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Sunday, 15 November 2009

New navigation course for girls only

Again, evidence of more people keen to get out – and safely – in Scotland's great outdoors. And another nod to a trend I have written about before. The latest outdoors course to be launched is another girls-only GPS session.

This time The Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS) have joined forces with Chicks Unleashed to run two ladies only one-day GPS (Global Positioning Systems) training courses in May next year.

The MCofS runs a number of safety-related courses throughout the year, including regular GPS courses, but this is the first time they have organised a ladies-only course.

The two courses will be held at Glenmore Lodge on Saturday May 15th and Sunday May 16th, and will be run by the MCofS Mountain Safety Adviser, Heather Morning (MIC)* and Rosie Goolden (MIC) of Chicks Unleashed.

Heather Morning explains the thinking behind the ‘Chicks’ courses: "Ladies can often be discouraged from signing up for an outdoor training course, particularly when it involves use of technical equipment.

"So often when mixed groups are out on the hill, men take a lead role and ladies just follow, assuming that the guys are more competent (big assumption!).

"We all know the old cliché that ‘women can’t navigate!’. Well, here is the chance to prove all those guys wrong.

"The Chicks GPS course will ensure a sympathetic, fun and friendly learning environment for ladies who wish to learn how to use GPS to enhance their navigation skills."

For further info on this course see here

For further reasons why outdoors girls like to learn with the girls only see my article

Sea kayak DVD set to sell out - again

A new kayaking DVD filmed by fellow journo and friend Simon Willis has far exceeded all sales expectations. Simon, of Sunart Media, who is a keen sea kayaker himself, was initially advised to produce just 700 copes of the DVD, SEA KAYAK WITH GORDON BROWN, one of the world's top coaches. Priced at £19.94 in the UK, the excellent instructional guide - aimed at novice and intermediate kayakers - did in fact sell 600 copies in the first 10 days, after the release on November 1. (The DVD is offers newer, easy to view version of the already popular book of the same title.)

Another 1000 DVDs were then produced, of which there are now only a few hundred left. Simon reports that there is sadly no time left to print more before Christmas. So my tip is to get your order in quickly if you want to avoid disappointment. For a taster of the video see here

What is obvious is that the adventure activity of sea kayaking shows no signs of slowing in popularity. I have already posted a blog about the huge growth of sea kayaking in Scotland following an excellent two-day sea kayak outing with the National Kayak School at Oban.

Over the last couple of years the school has seen a huge growth in demand for sea kayak instructional courses and multi-day trips. Many kayak shops also report fast-growing sales from a range of adventurers, including families.

Sea kayaking offers a great way to view Scotland's wonderful landscape, whether on our sea lochs or the open sea. It is important that kayakers learn basic skills and navigation before setting off on their own adventurers but in only a short time they will have the freedom to enjoy some truly scenic and inspirational journeys.

Indeed, just take a look at the number of kayaks now being transported around the country on the top of car roof racks. Every time I head north I swear the number of kayaks I spot doubles.

And another publication by Simon, Europe’s first long distance sea kayak trail, THE SCOTTISH SEA KAYAK TRAIL is also proving a big hit – and reveals that kayaking in Scotland, in particular, is a big passion for many people.

You really have to give sea kayaking a go to find out just how fantastic it is.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

My friend the super STV blogger

So there was a competition for top bloggers to win a place in a final to become STV's new King/Queen of blogging. Up for grabs is a 6-month contract and in these tough press industry times anything written, published and then paid for is a huge bonus.

And brilliantly my good friend Ellen Arnison is one of the 10 finalists. Now she's already an excellent blogger and journalist but to win the contract she needs as many people as possible to love her blogs - and post comments.

She has written her first here

Please do read it - and if you like it post a comment. I'd really like to be friends with someone famous!

Monday, 9 November 2009

And then the sun came out...

How remarkably different was Sunday's walking compared to Saturday's. With only one Munro top to summit to bag we took a more leisurely approach to the day. We were also gratified to find that the weather was stunning. With a low-lying mist (offering numerous wonderfully photogenic opportunities) and bright blue skies with a warm-for-November sun the day promised to be perfect for winter walking.

The chosen Munro, Ben Challum, is a popular route for walkers based in the central belt as it is near enough to tackle in one day's outing and not so steep as to put too many people off. The trail to first the south summit and then the north (proper) summit is easily navigable, too.

While we had met only one other walker during the two ascents on Saturday, on the Sunday the mountain was abuzz with people, dogs and chatter.

