of the trees.

Sron a' Cha-no

It took a while to reach them, down the long shoulder of Coire Laogh Mor and then a little-used narrow and boggy path below the Coire na Ciste car park.

In the forest

The forest was cooler than the open exposed hillside but I stayed hot as walking through thick high heather and grassy tussocks that hid the path, which came and went, was strenuous. The soft light filtering through the trees was welcome after the harsh brightness of the hills though. The complexity of this natural woodland was a joy too, so different from the rigid ranks of plantations. This is a real forest.

Soon the walk was over. I hadn’t gone far but in the heat it was enough. It had been another wonderful Cairngorms trip.

Sunday, 3 September 2023

A Look At The October Issue Of The Great Outdoors

In the latest issue of The Great Outdoors I have quite a bit of gear stuff. There's a big feature on the gear I used on a two-week trip in Knoydart last May plus reviews of the Built To Send U1 daypack, three items from  Peak Design - the Leash, Capture clip, and Aluminium Travel Tripod-, and the BAM Summit Durlston Adventure Trousers.

Also in the gear pages Fiona Russell and Peter Macfarlane test four all-season waterproof jackets each. Peter Macfarlane also tries six insulated flasks and Alex Roddie reviews the Suunto Vertical Titanium Solar GPS watch.

Alex Roddie also looks at staying dry when hiking in the skills section.

The main theme of the issue is walks that combine mountains and water. There are suggestions for eight walks including waterfalls, lochs, the sea, and summits in the Scottish Highlands, the Lake District, the Pennines, and the Brecon Beacons. In a feature illustrated with his evocative photos James Roddie describes a walks from Elgol to Loch Coruisk on the Isle of Skye, finishing with a camp on Sgurr na Stri. 

Taking inspiration from 'Tours' in Europe Ronald Turnbull makes a circle round Scafell Pike, visiting seven valleys with some bivvies along the way. 

In the Alps James Forrest walks the new 72km Otzi Trek and learns about Otzi the Iceman, whose corpse dates from 3200BC. 

Creator of the Month is Carys Rees and her This Girl Walks website, which provides advice for women outdoors. 

The Opinion column is by Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and vice-president of the Ramblers, who argues that the victory on Dartmoor camping could be the catalyst for better access in the rest of England.

Francesca Donovan reviews a curious and fascinating sounding book, British Mountaineers by Faye Rhiannon Latham.

Vivienne Crow writes about Keswick and what to do there in the Your Weekend In .... pages.

Thorpe Cloud in the Peak District is Jim Perrin's Mountain Portrait and it brings back many memories.

This issue has ten Wild Walks, half of them in Wales. Scotland gets just one but it's big, a 32km ascent of Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms from the Linn of Dee, described by Craig Weldon. 

Four of the Welsh walks are in Snowdonia where Alex Roddie traverses Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) via the Llanberis and Watkins Paths, James Forrest climbs Arenig Fach, Emily Woodhouse crosses the Moelwynion, and Ian Battersby goes up Rhinog Fawr. The final walk in Wales is much further south in the Black Mountains where Steve Eddy walks over Hatterall Hill. 

In England. Vivienne Crow climbs Branstree in the Lake District, Norman Hadley goes up Pendle Hill in Lancashire, Roger Butler explores Walsgrove Hill and Devil's Den in Worcestershire, and Tim Gent goes to Devil's Tor and Wistman's Wood on Dartmoor.