A Vagabond Way Part Two

I had given myself a hard task considering the heat, having undoubtedly chosen the hilliest possible way, and as far as Pen-y-bont-fawr (which lay over a nasty hill) I paid for it, but from there I became suddenly energetic, romping up the stuffy valley that leads over from Cwm Hirnant to Lake Vyrnwy.  I shall not forget the ride along the shore of the lake, for Vyrnwy, though a reservoir, is a gem that could vie with Ullswater for sheer beauty of setting.  But the gnats………!

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Then that wonderful tramp up Cwm Eunant, along the atrocious track that joins the Bwlch-y-Groes road.  The time was getting late, and already the sun was sinking, hanging lie a pendant ruby above the teeth of the mountains, ready, it seemed, to drop into the rocky abyss behind.  The moors about me, two thousand feet high, brooded with the stillness of death.  Not a soul, not a house, not a bird, nor even a trickling stream, just a great expanse of mute brown moors, bare shoulders leaning to the infinity of space – and the teeth of rugged monsters ahead to which the brown trackway  seemed to run in crazy coils and twists and loops.  Nature, maybe, cried ‘shame’ to see me hurry then, but there was a sunset over Aran Mawddwy that would not tarry, and I would see its splendour.

Seelah!  The magic moorlands crumpled on the left, and in their bosom lay a deep vale, indescribably green and serene, winding down till vale and hills were one again in misty distance.  I saw another trackway pass across my vision, and fall, in a single slant, down the face of a precipice to the Vale below……Bwlch-y-Groes.  I left my bike and ran up to the summit of the Bwlch, and up again over moss and heather to a crowning knoll.  I saw the flaming orb of the sun sink behind black rock; I saw a hundred colours shoot up above the fangs; I saw the colours change and fade, and change again, until the light retreated and left the mountains to themselves.  Perhaps I was mad, for I skipped down the Pass of the Groes like a child, leading my bike and singing aloud.  I skipped down 1200 feet to the valley below till the mountains hung over me.  In a tiny village shop where the chief articles of sale seemed to be candles, I asked for eggs and butter, and underwent a critical survey from every villager, for this was apparently the village gathering ground o’nights.   A ten-shilling note which I proffered was accepted dubiously and subjected to a severe scrutiny by three of the menfolk, and to give me change the place was ransacked.  Yet I have been thinking I am poor!

Two miles further along, when it was almost dark, I cast around for a likely site for a night’s undisturbed vagabonding.  I found a cosy place beside a hedge at the edge of a wood far up the mountainside.  There was a stream trickling through the wood, and too nearly dry to be really clean, but in cases such as this it is not the policy of a wise camper to question too closely.  The gnats and mosquitoes, in search of food, found me a morsel much to their taste, and though I slaughtered thousands over supper, thousands more came, and I retreated up the hillside.  I made my bed well up the slope whence I could look down on the lights of the valley and up at the lights of heaven.

Consciousness always comes to me very slowly, reluctantly.  I awoke to a feeling of strangeness, and quite a minute passed before I discovered that I was in the hedge.  I had rolled down the slope for ten yards or so, but (as a hardened vagabond) I had slept untroubled.  My groundsheet was still on the hillside!  A tang was in the air, and when I got up I felt a little cold, but I ran along the hedge waving my canvas water-bucket and towel in mid-air, and ere I reached the tiny stream I was warm enough.

What a life it was!  There I was, cooking breakfast in the open with the broad vale of Dyfi below, and the sunlight tipping the mountain tops; with clothing light and scanty as decency permits, laughing and singing to myself – alive to the glorious world I owned.  A world of the mind, but a wide, wide world, boundless and infinite as Space-time.

A brown road below me, road of the valley, winding under the crouching hillsides of Mawddwy, crossing sparkling streams that tinkled lightly in the draught of summer, hedged by winsome wild roses and scented with honeysuckle; fields that rippled gold lakes of buttercups, and lay under the snow of daisies; gardens that blushed shyly – marguerites that grew boldly in grassy borders.  And high above the brown ranges of Mawddwy.  Was it on such a morn with such a sight that made old George Borrow cry out the native “heddychol ddyfryn tlws” – peaceful, pretty vale – as he swung down from the Pass of the Cross?  I’d wager it was!

With Dinas Mawddwy slumbering yet, I crept away along Cwm Cerist.  The sun scorched again with all yesterday’s fury, making the mountain recess of the Cwm hot and uncomfortable.  The road tilted upwards, wedging its way into Bwlch Oerddrws, the long, steep gradient bringing back all the old yearning for ‘waters cool and deep’.  Bwlch Oerddrws means ‘Cold Door Pass’, but the hot breath of wind that greeted me on the summit merited the appellation ‘Blackberry Joe’ once gave it, ‘Oven Door Pass’.  But there were views yet unsmothered by heat, views of the great humps of Mawddwy with deep, narrow vales intersecting, and ahead views of the lovely Mawddach and the proud Giants Nose of Cader Idris.

To put it mildly, I crashed down to Cross Foxes and revelled on the magnificent, reconstructed road from Tall-y-Llyn to Dolgelly.  For the hundredth time I passed along the Mawddach Estuary in wonder and muttered that “this were paradise enow”, till the Trawsfynydd-Ffestiniog Road breaks away into a paradise of its own – the Vale of Eden.  It is Eden, with temptations on every hand.  One was a path, and it took me up to Rhaiadr Du, the Black Cataract, where the water splits in two and falls down a rocky chasm into a deep pool.  Around is verdant growth that belies the name of it.

Opposite the way to Rhaiadr Du another path took me down to the Mawddach which flowed between high cliffs in a channel at least fifteen feet deep, with a rustic footbridge leading across towards a farm.  The water was so clear that I could see the minutest object at the bottom, and, prior to taking a dive, thought it was no more than five or six feet deep.  In a dive from the bridge and a downward swim, I barely touched the bottom, and came up on the last gasp like a cork.  I frolicked about for an hour or more in the beautifully cold water, and on the hot rock-slabs, cooked my lunch and ate it in bathing costume, and afterwards went in for a long series of final dips.  My frame of mind suited that bohemian style, and surely no-one ever had more beautiful surroundings.  There was the river, all waterfalls, rapids and deep channels flowing between tall rock as full of living colour as the flowers and trees, and all around where mountains shining in the sun, with the ridge of Cader Idris o’er them all.  And the deep blue of the sky was faultless.

This Garden of Eden, however, is no sinecure on a hot day; it climbs relentlessly uphill, and when I had dragged myself up for two miles I remembered that I had left my shaving outfit in Paradise, and ruefully unclimbed it all too quickly, recovered those instruments of torture to a sun-burned skin and once more faced the steady drag up to the open moorlands.

On the last steep pull out of the last belt of upland trees I saw a dead snake.  It lay curled up in the middle of the road, its head crushed by the wheel of a motor-car.  For a British snake it was a very big one, being roughly twenty-seven inches long, measured by my shoes.  The colour was brown mottled, with a skin wrinkled as is the shell of a tortoise, and white underneath.  I do not know what kind of snake it was – certainly not a grass snake, and possibly a kind of adder or even a species of viper, both of which are dangerous.  I surmised that its marshy home had dried in the prolonged heat and it had been crossing the road towards the river Eden when a passing motorist had caught it.  (Probably a species of viper, rather uncommon in Britain – March 1931).

There were open moorlands to Trawsfynydd, with the road hilly and the tar soft underwheel, with a long range of many-headed peaks on the seaward side.  There lies the unfrequented wilds of the Ardudwy Hundred with their neglected passes – Bwlch Drws Ardudwy, and Bwlch Tiddiad.  I saw the deep gap of the Gate, and remembered the Roman Steps in the mists of rain-clouds one September evening.  They have recently built a huge reservoir at Trawsfynydd, and the good God, Electricity, starts from here to supply the border lands with power.  Power to drive ten thousand wheels, to light ten thousand homes.

                                                             Cwm Prysor

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The map shows a track twelve miles long from Trawsfynydd to Arenig on the Bala-Ffestiniog road.  It was a track I have never explored, and I joined it that day.  As all mountain tracks, it started quite innocent, of fair surface, with many gates, and very hilly, but quite promising, withal.  In a mile or so the surface worsened, and then went steadily worse until a stream, which had kept close company for some distance, became one with the road.  Deep holes, boulders, sand, loose stones and the fiery heat made riding impossible and walking slow and painful.  I walked for miles into Nant Due [not identified on a 1951 Ordnance Survey map, but near lots of Roman remains! Ed], a tortuous valley, where a concrete bridge had been washed away by the last storm, and left just as the floods had abandoned it.  Tremendous chunks of concrete lay all over the track; higher up it was a mere footpath – or a mere rut on the mountain-side.  The beginning of Cwm Prysor was heralded by interminable hills, and Cwm Prysor was as dry as Pussyfoot Johnson, with not a ghost of a stream to slake a thirst.

I had walked about eight or nine miles when I reached Llyn Tryweryn, where I had hoped for a swim, but the whole lake was surrounded by reeds and tall rushes which left it only useful for an obscure suicide, and bad as I felt, I did not want to die just then.  Llyn Tryweryn is used by fishermen, and so I found the path quite good again from there to the highway at Rhyd-y-Fen.  This once was the terror of travellers from Bala to Ffestiniog, or vice-versa, and I have reason to remember more than one wild adventure over Arenig.  But now tarmac replaces the hideous surface that used to be, and in luxury I drifted down for ten miles into Bala.