The entire outing represented almost everything that is great about Scottish mountains. Fantastic views and scenery, achievable summits, rewarding peaks, camaraderie with like-minded people and the satisfaction of a dry, windless day and tremendous winter sunshine.

Munro mystery solved

If you has asked me a year ago to define a Munro bagger I might have suggested they were a little mad and most likely obsessive. Bagging a round of theses Scottish mountains over 3000ft was not something I had planned and one of my main objections was that I was sure that not every one of the 283 mountains would be worth the hike.

I'd heard it said by some baggers that if it hadn't have been for the quest to complete the round they would have happily missed out several dozen of the more boring, boggy or "tourist ridden" ascents.

Indeed, many walkers in Scotland will tell you that there are many other hills and mountains that do not qualify as Munros but which amount to a much more rewarding and satisfying summit. Some of the most notable are among the Corbett mountains, the 221 mountains that make it to the 2500ft mark but not the lofty 3000ft.

So it was with something akin to reluctance that I set off this weekend to follow a Munro bagging friend to the top of two Munros near Crianlarich. Neither of us had heard a good word said about these two mountains and, indeed, many baggers have left the dastardly duo close to the end of their round simply because they know they have to be done, but not with any great walking joy.

The reasons given for these Munros - Meall Glas and Sgiath Chuil - being less favoured include too many bogs, a difficult, untrodden route, hard-to-find peaks, a total trudge across unremarkable marshland etc.

I wasn't prepared to believe that anywhere in Scotland could be this bad - but I was still a bit concerned that outing would be a bit rubbish.

And, in part, these baggers' tales did turn out to be true. The ground was extremely wet and boggy. The route to the top was particularly hard to find and with swirling fog for much of the day our walk was frequently punctuated with map reading and compass co-ordinating stops. For much of the last few hundred metres of both ascents there was no view (just thick fog) and extremely slippery snow and ice conditions underfoot.

If this wasn't bad enough the final ascent of the second Munro was the toughest, steepest slog uphill that I have ever encountered. The almost vertical slope was as wet as a waterslide and with the added obstacles of slippery snow and icy rocks it felt as though we would never reach the top.

But finally we did make it. Despite a total white out and an extremely unremarkable top the feeling of achievement was amazing.

And it was then, and during the descent back to the car, that I began to realise that Munro bagging is not only about the ticking off of a collection of 3000ft mountains.

While plodding and trudging onwards all day, my Munro bagging pal and I chatted. We spent hours discussing a wide range of topics. We put all sorts of things to rights. We started and finished great conversations. We laughed out loud. And we giggled when things seemed too ridiculous. We also concentrated hard on the navigation and felt a great sense of satisfaction on reaching various points and, eventually, the summits.

We found great spots to sit and take in the views (when below cloud cover) and we delighted over how great it is that average sandwiches and coffee taste so good when eaten outdoors and with a proper appetite.

At the end of the day we were exhausted but how nice a bottle or two of beer tastes after a tricky and tough day in Scotland's great outdoors.

So these two Munros weren't the most beautiful or the easiest but they still offered a fantastic day out doing something that is great for both mental and physical fitness and health. I can now see the many positives of becoming an addicted Munro bagger!

Friday, 6 November 2009

It's faster on foot

Yet again I have found that heading into Glasgow from my home in Bearsden is quicker on foot or two wheels than by car or train. The distance is only around six or seven miles (depending on the route taken) so it's an easy enough run or cycle.

I can recall that when I had a "proper" job in the city I could beat other commuters travelling by car by up to 10 minutes if I ran, or 20 mins if I cycled. This was at busy commuter times.

But even when I head into Glasgow at other times of the day it is much more time efficient to run or cycle. For example, I was working at an office on the Anderston Quay yesterday. If I'd taken the train I would have had a 15 min walk to the station, a 5 min wait for the train, followed by a 20 min train ride, followed by another 10 min walk at the other end.

But if I cycled the journey takes between 25 and 35 mins only. Even an elongated route along the River Kelvin only amounts to around 35 mins in the saddle.

Instead, yesterday, I decided to run. Despite a slow-ish plod I made it from home to the office in 50 mins. Added to this I had a good fitness workout and gave my mental well-being a much-needed boost thanks to the serotonin.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Revenge of the cyclists?

I've been spat on, sworn at and forced off the road - and that's just by pedestrians. Cars, buses and taxis have driven at me, cut me up, swerved into my path and knocked me to the ground. During seven years of daily cycling in Glasgow I have become accustomed to "almost dying" on a regular basis.

