Friday, 16 October 2009

We Bag a Munro

The track up Mount Keen from the north starts innocuously enough: a well-graded surface with excellent cross-drains, and today, the Angus glens were looking so fine that I wondered why we had gone anywhere else. Now she tells us - Doogs.

The boys were fittingly 'keen' - there is no doubt that they knew exactly where we were, as they stomped cheerfully up the inviting track.

As you have no doubt come to expect from these adventures, it was too much to hope that this would continue -and guess what? As we climbed higher and higher, the track got steeper and much rougher - in fact, it was easier in places to make our way up the side than to pick through the ankle-turning boulders.

The weather was also starting to deteriorate somewhat: although not actually raining it started to become quite clammy as we puffed our way up into the cloud which covered the top of the mountain.

In one way it was a benefit as it kept us cool (you certainly wouldn't want to linger though), although how sad to lose those stunning views towards Lochnagar and the Cairngorms.

One of the most isolated of the Munros (its nearest neighbour is 17 km away), it is generally considered one of the easiest. We still found it tough enough (it would be less so for walkers than with horses - the rocky terrain as you near the top was a mite challenging in places) as there is a relentless climb to its conical summit.

The cloud began to thin as we neared the summit, allowing Doogs to pose manfully as he stopped for a breather, claiming altitude sickness.

The higher we climbed, the more dramatic it became. The view became like a Chinese painting, as tops of surrounding peaks shone above the cloud around us.

The path, which is easy to see and follow, splits near the summit, giving you the option of following the old Mounth drovers' road, or climbing to the summit. As this was to be our last major 'up' on this trip, there was no contest - the summit it had to be! Other free-range riders I know claim that once you've been 'high', nothing else quite matches up, however pretty it may be - and I tend to agree.

As we huffed to the top, we disturbed a couple of large groups of ptarmigan - just magical, and well worth our panting effort. Oh, really? - Doogs.

Just as we reached the summit, the last of the cloud cleared and suddenly we could see for miles and miles, including many of the places we had been on this journey. I sat down beside the ponies and together we gazed and gazed at this wonderful land spread out before us.

I haven't yet quite found the words to describe this moment (no doubt you will - Doogs). It truly did seem to be the summit of all we had achieved together. I sat on in the now-warm sunshine and thought about the places we had seen, and the people we had met, as well as all the challenges we had faced and overcome. For an ordinary, middle-aged (and hardly athletic) woman, this was the best of times. I looked at the boys and almost burst with pride (not forgetting the brave little Ladybird too). How blessed I felt to have had this opportunity - and how lucky to have shared it with them.

You're not going to leave us here, are you, while you drivel on? We want to go home! - Doogs
Ah, yes, boys - home it how do we get off this mountain...?

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Peaks and troughs

To get from Deeside to the Angus glens, the horse traveller has a marvellous range of options, poularly known as the Mounth tracks: old drovers' (and smugglers') routes through the hills. This is familiar territory to us, but none the less lovely for that. On the whole the tracks are straightforward and well-marked: awkward in parts, there are fewer bog issues than in the wetter west.

Note that's 'fewer' and not 'none' - this can still be testing terrain, and people have died up here especially in the winter months - it is still an area which requires respect. Fabulous riding, but check out your route first! Some of the tracks are steep or very stoney in parts, and burn crossings can be impossible in wet weather.

No concerns about the weather today - glorious early autumn at its very best - in fact, quite warm. Having decided to head south via Glen Tanar we headed out of Aboyne across the bridge at Birsemore, and along the reasonably quiet B976 to the Bridge o' Ess.

One of the great advantages of riding slowly through the countryside is you see some remarkable things which you could easily miss in a car. Dawdling along in the sunshine, we passed these charming troughs:

The inscriptions read: "HONEST WATER: NEVER LEFT MAN IN THE MIRE" and "Drink weary traveller in the land, And on the journey fare, As sent by God's all-giving hand, And stored by human care."

At the dramatic Bridge o' Ess we turned south into Glen Tanar. This is a stunningly beautiful and well-maintained estate with a great network of tracks for riding. As there's a trekking centre on the estate, it's polite to let them know you're coming if you want to explore, just so's you don't end up in the middle of a group of novice riders...

Although we had decided to head for Glen Esk, there were still options.

Given the glorious weather, I decided to go home over Mount Keen - Scotland's most easterly Munro at 3081 feet - it's name means 'Gentle hill'.

(The ponies instantly renamed it Mount NotveryKeen - which doesn't.)