Llandderfel stands five miles above Bala on the river Dee at the beginning of the Vale of Penllyn.  From Llandderfel to Corwen, the ‘sweet vale of Edeyrnion’ stretches for eight entrancing miles, and there are three roads to confuse the wondering mind for choice.  The main road to Corwen must be used only when time demands speed, but between the secondary road and a rough lane that hugs the river there is little to choose.  What of the road through Llandrillo and Cynwyd, that offers the best of what the Dee can give, and endears one permanently to lovely Merioneth?  And what of a narrow lane that never feels the pulse of petrol engines, that wanders waywardly with the river, that touches but the sleeping walls of hidden farms – that glows with wild rose and over which the heavy scents of honeysuckle hang fragrantly?

I chose the lane; I swam in a little pool on the river; I had tea alfresco by a tumbling stream – I pottered!  For five brief miles I changed my mode and joined the great highway from Corwen to Glyndyfrdwy.  There I crossed the river and along a lane identical with the lane of the Vale of Edernion, I came to a small farm, Groes Llwyd by name, to join my comrades of the “We R 7”; to give up my vagabonding and join them camping in a field on the banks of the Dee.  Some had been touring, some were new to the great camping game, so chins wagged late with travellers’ tales.

Sunday morning was torrid.  From the moment we awoke till we packed  up seven hours later our only clothing were bathing costumes, our sport the placid river Dee.  River bathing and sun bathing is wonderful sport on a hot day – until the sun bites into the unprotected skin.  I suffered for it for many days afterwards.  The popularity of water suddenly came to an end when one of the boys who could not swim got out of his depth and lost his nerve.  He was fished out almost on the last gasp and brought round by artificial respiration.

We separated, my comrades and I, late in the afternoon, for they were bound for Lancashire, and I had my temporary home on the very doorstep of Wales (15 miles to the border at Queensferry).  For me lay a pleasant mountain route; a lane down the Vale of Clywd; the highway pass of Bwlch-y-Parc to Mold, and winding lanes to my temporary Wirral home.

For me, the sweltering steel foundry o’days and the warm sea o’nights, the beacon at Thurstaston, to gaze at the languid sunsets – to look across the sands o’ Dee to blue mountains, and to visualise afresh a Vagabond Way.

A Vagabond Way Part One

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 It was mid-July, and a heat-wave had come along.  It had been coming slowly for days, coming out of the sea beyond Hilbre Island.  I had watched it nightly from the beacon at Thurstaston [Wirral], for it was in the sunsets that had made sea and sky one long track of glory: it had come in with the lazy ships harbour-bound; it had bade adieu to the hesitating stems of outgoing vessels: it was in the milky warmth of the sea at Leasowe, where it had been my wont to bathe those same nights.  It was in the sweating toil of the foundry, where each boiling day I had worked with sand and molten steel.

On one unbearable Wednesday the foreman had come along, and (with tongue in cheek) had spun the ancient yarn of slack trade.  We would have to stop till Monday.  I was sorry, I said (with tongue in cheek).  My face may have appeared downcast, but my heart was glad!  There were those mountains across the Dee, there were rivers, valleys, and there was the sea.  Oh, I was glad!  And so I returned home to Bolton to pick up my camping gear – minus tent, for I would sleep out………. the Vagabond Way.

Next morning I cast around for cooling waters.  On the dusty roads to Ringway I visualised a dream-river of sparkling liquid, cool and deep, and at Castle Mill I found it.  True it was not what I had pictured, for it was narrow, shallow and swift and over it hung an odour faintly reminiscent of sewerage works.  But the weather was so hot!  Like a giant refreshed I wended my way to Knutsford for a mid-afternoon meal.

After that my progress was haphazard.  Lanes, lanes all the while, hot, dry lanes wandering hither and thither, but always drawing me a little nearer to those mountains ‘cross the Dee.  At Little Budworth is a mere near the village store.  The storekeeper, a chatty individual, enlightened me as to the bathing amenities of the mere.  Sometimes the village youths went in, he said, and told me the story of one young fellow who was drowned there two years before.  I gathered that I was almost the counterpart of that unfortunate enthusiast.  Nevertheless, I went in.  It looks pretty enough, but it is a snare and a delusion; I stirred up a deep accumulation of mud the moment I tried to touch the bottom; it tugged at me from beneath, and I fled in terror.

I passed below the Peckforton Hills in that wonderful hour after sunset.  Deep-sunk lanes, when the birds have lapsed into silence, when one hears just the droning wings of flies or homing bees; where cottages nestle behind gardens of riotous assemblage, and when local ancients doze at the garden gate.  Near tiny Bickerton is a well that has served me in dryer times than this, and there my canvas bucket was filled.  I wheeled the bike and carried the precious liquid for miles, along pine-shaded lanes and sandy tracks until I reached a tiny depression right on top of the hills.  With trees all around, and grass like velvet, no-one could desire a better place for vagabonding.  While my Primus boiled my supper porridge, I watched the twilight robe the mountains across the wide plain of the Dee, and thought I’d reached Utopia.

My cape made a ground-sheet on the spring-mattress of turf; my sleeping-bag was ample bedding; above my head the ceiling of the stars, and even as I lay in soliloquy of these things, oblivion drew the curtain o’er them.

The sky was wide and blue, and the fresh, scented air of early morning was on my face; a lark soared high into the ring of blue above me, singing, wheeling, diving.  I followed its flight, and my fancy took flight and soared up with the lark until a touch of sunlight trembled on the tree-tops.  I arose, and (half dressed) ran along the hill top till I was breathless.  Twas good to be so fully alive!  Twas good, this vagabond life, with breakfast of eggs and bacon, thick chunks of bread, marmalade, steaming coffee – a fine, kingly, open-air breakfast.

Then there was a pine-shaded path, and open heath-land constantly in view of the mountains I hoped soon to roam.  There was the breath of new-mown hay in the lanes all the way through Malpas and the border village of Worthenbury, and at Bangor Is-y-Coed there was the river Dee, deep and clean…….I yielded.

Changing my direction, I followed the river closely to Overton, and a fine bit of valley scenery near Erbistock followed by a parched bit of semi-industrialism led me across the black, broad, shiny Holyhead road south of Chirk, into a prosaic, Sunday-school type of village.  But from that point I was back in the mountains, on a dusty lane that crawled along the southern side of the vale of Ceiriog.  There is a hamlet called Bron-y-Garth, and just below is a pool on the River Ceiriog, where the local schoolboys bathe.  I could manage no more than a lie down in the depleted pool, and even during a super heatwave, lying down in a mountain stream is a chilly business!

A bevy of boys just released from school came dashing down, making friends with me, and gabbling away in alternating Welsh and English.  They were full of news, and bursting to confide it.  One of them, a sturdy ‘old man’ of twelve or so who was evidently chief of the gang, was held in great respect.  He was a man of the world, an experienced chap, for he had knocked about a bit, seen the world, so to speak.  He had been to Oswestry!  Moreover, there was a radio at home; he had seen an aeroplane, and his brother had been to London.  He, then, was one who commanded due respect from his fellows.  This was their bathing pool, but none of them would go near it this week, because next Monday they were all migrating with the Sunday school picnic to New Brighton, and if they caught a cold they would not be able to go.  I am yet puzzling how any of that set of hardy mountain lads can catch a cold.  They were highly excited about the coming trip, and discovering that I was resident so near, they plied me with questions concerning Merseyside until the school bell tore them away.

The heat was taking my appetite.  It was 3pm when I reached Glyn Ceiriog for the first ‘eats’ since early morning.  Subsequently, in the narrow valley, and on the fierce climb beyond Llanarmon DC, the heat became so intense that my progress deteriorated to a mere crawl.  The light breeze on the summit was like a breath from the molten steel in the Seacombe foundry, and the views were limited by a heat-haze.  At Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, I turned towards Pistyll Rhaiadr, but the hilly road was too heavy for my mood, and I found solace in the river instead.  There was a waterfall into a deep pool surrounded by smooth, high rocks, and there I got a fine swim in the bubbling water, and spent a luxurious period sat beneath the fall itself.


In These Deep Solitudes

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This is the story of how I descended Alum Pot Hole through the goodwill of a well-equipped speleological party.

Alum Pot is a huge hole in the limestone on the lower slopes of Ingleborough, distant about three miles from Ribblehead, and located in a tiny plantation just above the hamlet of Selside.  From one side of the chasm, the depth is 210 feet sheer, whilst on the other side there is a sheer face to a ledge 90 feet from the bottom.  To gaze down is to acquire a feeling of awe; the blue mists that rise, the smooth, overhanging rock-face, and the low boom of waters far below gives a weird attracting effect to the hole.

On the hillside, 150 yards above the Pot, a stream enters a passage known as Long Churn.  I have explained before of our traverses down this subterranean river, of the thrills associated with the climbs down waterfalls, rock-ledges, and through narrow, jagged fissures, with the constant risk of a nasty fall or a plunge into an icy pool ten or twelve feet deep, of candles spluttering out, and of trying to light damp matches in pitch darkness.  I have spoken of how Long Churn breaks into Alum Pot fifty feet below the surface, of the half-light that filters through, of how, by standing on the lip, one is able to glimpse a little of the awful chasm below, and catch a thin gleam of sky above.