My efforts at retaliation are puny in comparison. I might roll my eyes and shake my head in the offender's direction. Once or twice I've mouthed an ineffectual "wanker". On another occasion, when a jeep driver took a fancy to driving into me three times within a 100m stretch of road, I made an official complaint at the police station across the road.

But no action, direct or otherwise, seemed to change the way some drivers (and walkers) in Glasgow treat cyclists. Until recently, that is.

For the past few months I've been wielding a shiny new weapon of defence: a helmet-mounted digital video camera. And I am not the only one. According to Action Cameras, one of the UK's leading sellers of such cameras, there has been a threefold increase in sales during the past year to cycling commuters. Most, it seems, are shelling out on average £200 for one of these cameras as “witness back up`” in case of a road accident.

But now some cyclists are using their camera recordings as a way to highlight some of the worst driving on our roads. A fellow Glasgow commuter, David Brennan, has even gathered something of a fan club for his video postings after starting a commuter from hell video thread, aka Magnatom, on YouTube. Just viewing these clips from the comfort of your own office chair is bracing enough, let alone imagining what it would be like to be Magnatom himself. See a clip

His videos reveal a catalogue of dangers that face the ordinary city cyclist, including "brush-with-death" motoring incidents, inconsiderate and illegal driving, pedestrian misconduct, poor road surfacing - and even careless cycling.

When I caught up with Magnatom one day during his commute via the Cycle Tunnel he told me: “Although my camera has not changed my commute to any great extent, it does make me feel safer and calmer. Now, instead of screaming in annoyance at motorists, I simply point at my camera. It's amazing how quickly they back off when they clock it.”

But Magnatom also makes the point that footage is not meant to taunt motorists. In fact, Brennan believes that his YouTube films could “ignite a campaign to re-educate all road users”.

Perhaps he has something here as this week I came across a petition that is gaining huge momentum. The petition, which will be presented to the PM, was created by Tom Amos and reads:

"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to introduce
legislation that all motorists must allow a minimum of 3 feet
in distance between their vehicle and a cyclist that they drive

To sign the petition log on here

If the Government can do anything to make roads safer for cyclists then I'm all for it. In the meantime I’m keeping my helmet camera switched on and ready to capture any unwelcome driving antics. So far the only videoing of note was a when I came close to being knocked off my bike by something jumpy and yappy. But Lakeland terriers aren't much concerned by video gadgets.

But perhaps the most noticeable difference has been in what hasn't happened. A bus driver waved me past instead of doing the usual sudden pull-out manoeuvre, possibly because he noticed my filming potential. I'm also sure that a silver sports car gave me a wider berth after I tilted my helmet camera towards the driver.

Then again, perhaps I've just had an unsually lucky few months on the roads.

Arran's sale of the century?

While on Arran it became apparent that many people are selling up and moving on. I imagine that most of the homes for sale (and there were numerous on the market) are in fact "second" homes, it was still jaw dropping to see so many "for sale" signs lining the road sides. It could also be that the credit crunch has hit a number of people living on Arran, thus forcing them to return to the mainland for alternative employment.

I had wondered, too, if a declining holiday market had hit people who run B&Bs but after chatting to a couple of islanders it seems the opposite is true. One told me that demand for rooms in B&Bs remains very strong and perhaps backs up the theory that the "staycation" is still on the up.

For so long Arran properties have fetched prices above the national average and rightly so given their often idyllic location. But the number of homes on the isle bought as "second" homes has been a continual headache for islanders who have frequently been unable to compete to buy the houses.

Now it seems that many more properties are flooding the marketplace. I plan to take a closer look at prices to see just whether a more buoyant property market has brought the cost of homes down a bit. Another islander told me that homes were staying on the market for "quite some time" whereas in previous times they would be snapped up almost before the "for sale" sign was erected.

So, if you ever fancied opening a B&B on Arran perhaps now is the time. It's certainly worth a closer investigation in any case. And it might be worth checking out some of the other popular Scottish isles to see if the same is happening there.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed a higher than average number of properties being sold in more remote locations across Scotland?

Second isle of the week - Arran

Back home from the Isle of Jersey I headed straight from the plane (thanks Flybe for your superb punctuality arriving in Edinburgh) to Ardrossan for the Arran ferry, picking up Little Miss Outdoors en route. (While I was on Jersey Little Miss had been enjoying her own outdoor adventures during a school activity trip to Ardmay House at Arrochar.)

We had planned the weekend on Arran with friends as a chance to catch up on our adventuresome gossip and also because we fancied walking Goatfell.