Oh for heaven's sake, boys, people cycle over it! - well, push their bikes, anyway.

Undoubtedly Doogs and Yeoman were starting to get tired - a couple of days' rest had put them in the mood for more. Rest, that, is.

No hurry now, though - let's take it steady and enjoy every last moment. And that's what we did - ambled through the delicious Glen Tanar forest with plenty of stops:

Once we exited the forest though, Doogs showed every sign of knowing exactly where he was and really decided to get a tramp on. The white dot in the distance is him - marching for home!

Our slow progress earlier though meant that it was not a good idea to tackle Mount Keen today. By this stage in the year, it is starting to get dark earlier, and the last thing I wanted was to be navigating over even the 'gentle hill' in the dark.

So, time to find somewhere to camp. This is where my lightweight corral has been invaluable on this trip. It has meant that we are free to travel at our own pace and spared having to hurry on in the dark - something I dislike doing, even though I know that the boys have far better night vision than I do.

Looking at the map, I could see a couple of old homesteads marked just up ahead. In the hills they are often abandoned, but years of use means that there is usually some decent grazing and sometimes shelter from trees or old buildings. Rather better pickings than the moor around us anyway!

We arrived at the house at Etnach: it wasn't abandoned, in fact it looked as if it had had some work on it recently, perhaps as a holiday house. No-one about, but lashings of good grazing round the back on the hill. I was just about to set up camp when the stalker arrived.

'Would it be possible for us to camp here overnight?'

'No problem,' said the lovely man, 'but you'd be more comfortable in the bothy' - which he then proceeded to unlock for me, explaining that it always used to be open but they had had a lot of problems with vandalism, so sadly, they have had to lock it.

This was so typical of the kindness which we have experienced on our journey, and a chat soon established that we knew plenty of people in common. A very comfortable night, marred only by the ponies' attempts to come inside too.
Thought we were supposed to be a team? Anyway, we've just spotted that bloomin' mountain....

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Belwade farm

Those who have followed this adventure will know that whatever happens, we have never been stuck. Excuse ME? I have - Doogs.

Ah, well, yes - but apart from that little incident, whenever we have needed help, it has arrived. Standing looking at the locked gate (complete with threatening sign), the phone rang. It was Eileen, centre manager at World Horse Welfare, wondering where we were.

When I explained we were jammed between a rock and a hard place (or a locked gate and the ultra-busy A93), she jumped in the car with a couple of staff and came to meet me, shepherding us along the main road and through the back street of Aboyne until we were in the woods backing on to the centre, where we followed tracks to Belwade Farm, arriving just as it was getting dark.

With a little help from our friends (again) we'd made it - and in time for some media coverage the next day. I am very grateful to Caroline, the head groom from Belwade, for taking some excellent photos of us. As I look through my own collection of pictures from the trip, it does look rather as if the ponies did the entire thing on their own, as naturally I'm not in any of them! (Probably would have got on better - Doogs)

We posed for the press:

and met some of the inhabitants of Belwade. This is Spud, who is being prepared for rehoming. This is one ot the features of Belwade (and indeed, World Horse Welfare generally) which makes me such a great supporter - that the horses in their care need to find a job in life. Naturally, not all will be eventually be suitable for riding - although many are, and go on to find secure and loving loan homes, where they are inspected regularly by a team of Field Officers. I have met several loan horses in the last thousand miles - all thriving in their new homes.

Foals and youngstock which come in are handled and eventually broken to ride - they too, go on to lead useful lives. There are some very high quality horses and ponies there, looking for good homes. Sad that, through no fault of their own, they have ended up at Belwade - but they are the lucky ones.
The premises are very impressive. Naturally they have good buildings and well-managed grazing, as you would expect - but the thing that struck me most was how very settled and happy the inhabitants are. I might have guessed that horses which had been through sometimes traumatic experiences would have been far less settled, but it is a testament to their management by the staff.
I saw some of the 30-odd animals which had come in recently in a shocking welfare case which you may have read about in the papers and which are doing well. Belwade is well worth a visit if you are in the area: they are open to the public on Wednesdays, weekends and bank holidays 2- 4 pm or by appointment. Admission is free and there's lots to see!
Belwade is such a relaxed and healing environment that we stayed an extra day (they were quite lucky that it didn't turn into a week...) Could it be that I was putting off going home? Not exactly - part of me was longing to get home - but another part just wants to keep riding on and on. Our excellent adventure was coming to an end. However, as we clopped sadly out of beautiful Belwade we were not to know that the highest of highs was yet to come...