How many times have I gazed over the lip and sighed for a rope?  Then all would seem accessible, and maybe I should be one of the few who ever reached the mysterious depths of Alum Pot! Ignorance was very blissful until one night in the summer of 1928, when, to my delight, one of us found a rope in the stream.  A thin rope, soaked and slippery, not more that 20 feet long, but we tested it, secured it round a slab of rock, and with a tingle of excitement, I lowered myself into the chasm.  Fool I was, with fifteen feet of rope below me and sheer rock, as smooth as glass for a hundred and twenty feet!

I couldn’t grip the rope properly owing to it being thin and wet, and as soon as I got my whole weight on it, down I slid, frantically trying to grip, and burning my hands along it.  By the greatest luck in the world my foot stuck in a niche as I reached the very end of the rope.  Just a cornice of rock hardly two inches wide, and big enough for only one foot, but I managed to light a candle and thereby gain some idea of the awkward position I was in.

Twice I tried to climb the rope, and twice I slid back as it stretched and bounced me almost like elastic.  It was grand though, in that unique position, with three glimmering candles fifteen feet above, weird beyond the limit of imagination, with a smooth rock-face behind me, and above, below, and ahead the startling nothingness of inky space, but miserably lit by the flickering candle.  Such was it to make one wonder at the vast antiquity of it – and make one wonder how much longer I could keep one foot holding the weight of my body!  I strove hard with the third attempt, as for dear life, as indeed it was, though the ghastly realisation of my escape did not come until I fingered the lip and pulled myself to safety into a pool of icy water.  That evening as we strolled back to camp in the dusk, I was aware of a greater respect for Alum Pot – and for these limestone caves and potholes in general.  Cave exploring is no child’s play.

Almost exactly a year later, my chance came.  A fully-equipped party arrived just as my friends and I were coming away from Long Churn.  They were short-handed, and asked for two volunteers to help carry the heavy rope ladders, life-lines, and belaying pins, promising the two who came forward the sight of a lifetime.  A Wigan chap and I jumped to it, and soon we were making our way down Long Churn once more – in joyful anticipation.

The first rope ladder was fixed.  It looked beautiful by the light of acetylene lamps, a slender, peaceful work of art gracefully zig-zagging down about 30 feet of smooth rock to a sloping ledge.  But that rope ladder was not peaceful; it possessed life.  The moment I stepped on it the devil in it began its pranks.  It twisted; it jerked; it swung, and it never was in the place I put my foot.  Thirty feet of elusive devilry, that rope ladder was.  But the next!  Only 16 feet long, but that 16 feet destroyed my simple faith in rope ladders for ever.  It was a muddy, tricky business getting on to it, sliding feet first over a dripping ledge of clay and rotten rock and then feeling with our feet for the first rung.

That first rung was never in the place a first rung ought to be.  This ladder had a nasty habit of swinging until your knees or fingers got jabbed with sharp rock.  I thoroughly hated that sixteen feet ladder, and consigned it to various places that rope ladders never go to.  Here was the ledge 90 feet from the surface, and we emerged into broad daylight with a wide strip of blue sky showing overhead.

To reach the next point of descent, it was necessary to cross a deep gulf, 70 feet deep by means of a tremendous slab of rock that ages ago had wedged itself firmly across the chasm so as to form a natural bridge.  It was all those things a bridge shouldn’t be, however, being smooth, slimy, and tilted at an almost sheer angle.  Then a third rope ladder of 60 feet, hanging sheer in mid-air, except the last six feet or so.  At this point we had each a lifeline round his chest as a safety measure.

That ladder was a terror; it developed elasticity, a violent swing, and on the latter half a spin.  At each rung the ladder deftly avoided the foot, and the result was a thorough mix-up of ladder, life-line suffocating us, and ourselves.  Then came some scrambling down pointed rocks and shin barking on jagged knobs, and we dropped the last ladder, 20 feet.  This one was a pleasure to walk down, but it was 8 feet short, and we had to climb down the best we could.  Then, wriggling through a small hole in the wall, we reached the ultimate bottom, about twenty feet below the bottom of Alum Pot hole; a small rock-prison, two hundred feet below the surface.  We were a hushed crowd of eight, but there was not silence.  From somewhere above, a waterfall descended with a hissing , hollow sound, and the water raced down into a black pool at our feet to sucked under…..where?

A hundred thousand years and more were represented in a giant stalactite pendant from the roof, and in stumps of stalagmite on the floor of one great cavern.  In nooks and crannies they formed prison bars, down walls where petrified waterfalls, as though everything was in the grip of an ice-age.

In the cavern of the waterfall and the sucking pool was the possibility of terrible things.  A storm on Ingleborough; and in five minutes the cave is full to the top, trapping anyone who does not reach the narrow outlet in time.  Fairyland, and awful portend hand-in-hand!

At the bottom of Alum Pot itself the walls were sheer and dripping; up above the sky gleamed like a single diamond on a velvet pad, and the atmosphere was icy cold.

The ascent of the romantic, but faithless rope ladders was easier than the descent, and eventually we retraced our way along the underground river to the strange brightness of the warm outside world.  What mattered a few cuts and bruises, mud and a soaking when we had seen – what we had seen – what so few ever see ?

Cameo’s Two and Five

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Dear Reader, if you read of Charlie’s travels in the Isle of Man, you will recall that he twice refers to different Camping Cameos.  I have pleasure in repeating them here to save you searching through your books of Charlie’s.

A farmyard is hardly an ideal campsite, but when a farmyard is the only available place other considerations must go overboard.  It so happened during the wetter part of September 1930, that I found myself wandering around Castletown, Isle of Man, at 11pm.  A farmer’s boy took me home with him and gave me the alternative of a large field containing a fully grown bull, or the farmyard, which was detached from the farmhouse and surrounded on three sides by the field; the road and the shippons covering the fourth side.  I dislike bulls, so I chose the farmyard, found a spot that boasted a patch of grass amongst cobbles, and there set up my outfit.

Whilst preparing supper and persuading myself that a farmyard is not half so bad as it is painted, a terrific snorting just over the wall announced the presence of the bull.  For some minutes I ignored it, uneasily hoping that he would go away, but he worked himself into a frenzy, and I arose to chase the brute away.  It was a dark night but I could see that bull.  He was the largest and ugliest specimen I ever want to meet, and he went mad when he saw me, butting the wall, rattling the gate, and roaring like a cyclone.  I retired to the farthest point in the stockade to debate my future action, then the farm lad came to assure me that the beast was too heavy to get over the wall and returned to his supper.  I was not convinced.  The wall was not high; when I again moved forward to reason quietly with him, the monster placed his forefeet on the coping, and pushed a large stone onto my bike, bellowing murderously at me.  For quite a minute I braved him, then he tried the gate again, turned and dashed away.  There came about half a minute’s terrible suspense, wondering what the dickens he was up to next, till, from the far end of the yard came a fearful snort and another great rattling.  He had found another gate.

No ordinary town-bred mortal could stand that racket for long, so off I hied to the farm and told the boy that there was no room for the two of us there, and either the bull or I would have to go.  He gathered his brothers together, and with dogs went off to round the animal up.  From the darkness came a whooping and a barking, a snorting, a thudding of hoofs, and then – I saw the tremendous shadow of the bull come charging through the open gate.  The beast and I eyed each other for a moment.  I would have flown but my feet wouldn’t obey the impulse, so I just stuck there.  Happily the dogs came just then and the brute thundered off into the far recesses of the farmyard.  From the darkness arose a mighty pandemonium of sound then the boys came and announced that all was well, their prize monster was safely shipponed.  I returned to my supper in a better frame of mind, and as the muffled sounds of the imprisoned fiend died down, I lapsed into tranquillity.

In the warm comfort of my eiderdown, I was slipping into blissful unconsciousness when there came to my ears the thud of hoofs, a snort, and the gate rattled!  I swallowed quickly or my heart would have got out, then I awaited the worst.  The bull again!  Thinking that he must have broken out of the shippon, and even at that moment he must be sniffing at the tent or preparing for a mighty onslaught,  I spent an aching period of dreadful quiet.  The gate rattled again, so at that I arose to sell my life as dearly as possible.  I crept out.  Two horses stood by the gate, and one whinneyed gently at my approach…………      I turned in and went to sleep.

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In The Isle of Man Part 3

A sea-side road runs back to Scarlet; along it I went, searching for a campsite, which would have to be a farm, as this part is flat, populous, and waterless.  I found a dilapidated place near the water’s edge, where everyone was out, but a passer-by advised me to wait.  I waited till 11.30, till the night air came cold across the sea, before anyone turned up.  I was fixed up at length – for the story of how, see my short story ‘Camping Cameos 5 – The Bull’.