While Arran is another favourite island of mine, it was sadly a tad wetter than Jersey and also covered in a wad of thundery clouds for much of the weekend. Still, Little Miss Outdoors and I were determined to make the most of a not-so-totally-water-drenched Saturday morning and headed to the grounds of Brodick Castle to begin the ascent of Goatfell, the highest summit in southern Scotland. With a peak of 2867ft it also claims its place among the 221 Corbetts, the group of Scottish mountains higher than 2500ft.

And to start with all went well. Little Miss Outdoors was content to amble along, chatting and jumping in muddy puddles and looking around at the stunning autumnal countryside. I heard all about her many fun activities at Ardmay and found out some great new facts she'd learned about Scotland's landscape and nature.

But as we climbed, so the weather deteriorated until we were walking in swirling clouds and against harsh winds. The higher we climbed, the stronger the winds and the quieter Little Miss became. With another 10 minutes still to go to reach the summit, Little Miss finally decided she'd had enough and promptly burst into tears. I easily weigh twice as much as little Miss and I had been struggling for some time to walk upright. For Little Miss it was a battle to stop herself being blown to the ground even while holding on to my arm.

Although disappointed we decided that it would be safer and more enjoyable to turn around and head back to the less windier lower slopes and so missed out on the chance to bag the summit. On reflection, however, it was much better to finish the walk on a high and with smiles on our faces than to plod on grimly just to reach a mountain top. We had still had a great day out on a fabulous mountain and although we can't claim to have reached the top we can claim to have had a another rewarding day in Scotland's great outdoors.

One day, Little Miss and I will return to Goatfell - but most likely during the summer months!

Another "great outdoors"

Hmm. While I'm a little loathed to admit this, I have discovered a great new outdoors playground that isn't called Scotland - instead it's called Jersey. Ha, ha, I hear you laugh, isn't Jersey just for old people and the very rich? Well, yes, the island - just 15 miles from the northern French coast but still a British Crown Dependency – does have more than its fair share of elderly people with big bank balances (plus an amazing number of stunning detached houses) but it also offers a fabulous holiday destination for people like me (ie not old and with little savings).

During a recent trip to Jersey, I found a jewel of an island that while tiny (it measures only nine miles by five miles) manages to pack in a host of attractions, especially if you're keen on the outdoors life. The picturesque isle boasts a stunning and varied coastline, numerous sublime beaches, many miles of quiet cycle paths and roads, wonderful cliff top walks and so many alfresco eating and drinking spots that you could visit a new one every day for weeks.

Jersey Adventures is one of a number of companies that have capitalised on the growth in outdoors adventure holidaymakers, but it is the island's only fully qualified provider of outdoor pursuits and therefore the best place to head for a range of activities. While on Jersey I went rock climbing at a fabulously scenic cliff face and sea kayaking along a gorgeous stretch of coastline on the south-western corner of the island. I also tried coasteering for the first time, and immediately became an addict.

For the uninitiated, coasteering essentially means a traverse of a section of coastline. Wearing wetsuits, coasteerers (if there is such a word!) scramble over rocks, walk beaches, swim coves and sea pools and jump from cliffs into the ocean to get from A to B. It is tremendously exciting and can be geared as an activity to suit many abilities. For example I totally wimped out of a 12m high cliff jump and plumped instead for a smaller leap without affecting the expedition.

Other activities to try included land yachting, bush walks and caving.

Then again if you're looking for something a little more relaxing but still outdoorsy then Jersey also does a great line in old-fashioned style beach days. Even during October, families were taking advantage of mild temperatures and heading to one of the many wide, sandy beaches for a day of sandcastle building, rock pool foraging, picnics and Jersey ice creams.

Many of the beaches were also lined with wonderful cafes, serving a wide range of foods including delicious fish dishes and my absolute favourite, moules et frites (mussels and chips).

Jersey has other holidaymaker attractions ideal for a rainy day or simply because you want to do something different. While on the isle I visited the fascinating Gerald Durrell Conservation Zoo, the Jersey War Tunnels museum and the La Mare Wine Estate. But these were just a few of the highlights that would easily keep a family occupied for a fortnight or more. For further ideas see Jersey Tourism's excellent website.

Accommodation on the isle ranges from beautifully kept campsites and self-catering lets to some of the most amazing hotels I've ever seen. I was lucky enough to be hosted at the Atlantic Hotel. I wouldn't normally be able to afford such luxury but the occasional press trip offers a glimpse of how the better-off might holiday – and how they eat. The Atlantic also boasts a Michelin starred restaurant and the meal I enjoyed was quite simply the best I've ever had.

So, while Scotland is still, in my opinion, Europe's best location for outdoors pursuits, I'm placing Jersey in the top league, too.