Great Britain: Part Five – The Frozen North

Circumstances have stymied my blog posting in recent weeks, including lack of access to decent internet that would allow upload. I’m still playing catch up from our travels last year and, given the current situation with the covid-19 pandemic, expect to have plenty of time in the next few weeks to do so. As we head into total lockdown in New Zealand and many places around the world, I wish you all a safe haven to ride out this storm and that you are all still here with me when it is over. Meanwhile, back in Scotland in October 2019…

With a big sky comes the cold, -8C when we park the car. It’s a different cold to what we’ve become used to – in New Zealand it’s generally accompanied by a wind. But here the air is still, with a sting that pricks at exposed flesh and seeps into the warmest layers. Tying the laces on my boots almost results in frostbite and we walk for over half an hour before my hands and feet warm up.

The Glenmore Forest is older than that around Aberfoyle – it feels straight out of a Grimm fairy tale, dark enough within a few feet from the path that the wicked witch or troll really could be in there somewhere. The trees are larger, closer together, no space for light to filter through, nothing beneath their branches but rocks and their own dropped needles. Even small lochs, devoid of light, are black and eerie looking. I’m scared of the dark and, with our footsteps muffled by the thick layer of needles, I can’t help but keep looking around, worried that something coming out of it could approach silently.

I breathe easier when the path breaks out of pine forest into an area of younger growth. Deciduous trees grow alongside younger pines and, again, the colours are spectacular. Dark golden oaks glow against bright yellow birches with slender silver trunks and the beech, a new addition to the colour wheel, exhibits a whole range, from pale through to bright orange and a deep purple red. The only tree that dulls with autumn is the lime, its summer stand-out-in-the-forest brightness lost and its leaves turning brown with no chance to shine. Underfoot the springy moss is a luxurious, bright green shag pile. Fungi abound, from the white lace we’ve seen already to brown ribbons and flat discs sprouting from tree trunks. Peeping through the moss, red white-spotted fairy tale toadstools wait for a gnome to sit on them and fairies to caper around them.

Lochs reflect the colours, the bright blue of the sky trapped within them. To add to the splendour, Loch an Eilein (Loch ‘nyellin) has an island with a ruined castle upon it – the name translates from the Gaelic to Lake of the Island. If a prince rode up on a white horse with intent to row across and claim the love of a beautiful maid I wouldn’t be surprised.

The next morning a heavy mist hangs over Aviemore, shrouding the hills, and light rain dusts the windscreen. It is slightly warmer though, -4C. We drive out of the gloom as the sun hovers on the rim of the snowy mountains, the Cairngorms, its light blinding on Loch Morlich but providing no warmth. To our left Meall a Bhuachaille (Meal a Voo-cal – the Herd’s Hill) rises from the trees, awaiting our climb.

Again there isn’t a breath of wind and the forest is quiet, our footsteps silent on the cushioned path. We weave in and out of trees, mist hovering in low dells, hoar frost coating grassy clearings, our breath clouding around us. We skirt the base of the hump to An Lochan Uaine, the Green Lochan.

At the base of a steep rocky, scree-covered slope it’s easy to imagine this really is where fairies come to wash their clothes, turning the water green. As we walk away a dog bounds into the water, shattering the surface. It’s impossible to chastise as he jumps in and out of the water, barking with excitement and pure joy.

Out of the forest the path is hard, the mud that a week ago would have sucked at my boots now solid, puddles iced over and crunching under our feet. A wee bothy, dark stone and slate, marks the path junction and we pause to remove a layer before beginning the climb. The path snakes uphill, almost straight, no zigs or zags. There are shouts behind and half a dozen young men run past me. Run! I’m struggling to walk up, the going hard, much harder than Ben A’an or Conic Hill. It seems to go on forever. Now and then the wind catches me and, though slight, it’s frigid, carrying the icy cold from the snow-covered Cairngorms.

I pause to look back and am spellbound. This is why I walk. I struggle up these hills to see the big sky, to see the distance; where hills rise behind each other to mountains and the sky; where rolls of land go on until the far horizon and there is nothing but grass and water and heather and wildness. This is why I walk.

I continue, the sun warm on my back, for which I’m thankful even though I still wear my padded jacket. The bothy lies far below and cloud still hangs in a valley over the hill. It looks solid, unmoving and, as I near the top, I realise that Aviemore sits beneath it. I’m so glad we didn’t stay in and miss this.

The summit is a dome rather than a peak. Across the valley the Cairngorms fight the cloud that threatens to engulf them, reminding me of Table Mountain. The path disappears alarmingly off the edge of the hill into vertiginous territory. But it’s the way down and, feeling the cold now we’ve stopped climbing, we don’t linger, dropping from the dome and away from the chill of the wind. The descent is as challenging as the ascent, hard on my knees and hips and I’m thankful that Neil managed to fix my pole so I still have two.

We find shelter from the wind in a sunny spot on the edge of the trees to eat lunch, the latest in a long list of stunning picnic sites on this trip. I almost drop my sandwich when a young man cycles past us. As fit as he looks there’s no way he can get up this track on wheels. As we stare after him he climbs off, picks up the bike and carries it. Between him and the running men on the way up I suddenly feel unfit!

Back at the car it’s a tropical 4C, the sun already behind the hills and the cold creeping into our bodies. We whack the heater up and turn back to Aviemore. The cloud has cleared but moisture hangs along the river. It will be a cold night.

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