The next morning I was up betimes, and away quite early, to take advantage of this last full day in the Island.  The weather was dull and windless; the warm air seemed to be wanting a breeze, and a yacht in the sandy bay lay with sail drooping, that, too, expectant of wind.  In the harbour ships were crowded, amongst them two steam packet boats come to rest the winter, their season of traffic and conviviality over for half a year.  Over the narrow harbour the grey walls of Castle Rushen stood, the only thing unchanged after centuries of ships.  I was struck by a large sign bearing the words ‘Herring Manufacturies’ in a crowded street.  Until then, in my land-lubbers profound ignorance, I had believed that herring was a fish that grew in the sea, but now I perceived it to be manufactured by man.  Had I not seen the very place it is made?  Pondering on this new discovery, I hugged the coast, and then, crossing a flat strip of land (the isthmus called Langness which projects into the sea like a foot), I came to Derby Haven, a meagre-sized hamlet on a cupped bay, sand-choked and reefed at the out-tide.  At the edge of the bay, near two houses called Ronaldsway, the road abruptly turns inland to Ballasalla.

A footpath hugs the dunes along the foreshore, and as my map promised a through way, I took to the path.  The coast began to take on a rugged appearance; with cornfields and barley crops up to the edge of my path, which in turn came near the cliff-edge, I proceeded, stiles and gates at every field barring free travel.  Then came a point of beauty, the coast assumed tall cliffs lapped by the gentle waves, and quite suddenly I came to the edge of a sheer-sided gorge, at the bottom of which rushed a stream.  Higher up there were woods, ravine-setted, lower down-stream the cliffs came to the water, and by the sea a strand of silver sand sloped gently into the green.  The cliffs on the coast across the ravine were a hundred feet tall, indented with many caves, fissures and detached rocks of fantastic shapes stood in the tide.  The name of the place was like music, Gaelic, perhaps, with a touch of the old pibroch……. Cass-na-Awen….. does it not linger at the edge of the tongue, like the pibroch lingered in the windy halls of Vaternish?

A hundred yards above the mouth of the ravine, I left the bike and scrambled down with difficulty.  It was in my mind to swim, for not a soul was within sight, and as if to urge me on the sun sent golden warmth down.  Where a ledge hung over green depths I dived, down to still waters where green weed hung as if in mid-waters.  The sudden cold of it shot through me like electricity; colder seas I had never felt, but there was a strength and energy to be drawn from it, and long strokes took me through deep waters into a cave where the light was tinted green from the filtering of the sea.  With a swift drying, I went about an exploration with the leisure of a long day before me, and when I climbed back to my bike, I hesitated to leave that lonely, lovely valley.  Half a mile higher the ravine had assumed a green gentleness, and my path crossed it.  There was a farm there where strangers are unusual, for the kiddies came running out in excitement, and the woman stared and smiled

A green-turfed lane led me over a hill with once a glimpse of the sea, and joined the road to Douglas.  In half a mile I paid an excursion down a glen to Port Grenaugh, where people bathed and sat on the rocks, and where a modern café on the sea-edge captured wireless waves and dispelled their music across the gentle sea-waves.  The Douglas road was undulating, with little to see, but quiet enough for three miles or more, when, at a toll-gate I was invited to ride around the Marine Drive for 3d, which I paid and swooped down a white road to a tramway line, where cliffs fell down to a lazy sea, and Port Soderick’s commercialism, a little hoarse at the season-end, sprawled itself half-a-mile below at the sea-edge.  I turned away, along the Marine Drive.  The road surface was atrocious, but there is some wonderful engineering about the Drive, which is hewn out of solid rock for many miles, and is fairly well graded.  Below, 300ft, the sea washes the cliff-foot; ever-changing views round headlands, coves (where the road takes great twists and crossed bridges of tremendous height), or out to the open, where the sun shone and all was a-glisten.  There is a headland called Little Ness, where the rocks jut out in ugly teeth, coves like Horses Cap, Nuns Choir, Pigeon Cove, and every high-span bridge bears a fanciful name.  Finally, Douglas asserts itself, with blatant signs, and as the road falls to the Old Town, the road is full of booths to catch the coins of visitors.

Crossing the bridge into Douglas proper, I provisioned at a confectionery shop, and immediately joined the Peel Road, for little more than a mile took me to Kirk Braddon, where a road right began to climb towards the hills.  At this point I had completed the full circuit of the Island, following the coast by road and path as closely as it was possible for me to go with a bicycle.  Now it was my intention to do as much of the mountainous inland as possible without re-traversing the same road.  In a quiet field I lunched magnificently, then pushed on, constantly uphill into the glen of the river Glass.  As I mounted higher, another phase in the variety of this compact little island began to show itself.  Pine-trees, great moorland slopes with heather a-bloom, and little ravines contributing cascading streamlets to the clear river, itself little more than a stream.  The Baldwin reservoir, Douglas’s water supply lies wedged high in the glen; thereafter the road seems to lose its caste, becoming steep, rough and un-hedged.  Injebreck river, a streamlet, and wild moorlands, up, up, till it joins the high-road near Snaefell at 1303 ft.  The high road is well surfaced though gated, climbing to 1406 ft, from where I saw the Island stretched below on three sides, and made out the coast-hills of two lands, Ireland and Scotland, far across a shining sea.  On the fourth side Snaefell mountain itself rose like a blister, blocking the view.  There is an hotel on Snaefell summit, and a railway line all the way up.  I could see the trams like yellow worms crawling up the brown slope and the dark, tiny patches of humanity on the summit.  No doubt the view from Snaefell on a clear day is magnificent; no doubt the tramway is a boon to decrepit old gentlemen and invalid old ladies, but as I approached the Sulby fork-road, near where the line passes, I saw a tram with half a load of people who ought to be revelling in the use of their legs and sweet atmosphere out of town.  Though I could have climbed the extra 600 ft of Snaefell in less than half an hour, I preferred to leave it to the trams and hotel-people.

I drifted down Sulby Pass instead.  First steep and rough, Sulby Pass is as glorious a stretch of wine-red ‘col’ as any in our Yorkshire and Derbyshire of the mainland.  Below the Pass the winding road down Sulby Glen was heavy with foliage, and cottages nestled where there was room in the narrows.  At Sulby, on the Lowlands again, I sprinted along the TT course to Ballaugh, and the Peel road of yesterday again, having tea by a sparkling stream in Bishops Court.  The Tourist Trophy Course, ready laid out for the morrow’s Senior event, was beribboned and be-posted.  The thought struck me that I would have to fix my camp tonight in such a position as to make Douglas accessible in time for the afternoon boat next day.  As the road that rings the northern half of the Island is closed to public use while the race is on, it behoved me to make for the southern half, the better to allow me further exploration to the limit of my available time.  Accordingly I made for Kirk Michael, and still continuing along the marked road, turned up Glen Wyllin onto the higher ground, semi-moorland, fringing Sartfell.  The road was quiet with sea-views and an undulating roll like our fellside roads about the Lune.  From a summit at St Johns Chapel, I began to descend a beautiful glen called Craig Wylly’s Hill.  Dusk was coming when I reached the elaborate hotel at the entrance to Glen Helen.  I had heard much of Glen Helen, so I decided to see it for myself, paid the entrance fee, and entered.  I walked sharply in the dusk, along a deserted footpath that steadily climbed through deep woods to Dhenas Fall.  By that time the light had almost gone, and the fall hung like a white fleck down the dark recess of the rock.  Another path down the Glen beside the river was not so well kept, and in places I had some difficulty.  By the time I reached the road the hotel was a blaze of light, sounds of merriment coming from within.

I lit my lamp and pushed on, intent on getting south of this race-course with its coming racket and crowds, passing a large camp of motor-cyclists, and reaching St John’s , where I bought ‘in’ at a tiny grocery store, and, crossing the TT road, climbed steadily up Foxdale.  At the cottages of Ballahig, I enquired for a campsite, by a stroke of luck meeting a farmer just as I was about to seek his place.  I obtained ready permission, choosing a sheltered and cosy spot by the river.  Of my subsequent wanderings in pitch darkness I have already written [Camping Cameos 5, titled ‘Lost’]

My awakening on this Tuesday morning was hastened by the twin sounds of rain and motorcycles.  Apparently the distance was not far enough.  I went up to the farm for milk and eggs, and settled down to a leisurely breakfast, whilst the rain came in a hard drizzle, and the aspect was thoroughly hopeless as far as clearing up was concerned.

The thrill of the race half a mile away was without interest to me; I packed up still in driving rain, and climbed to Foxdale, a mining village where derelict buildings spoke plainly of trade now departed for ever.  From Foxdale mines I tangled myself in a maze of hilly lanes, white with mud, through tiny one-house hamlets like Renshelt, Braad and Cloughbane.  At a place called Cooil, a short walk from the old Kirk Braddan, and no more than three miles from Douglas, I had tea in a cottage attached to a rather weary-looking mill.  In the tiny parlour swarmed myriads of big flies, turning me from my food.  However roughly and simply campers live, they demand some measure of cleanliness.  At 1.30pm I departed in a fury of rain, making my way to Douglas, and embarking of the Fleetwood boat, due out at 3pm.

Thus ended a four day trip to the Isle of Man.  I had gone there expecting to find commercialism over-running natural beauty, as weeds over-run a hearty crop, and I received a pleasant surprise.  Commercialism is rife, no doubt, when the season is at its height, though even the spots can be found where the trippers never go.  Isle of Man has gained its name by a certain type of holiday-maker.  That same type may have saved it from complete eclipse, by its own bone-laziness.  Places like Jurby, where the coast is quiet, The Niarbyl and the Calf of Man are too inaccessible for those people.  Cass-na-Awen, I am sure, has never changed since the days when the Isle of Man was only served by a once a week boat, Injebreck is too toilsome a climb for these people, and the glens, though popular, have to be paid for.  In September the Isle of Man is lovely and almost lonesome.

The rain never ceased that day.  When the slow negotiation of the Lune deep and the sand-banked channel had been accomplished, we berthed at Fleetwood, and made a good hard run home, I and the two Boltonians I had met at Niarbyl Bay, and met again on the ‘Lady of Man’.  I had left Foxdale in the rain, I reached home still in the rain.  Two brilliant central days, an indifferent first day and a thoroughly wet final day.  Variety is the very spice of life !


In The Isle of Man Part 2

Dusk was creeping up, and the last traces of the day’s rain still hung over the hills.  The glory of that rural road to Jurby is in the views of the hills.  The mist lent them remarkable grandeur.  At one time I was startled into a belief that I was really looking across the lowlands to snow-puffed alps and glacial rivers; at another I could easily imagine myself gazing into the mysterious highlands when the grey mists boil up from the glens to lend their shrouding grandeur to those heathery island hills.  I hardly saw the sea, but a furlong away on the north side of the road, yellow dunes betrayed the end of the land, and there were houses on that near horizon, sometimes spaced at lonely intervals of half a mile, sometimes clustered into hamlets like Ballall, Cronkbreck and Sartfield.

A mile beyond tiny Jurby, the Carlane River runs under the road and enters the sea.  A sandy track beside the stream went past two houses to the shore, and along that track I passed at dusk.  I was very fortunate to chance that way, for behind a sheltering dune, but with the tide at my feet, I discovered a perfect stretch of turf, and pitched my tent there.

Can you conceive of a pleasanter thing than to camp within sound of the sea, to cook your supper as you look out across darkening waters, and to go to sleep as your ears make music from the plash of sea-waves !

The tide was up.  As I lay half-awake, I could hear it, pounding on the shore, not six yards away.  The strong tang of ocean was on my lips – my face had a pleasing smart.  With my bathing costume, I jumped out and saw the sea there, restless and reflective, laid out to a dim horizon where sea and sky joined, and not the bare shadow of earth to break the ocean plain.  The sea was cold – exhilarating for a quick splash and out again – to breakfast.

At 9am I was on the road again, hugging the coast as much as I could, though the road turned inland for a time to Ballaugh, with its old church of the type particularly Manx, and its bridge made notorious by the ‘TT’ motorcycle races.  At Ballaugh I came onto the TT course, a broad highway, and pleasantly quiet that morning, running towards the coast again to Kirk Michael, where the course turns away into the hills.  From Kirk Michael to Peel, the road abounds in seaward views, running almost along the coast, which itself is neither sandy nor rocky, but quite good to eyes that love the places where land and ocean meet.

In The Isle of Man003

Peel is a show-place.  If you have not been to Peel, you have not seen the Isle of Man: if you have been to Peel you have – to argue in the same strain.  If you have been to Peel, you went on St Patrick’s Isle to the Castle, listening to, and looking at, mummified history touched up with pretty legends.  The day I was at Peel the show had ended for the summer, and though a cool pleasant breeze blew, people wrapped themselves up as they walked the half-deserted promenade.  I didn’t go to the Castle; didn’t even set foot upon the ‘Blessed Isle of Patrick’, but the docks, wherein flows the little Neb stream, were interesting, and smacked of fishing.  My road negotiated narrow streets, and then went round the back of Contrary Head, where someone has stuck a monument and called it Corrin’s Folly, presumably because one Corrin was foolish enough to build up there for no reason whatever.  I can record countless  cases about people credited with good sense doing things daily that put Mr Corrin’s folly in the shade.

A dip and a nasty bend nearly precipitated me into Glen Maye, but my brakes are good, and I paid tuppence to walk down.  Glen Maye has an attracting name, and it attracts worthily.  This side of the island is facing east, [sic] so, naturally, this is the colder side, and already the woods are faintly brown.  The waterfall in Glen Maye was in spate – one grand leap, as though the flood was determined to make my tuppence worth while.  As in Dhoon Glen, the stream enters the sea by a fine little gorge at a point called in Manx ‘Traie Cronkan’, where a good stretch of the rocky Contrary Head is visible.  At  Glen Maye Hotel I had seen a magnificent car drawn up with a chauffeur within dressed faultlessly.  Halfway down the Glen I met what I guessed to be the possessors of the car.  Incongruous is the word for that party.  A stout lady dressed in expensive clothing was panting along under a load of furs in a manner that reminded me of the early days of motorcars.  With her came a painted doll, bejewelled and mortally afraid of speckling her shoes with Glen Maye mud; an elderly man Bond St tailored to a collar so deep that his chin had a permanent tilt, and a young blood of the Dandy class, who gave me an unsolicited glance of such hauteur, as to make me long to punch him well and truly under his lifted chin.  They seemed utterly out of place in Glen Maye.

I climbed uphill, just as the sun broke out and the sea shone as if polished.  At Dalby, a long, straight lane led towards the coast, and down it I went to have my lunch by the shore.  The road ended dead on the beach at two white-washed cottages. Magnificent!  Niarbyl Bay is the greatest bit of coast in all the Isle of Man.  There was a coastline worthy of a mighty nation, a rugged series of headlands, one behind the other, of wild solitudes where the gulls swoop and soar and scream to each other, and no other sound is heard but the ceaseless boom of ocean breakers battering creeks and coves in the tall cliffs, and gurgling in long caves.  I couldn’t leave the Niarbyl for a long time; I had lunch there; I played about on the rocks: I sat down and dreamed out across the sunny waters; I collected pretty shells and threw them away again.  I walked back slowly up the steep road, with many a backward glance.  There was no way along the cliffs, so I had to return to the main road.  Just as I emerged, two figures came up in cycling clothes, and I recognised them as two of the Bolton CTC.  There was the usual surprise on both sides, a long talk, and I gleaned the information that they were camping at The Niarbyl.

Immediately we separated, I plunged down another steep lane to a farm in a glen, across a ford, and up again.  The sun got hot, the climb was steep and heavy on a track that grew dense nettles.  I was nettled on my bare knee till the blisters rose like the gradient, until I reached a height of 1189 ft.  The sea was far below – across I made out the Irish Coast quite clearly (the Mourne Mountains), and to the north the Scottish coast at Stranraer was visible.  Three countries, to include the Island!  I passed round the back of Cronk-ny-Iray Llaa, which, on the far side falls an almost sheer cliff of 1449 ft to Niarbyl Bay.  At the summit another track joined, and the two proved somewhat better together than they had been separately.  Rolling moorlands inland changed to sweeping fields of green, and as I reached The Stack, the whole foot of the Island lay out below like a map, the tongue of land to the Calf, with the sea on each side, and Port St Mary and Castletown model places beside a deep-blue sea.  Surely, there is nothing dull on the Manx coast !

A steep descent and a puzzling set of roads took me into Port Erin.  If I wished to spend a holiday in a seaside resort, I should go to a place like Port Erin.  If this place wishes to expand, the growth will have to be at the back of the town, for the two headlands, on each side of the town, effectively block the way.  The town is not blatant like so many resorts; neither is it too pretentious, but snug in its deep bay, with Bradda Head, a magnificent headland to the north, and Kione-ny-Garee, rugged and rocky at the southern end.  I stood on the stone jetty, watching the bathers and longing to join them.  My ‘lightweight’ costume was insufficient to fulfil the rather strict conditions laid down for sea bathing at towns.  As the day was Sunday, I missed my opportunity to visit the aquarium and fish hatcheries, which, controlled by the Manx Fisheries Board, are, I believe, well worth seeing.

From Port Erin (I was still assiduously following the coast) I joined a path leading uphill onto some rolling, down-like moorlands.  There was a Druids Circle near the path, and a little beyond was a refreshment hut.  To my dismay I discovered that I had only a little brown bread left, as I had made the mistake of neglecting to buy sufficient on Saturday.  Sunday is a dead-letter day on the Island.  I bought my tea, saving my meagre stock for the morrow’s breakfast, and afterwards joined a branch path going right.  Further along there were stiles and gates, and then the path reached St Patrick’s Footprint.  A slab of rock had a concrete box arrangement cemented to it.  On top of the box was a spy-glass, and by paying a penny into a slot an electric bulb inside was lighted.  Then, I suppose, St Patrick’s Footprint comes into view.  I surmise the ‘footprint’ is the shape of a foot water-worn in the rock.  All around are outcrops where water has worn hollows.  I didn’t fall for this absurd catch-penny, which seems to be about the limit in trading on those people whose religion has made ready to swallow any old yarn, so long as it is associated with the saints, or heaven.

Soon after I reached the edge of the cliffs.  My pen is inadequate to the task of describing my walk by Aldrick Bay to the Calf Sound on that perfect September evening.  The varied beauty of recurring cliff scenery kept me in constant enjoyment, and when I came to the waters-edge at Calf Sound, and saw the tide racing past the two tiny islets of Kitterlan, and through the narrow channel, I just stuck there, as I had done earlier in the day at Niarbyl Bay.  The Calf of Man, that great lump of rock, barren and deserted except for a lighthouse and a hut, is an easy swim from the mainland; so close, indeed, that a notice board placed on its shore warning people that it is private property, is clearly readable.  As I could not proceed by the coast, I had to turn inland on the one road from Port St Mary for a mile to the exposed hamlet of Cregneish, from where a grass track goes seaward again.  I came to the edge of the tall sea-cliffs again at ‘The Chasms’; paid tuppence, and was allowed to see the natural curiosities.  ‘The Chasms’ are many great fissures where the sea and natural erosion has found the softest places in the rock.  Here the cliffs are 400ft, so it will be realised how deep some of these narrow, lateral fissures are.  From ‘The Chasms’ I could see Spanish Head, a fine promontory, where, I believe, a ship was wrecked, and still lies at the mercy of the elements.  But the finest thing I saw at ‘The Chasms’  was a gorgeous sunset, slowly diffusing sea and sky in a crimson glow.  Crimson to amber, and, as it sank below the horizon, the fan-spread colour in the sky melted and withdrew, as also withdrew the long red track along the smooth waters.

I dawdled past the great cone shaped ‘Sugar Loaf’ rock stuck out of the sea, by ‘Fairy Cave’ and the serried headland called Kione-y-Ghoggan to Perwick Bay and Port St Mary, with its quaint old town and its modern one.  Port Erin is more in my line.  Here the coast flattens out at Chapel Bay, a small bay within the greater sweep of Poolvash Bay, and the road hugs the water’s edge to Poolvash Hamlet.  Dusk had set in; I left the road (which here turns inland), and kept to a cart-track along the shingle to a farm, where the sole occupant was an ill-behaved dog who set up a protracted howling.  The track ended, so I had to turn back, heading inland across the rear of Scarlet Point to Castletown in the dark.

In The Isle of Man Part 1

In The Isle of Man001 September had reached its wetter and colder half when I found myself toying with the idea of a long weekend before Winter proper set in and brought the end of camping.  The worst of weekends is that they are never long enough, even when extended from Friday until Tuesday.  In that year of grace, 1930, many erstwhile two-day trips had been stretched into double that time, and my pocket as well as my employer had suffered in consequence.  The material result was an alarming slump in financial status and industrial confidence, but neither of those caused me half so much concern as would the frustration of one weekend.  Such is my material debasement.  Mentally I felt as though the intellectuals were near me, and were it not for my sheer neglect of study and things classical, I sometimes thought I might aspire to some lowly pinnacle of knowledge.

How all this would end I knew not, and cared less.  When youth leaves my side I shall be speedily relegated to that industrial scrap-heap which is the abiding fear of nearly all working-class men of middle age, unless I pull myself up, and descend to that state of highly respectable humbug which is assiduously practised by most people.  I think I prefer to drift on as I am, and, as one eminent political irresponsible has said: “damn the consequences”.

I like to think that I have a fairly strong streak of the nomad in me.  If you are inclined to ask why I like to think so, I shall answer that I like to think of it, and that is enough for me.  Maybe I shall finish life as a nomad; I’d far rather do that than pass my days behind a bare wall of respect and convention, working a tortuous eight and a half hours a day, visiting equally tortuous friends and relatives o’nights, and wasting precious Sundays swallowing the haberdashery of professional religionists, and chanting silly recantations to a very problematical God.  The fools – spending so much time and energy in pursuit of an improbable future state, while the only world they are sure of, is waiting for them to enjoy it, to make it worth living in.

The idea of a weekend in the Isle of Man grew upon me.  Weekend excursions at cheap fares are issued by the steamship company, and I resolved to take advantage on the last weekend they were available, the second in September.  Thus I left home at 9pm on the Friday evening, to catch the midnight boat from Fleetwood.  The ride by night was eventless and pleasant, for the night was placid, moonlit, and devoid of traffic, and I boarded the new, one-class boat ‘Lady of Man’ with half an hour to spare.

On the ‘Lady of Man’ berths are free, taking the form of long couches in tiers of two at various points on the ship.  I chose an upper berth in the warmest part of the ship, composing myself to sleep.  The impossibility of this became apparent when an invasion took place, possibly from a railway train, and all the tables in the room became occupied.  The reason for this large, impatient company became obvious when, as the ship got under way, a bar opened directly opposite me, and soon Babel reigned.  Although I was sleepy and sleepless most of the way, the great interest I drew from studying the people who drank the night hours away kept me from boredom.  Even drink palls, for when the engines ceased, and the bar closed, there was a bleary-eyed silence all around.

The boat arrived at 5am and I was soon making my way to Douglas promenade.  The prom was hardly astir, darkly lit, and cold.  It was not my first visit, though there is a vast difference between visiting Douglas for a holiday and visiting the Isle of Man with cycle and camping kit.  I had resolved first to follow the coast until I reached Douglas again, and I soon began to put it into effect by climbing Onchan Head, not by the road, but by a footpath from Derby Castle by the Port Jack Camp to Port Jack, a fine little bay with a good bathing place.  While I had lunch there, dawn broke, and the sea became gradually suffused with light.  A fine bit of coast scenery, and the path among rock and bramble – difficult to drag the bike along – showing the bay to the best advantage.  My wanderings took me to a deep ravine on the coast, blocked up by a high concrete wall, on the top of which a path was made and protected by railings.  A series of iron ladders led down into the depths of the gorge which gave off a strong scent of brine.  I had half decided to descend to the bed of it and investigate the reason for this great prison, when a man with a uniform came up, bad me ‘good morning’, and with a sack over his shoulder, went down.  Reaching the bottom, he entered a small cave at the side, and shortly after came back with his sack empty.  He had been feeding something, it was clear, though what it was I knew not.  I afterwards found out that this deep gorge was used as a bear pit, and was glad I had not personally investigated.  A bear, confined like that one, is not an amenable animal.

I reached a road again, and by the coast enjoyed really fine rock scenery to Groudle Glen, at the mouth of which I picked out a rough lane which soared up behind the cliffs.  I was tired then, from a day’s work and a sleepless night, and obtained ready consent to camp for a few hours in a field by a cottage.  So I pitched before 8am and slept soundly until half past one in the afternoon.  The weather had broken: a heavy mist, full of rain, drove in from the sea, and I packed up in a storm.  The lane passed the ruins of St Lonans church, then a branch swung out by Clay Head, though the rain took the views away.  At Garwick Bay I struck the main road to Laxey, where a steep lane led me down to Old Laxey, with its quaint harbour at the river mouth, and closely packed houses.  The wind and the rain played fury there, but it was great to stand at the seaward wall and look over Laxey Bay at the half-obscured cliffs of Clay Head.  I crossed the bridge, climbed steeply, and joined the highway by the electric tramway, where both climb together by the side of Sliean Ouyr, 1483 ft, and again give lovely seaward views.  I came to Dhoon Glen hotel, paid my threepence, and inside the cape, walked down the Glen.

In June, July and August, I can imagine Dhoon Glen to be a show-place almost always crowded with holiday makers on a trip from Douglas.  There are many seats placed on vantage points, where, throughout the summer days people will sit and rest, eating chocolates, sandwiches, smoking cigarettes, and throwing paper about.  The kind of people who usually spend their holiday at Douglas contain a great proportion of those whose regard for natural beauty is set at a low standard, and they go to Dhoon Glen and such places only because it is a welcome break in the journey by electric tramway to Ramsey.  If the summer happens to be dry or just ordinary, the Glen will be pretty.  But when I walked slowly along the well-kept path down to the sea, the rain had swollen the stream, and the leaves were falling.  Isle of Man gets an early Autumn.  Dhoon Glen was lovely, and the waterfall that races and plunges in channels, in leaps, and in broken ropes of white, was as magnificent as most of the North Wales show-falls at their best.  That such a small island can muster such a flow of water in a few miles speaks well for the quality of Manx rain.  Where the Glen comes down to the sea is like a gorge, and the coastline there surprised me by its grandeur.  In a few hours the sea had become storm-tossed.

Soon after retracing my steps, the highway offered me two alternatives, of which I chose the seaward, and came to Glen Mona, which winds for over four miles to the sea, and contains a waterfall.  I did not traverse the whole length of the glen, owing to the very wet and long nature of the footpath (a ten-mile walk would have been involved), but assiduously followed a narrow, evil-surfaced lane along the top of the glen, with, at whiles, glimpses of wooded ravine and grey sea, and a backward aspect of mist-soaked moorlands.  My effort to hug the coast was spoiled when the lane took a full sweep back to the main road, near Christ Church.  I crossed Glen Corony, and found another lane no better, that descended to the beautiful little hamlet called Cornah, built of stone with luxuriant gardens house-high.  There I paid a visit on foot to Ballaglass Falls, a wide cascade of three parts, not great or big, but of good effect.  The wet weather was making each fall a spectacular display.

At Cornah, I was not more than 18 miles from Douglas, but such was the nature of the varied attempts to see the coast and the best the glens could offer, that the time was now 5pm.  I had left Douglas 12 hours before.  While I ate tea by the wayside above the hamlet, the rain ceased, and I was able to put my cape away.  Still faithfully seeking the sea by the aid of my ‘half-inch map’, I joined a rocky road by the farm of Ballafayle to Ballygarry, a bleak little hamlet, and so reached Maughhold.  Maughhold is quaint, possessing a sundial and Saxon cross of antiquity.  But greater is the headland reached by a short path – 300 ft cliffs down to the sea, and a rugged coastline, headlands and promontories at the foot of which the spindrift whirled and the breakers rolled white-capped.  In truth I had fallen in love with Manxland !

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Two miles beyond Maughold, the earth suddenly fell away before me.  Ramsey was below, on the edge of level pastures, and a golden strip of sand edged the great sweep of the bay.  From Tableland Point I descended into the second town of the Island, and stayed there just long enough to lay my stock in for the night.  I never saw the promenade, but passed through along a road as flat as the last ones had been hilly.  As I rode nearest the coast, the sun came out, and I could see the sea glittering on my right.  When the road took a twist away from the coast, I turned along the first lane, and then became involved in a network of treacly marsh-lanes that finally ended at a gate.  Not two hundred yards away I could see a road and people passing to and fro, but such an area of the bog lay between that I turned back and made my way through laborious mud to the small compact village of Bride.  A heap of stones called a road took me along a dreary, windy level to the sea and the single farm grandly termed Port Cranstal.  The lighthouse on Point of Ayre was only a mile or so away, but there was no attraction in the ride, so I turned back to Bride and took the Jurby road along Glentruan, which is not a glen at all, but only a name.  The Jurby road is quite level and of excellent surface; moreover the scenery is rural with that strange air about it that makes it not English.


Scottish Holidays Part 4

Scottish Highlands     Part   4

We awoke to twilight fog, though my watch betrayed morning well advanced.  Geldie Burn chattered past; the northerly wind brought the endless drizzle, and only bog and spears of coarse moorland grass lay to the near limit of our vision.  Over a humble breakfast of stewed raspberries and custard we studied our Ordnance Survey and found we had over-run the path we wanted.  Ahead lay Geldie Lodge; a short walk over the footbridge revealed it dimly snuggled in a fold of the hills, deserted.  A little cairn of stones some yards back gave us the clue, and after that the path barely existed; tiny cairns were spaced, each within sight of the next, and between them reeking stretches of bog.  We thought ourselves the only beings there till a herd of deer suddenly came out of the mist not twenty yards away.

Their leader, with a quick toss of antlers, roared a warning, and in a flash we were alone again.  We missed the cairns, groped about bewildered over crumpled hillocks intersected by innumerable streamlets, finally picking up our route again by the River Feshie flowing in our direction.  The impetuous torrent of the swollen Eldart barred our path, thigh deep, and desperately difficult to ford with the laden bicycles.

From that point the scenery took on a new aspect.  The valley deepened, narrowed, the river turbulently entered a gorge, and rowan trees clung to crannies in the rock.  We came to the brackish foot of a fine waterfall, though the stream provided another tardy crossing.  Indeed, the noise of water came from every side; cataracts flinging themselves out of the mist, the Feshie water plunging along the bed of the ravine, and every streamlet brawling along impulsively.  A slanting curtain of heavy rain sweeping up the glen was the last; behind it sunlight filtered through the vapours, and the mist rose to higher places, to wreathe bulging crags, to hang like steam in the rock-choked corries.  Beauty and grandeur crowded together.  Beneath scarred cliffs tall red spruce trees were dwarfed, and the green carpet of turf sprang easily underfoot.  An added touch of the wild came to us as a great big bird with hooked bill and massive beat of huge wings rose suddenly and sped into the wastes above.  We are sure it was a golden eagle; we like to think it was.  Sometimes where long-forgotten storms had wrought havoc amid the trees, the path was hard to traverse.  In one place a hundred yards of rock had collapsed across the path, and we had a rough time getting across.  In Glenfeshie forest we saw men with guns, and we knew then the reason for the hasty departure of the herd of deer on Cnapan Beag.

Loch Tulla

Amongst the pines near Feshie Lodge we explored a derelict chapel, an unpretentious place, but on the crumbled plaster above the fireplace was the figure of a deer, the remnant of a painting by Landseer.  Glenfeshie forest, a shaded parkland of fir and spruce, with wonderful turf, was a pleasant place for lingering.  A footbridge close by the large garden-embowered Feshie Lodge, saved a contemplated struggle through the swollen river, and a firm, real, road was reached close by the Lodge gates.  There was a fork-road towards Kingussie – ‘the mountain road to Ruthven’, with a couple of deep fords which no longer troubled us, and a backward view which must inspire in clearer weather.  We saw the mists once more creeping down from the Cairngorm heights to fasten Glen Feshie and the grim bogs of Geldie in premature twilight.  Ahead the richly wooded Spey valley curved towards the brown Monadhliath barrier.

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We tumbled down past the old barracks of Ruthven, relics of General Wade’s day, and on a good road came to Kingussie.

Our stores were quite depleted, and two shillings are little enough to build up further supplies.  Luxuries had to be ruthlessly cut……… I went smokeless.  Jo haggled over the price of plums – we still had custard powders, and with bread and milk, and paraffin for the stove, were assured of one good meal.  That was as far as we worried.  With one penny left we swaggered out of Kingussie, after a talk with a Wigan clubmate en-route for Perth and home.

From the next village of Newtonmore, still beside the Spey, we had a lovely run past the old battlefield of Invernahavan, past deep woods and winding about high rocks to Laggan Bridge, where branches the old Wade road, tracing the higher reaches of Spey on its ruined way over Corrieyairack Pass.  One day we mean to cross the wild, bulky hills of Monadhliath.  Into Strathmashie our road led us as evening came, and we found a perfect camping place at a waterfall where the Mashie water crosses the road.  There we dined well on our simple fare, and spent the idyllic hour of dusk at the edge of the fall, careless of the whole world.

The next morning we were up early and soon awheel again, as, to put it mildly, our breakfast was not sufficiently complicated to dally over the cooking or linger at the eating.  We soon reached Loch Laggan – and the first of the road gangs.  The men worked with muslin over their heads to keep at bay the attacks of McMidge, which came in clouds to pester the life of, and put to flight anyone who dared to stop for a moment.  The state of the road was shocking; in the process of neglect prior to being reconstructed, which work was in progress in places, but nowhere far enough advanced to make travel easier.  So we crawled along the great length of Glen Spean, eyes glued to the awful surface, blinded and choked by dust from passing vehicles, with ever and anon the noise of road gangs in our ears.  At Spean Bridge Jo urged me to go on ahead, for the possibility of early closing day (Wednesday) at Fort William had dawned on us, and the idea of waiting penniless on the doorstep of a locked post office until the morning did not appeal.  She would follow, she said, and practice en-route the subtler and more appealing notes of the songs we were to sing, should the remittance not materialise.  On the earlier part of the morning’s ride we had achieved some measure of harmony, which might – or might not – induce the wily Scot to part with a copper or two, if only to see the last of us.  The extra bits – the ‘down and out’ appearance, the shuffle along the gutter, would come with experience no doubt!

In a race against time I crashed over the remaining few miles into the town of our hopes, entered the Post Office with bated breath on the stroke of twelve, tore open feverishly the waiting letter, from which tumbled twenty-five shillings.  We were saved again!  The business of the Employment Exchange was concluded, and when Jo came down the street the sight of me with a cigarette at once assured her.  There and then we bought a great supply of food, with a few delicacies to celebrate, went beside the sparkling waters of Loch Linnhe, and had such an orgy that it dissipated our new stocks.

The level road alongside Loch Linnhe had the gloss of new surfacing, heavenly to ride after Glen Spean, while across the water the many headed hills of Ardgour and Sunart were superb in the clear air.  Our troubles however, were not over.  My front tyre, badly weathered in a summer of wandering, swelled enormously, until at Onich, just beyond Corran Ferry, I could go no further.  A garage man gave me a large piece of old tyre which I stuffed inside, and thereafter rode with a constant bump at every circuit of the wheel.  We crossed the Ballachulish Ferry, a wonderful spot near the foot of Loch Leven, with the salt tang of the sea in our nostrils, and in our eyes the panorama of the Lochaber giants heading the loch, the wild Glencoe peaks ahead of us, and the sunlit hills of Ardgour across the water.

Glencoe, too, was in the throes of reconstruction, again nowhere advanced to give us much comfort.  There would be a short bit of broad, finished asphalt, then a plunge back to the steep old road, now a hundred times worse from the heavy traffic engaged on the building of the new road.  We realised, too, that again we were foodless, and many rough miles from the next village, but down came a van which we stopped and obtained ample supplies.  Eggs were obtained from the wife of a road worker, and she refused to take the pay.  As we mounted higher, great clouds sailed above the precipitous flanks of the pass, and the sun, shining at intervals, played search-light fingers into the hollow.  A wild, desolate place, Glencoe!

At dusk we reached the summit of the pass and sought thereabouts for a camping place, but not a green, firm patch could be found in all that waste of rock and bog; even the wild head of Glen Etive, which we traversed for some distance, had nothing to show.  Casting about, we eventually found an exposed patch on the Loch Rannoch trackway quite close to Kingshouse Inn.

The magnificence of our site was more apparent the next morning when the rising sun reddened the bulging cliffs of Buchaille Etive Mor, and before the heaving Moor of Rannoch around us was properly clear of the dawn, all the craggy peaks were bathed in brilliant warm light.

The new road-to-be across Rannoch Moor had not yet been commenced, and the old road, gone all to pieces under the burden of traffic far beyond its capacity, was a hopeless rut or a mass of stones over which we jolted the whole day, over Black Mount and Ba’ Bridge to Loch Tulla, the few trees about the Loch intensifying the wastes of Rannoch which rolled east in bog and water as far as our horizon.  There were five peaks across the Loch as high as Snowdon; behind us, west of Black Mount the group dominated by Stob Ghabhar and Clach Leathad rose higher still in the blue sky, dividing our attention between fore and aft and the rutty road.  At Bridge of Orchy the civilising influence of a railway line sobered the road a little, which took us into sedate Strath Fillan, by Tyndrum to Crianlarich.  Hitherto the places had been hardly more than names on the map, but Crianlarich had a hotel, a church, houses, a railway station, and more than these things to us, a good road down green Glen Falloch back to Loch Lomondside.  We were weary of the perpetual gyrations and skids of the old tracks, a little anxious for our tyres, particularly my front one, which was bulging again in an alarming manner.  In the afternoon we fared better – slightly – on Loch Lomondside, the entrancing, unspoiled beauty of the upper parts, a fine farewell to the Highlands.

Scottish Holidays010

Just below the foot of the loch, at the beginning of Clydeside’s environs is a place called Alexandria, where my tyre finally gave up the ghost, and a convenient cycle shop fitted me up with a Dunlop ‘Champion’ for three shillings and sixpence.  Our exchequer was again beginning to rest lightly in my pocket.

For the third time in a little over two weeks I was at Erskine Ferry again, and once again I tried to find the ‘recommended’ route to Carlisle (avoiding Glasgow), this time with more success, and dusk found us near Strathavon, at a farm where we were readily given a pitch for our tents.

The southerly wind, which had given us such a doughty tussle on our way out veered north during the night, and we had the dubious pleasure of facing it once more across the rumpled central plain, by Lesmahagow, to the pleasanter Clyde country, and the original road to Crawford and over Beattock, sometimes in a wild flurry of rain.  At our first campsite together at Ecclefechan we had left one or two superfluous articles, and we called to recover them.  The woman of the house was very pleasant.  Would we like a drink of tea?  We agreed but did not expect the relatively sumptuous feast which was brought to us.  With our feet under a table for the first time for a week, we decided that the good lady deserved a fair return for her efforts, and I went to foot the bill a little anxiously.  The three shillings she charged was very reasonable………  but how slender was the remaining burthen!

That Saturday evening we prowled round Carlisle market, seeking out the lowest possible prices for our supplies, and as we slowly left the City behind, boring into a golden, windy sunset, the bulk of our food-bag was bread, and a little oatmeal.  There was a pound of plums for stewing too.  Plums were remarkably cheap that season.  The usual, inevitable custard we would have to forego.  Aslant of one of the interminable hills towards Penrith lies the village of High Hesket, where we obtained a camping site, and where, from sheer lack of money, we had to thank the farmer profusely next morning, and beat a hasty retreat before any thought of payment entered his mind.  In fact, High Hesket hill was topped in grand style, almost before our last word had reached him!

This last day was boisterous, with sharp storms, and, it seemed, ever so slowly, we lifted ourselves over the altitudes of Shap Fell into our home pastures.  For the final meal near Lancaster we enjoyed bread and jam without even butter, and our journey was completed with the same two half-pennies as on that rough ride between Kingussie and Fort William.

At the height of a great industrial depression I had completed a round trip of about 1150 miles, half of them with Jo.  Between us, our total funds had not been more than three pounds ten shillings, yet the ubiquitous bicycle had taken us through the heart of the Scottish Highlands, into a wilderness where yet the snow lingered on the mountain tops, a country far removed from the stagnant, crowded life of the great industrial regions of Britain.

We had for the first time in my life, been introduced to that land of Bens and Glens which in the future was to give us to give us our happiest days together.  In those years then unborn we were to look back to that week when the borderline of complete penury never marred our complete happiness, where our unity and freedom were treasures of which we had ample store.

[ Footnote]   As the reader will appreciate, the last paragraph was added years after this tour.   Charlie and Jo spent many holidays in Scotland, and, with the colour transparencies which he was one of the first to start taking immediately after the war, sustained his magic lantern shows through many a winter clubroom night. To this day they rest in my house loft, unseen for thirty years, thousands of them.  Scotland’s magic, in the high and lonely places, never faded for Charlie and his wife, and we must be grateful to him that he was minded to set it all down for posterity.  Charlie died in 1968, Jo some seven or eight years later.

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Scottish Highlands Part 3

Part  3     At the Edge of the Cairngorms

 We were camped just outside Ecclefechan, in August 1931.  Under Mrs McCall’s hospitable roof we had lingered out the last remnant of daylight.  A cyclist from near Lanark had beguiled us long with deeply interesting talk of his own romantic Lowlands.  In darkness we had found a campsite in a field at the edge of the village.

During breakfast we consulted our pockets and pooled our resources.  I had come away from Mrs McCall’s with just a shilling; now Jo turned out twenty-seven shillings and fourpence, which did not seem such unbounded wealth, especially if the prospective remittance at Fort William did not materialise.  Jo had also brought a pound each of butter and bacon and a few dainties – the only ones we appeared likely to get.  To add to our embarrassment, we were charged two shillings for the site.  We departed far more angry at the over-charge than we were concerned at our poverty.  Lightly enough we faced the strong wind which promised us a difficult passage all day.

Trouble was lagging at our heels, and eleven miles from Beattock caught us up.  With a great sigh my rear tyre sank to the rim.  A great hole the size of my fist spelled ruination to it.  At a road-side counsel we gleaned the information that a garage lay two miles ahead, so off I went on Jo’s bicycle with the exchequer sitting already too lightly in my hip pocket.  I was out of luck; the sterile Scots Sabbath was on the place.  Returning to Jo, who sat patiently waiting beside the ruin, we debated afresh.  There was a sporting chance at Beattock, if only we could limp the distance.  Jo discovered a large piece of canvas in her kit, and this we stitched on the old cover, mended the puncture and slowly proceeded.  The bulge was painfully apparent ere we had gone far.  At length we reached a tiny cycle shop with the very tyre we required in the window, but the people refused to serve us.  It was the Sabbath; the Sabbath must not be broken.  No matter how desperate the straits, how urgent the need, your true Scot will not disturb his delicate sense of religion, nor endanger his soul by thought or deed.  At Beattock a garage-man had less compunction.  Ten minutes later we were jovially pushing forward up the windy glen of the Elvan Water, a new tyre below me, and in pocket only eighteen shillings and ninepence separating us from a tinker’s existence.

A slow dour fight over the water-shed and through Abingdon led us into Clydesdale, and as evening approached, Lanark, my campsite of last night, was regained.  Soon after Lanark, Jo fell lame with knee trouble, a legacy of two day’s struggle against long odds.  A valiant attempt to keep up the pace petered out, stabbing knives seemed to tear at one knee, and it soon became clear that she could travel little farther and that little, slowly.  To add to this we ran into a black part of Lanark industrialism, coal, iron and brickworks.  It was irritating country inasmuch as we were often led into believing we had made open country by a growing spaciousness of fields and estates, when the climbing of a ridge would reveal a skyline of pits and chimneys.  The people themselves were no more than half savage, shouting suggestive remarks and laughing offensively at Jo’s shorts.  A girl may walk through the Wigan coal-field clad in the scantiest summer clothes, but there is no embarrassment caused, but here the men hailed us, the women screamed abuse, and the children set up catcalls.  The limit was reached when they began to throw sticks and stones.  Meanwhile Jo’s knee became almost unbearable.  At a point near Newmains, where a single colliery stands amid green fields, we found a farm where the people were very kindly, allowing us a pitch where-ever we wished, and afterwards engaging us in converse for a long time.

Monday morning was nothing to enthuse about.  We awoke to rain, a raging wind dead east, and as cold as any February day.  The rain stopped later, but black galleons of cloud raced in succession across the bare width of sky, promising nothing but the likelihood of bad weather.  There was not the shadow of a mountain nor the green livery of a wood to relieve the low horizon – drenched ricks of hay, a thin, wind-beaten hedge – that was all.  Jo’s knee was stiff and an early recurrence of the pain was feared.  The scenery alternated between colliery and green fields, and once, on the edge of a big town – Airdrie – we crossed the harsh highway between Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Riding carefully, walking the long hills that began to appear, the stiffness gradually wore out of Jo’s knee, and in ten miles she was riding in fair comfort.  The threat of rain passed off, and with it the brutality out of the wind, leaving a naggy headwind with a glorious broken sky.  Our hearts were lifted at a view of the broad Vale of Forth with Stirling crowded below, and behind the graceful Ochil hills.  Far away to the west the Highlands stood, those fine Trossachs peaks, Ben Ledi, Ben Vorlich, Ben Venue, barely scraped by the layered clouds – a thrilling gateway to the wild Beyond.

We reached St. Ninians and had to go to Bannockburn, to the stone where the Bruce raised the standard of a united Scotland, there sending the English Henry flying back.  There is a high flagstaff with a standard unchallenged, a little hut at one side where picture postcards are sold, and a man tells the tale of that gruesome affair – for a consideration.  We saw him eye us over, and so, five hundred and seventeen years later, came a second English flight!

I like old, historic places like Stirling, because they make me dream on the uneasy past, and I become thankful that I live in modern times when the chances of torture and sudden death lie only along the highway.  In Jo and I there are no illusions about the ‘good old days’.  Heroics are fine – on paper, read in a snug armchair; we are all for the present when one’s opinions are only silently suppressed, one’s politics, blood red though they be, are ignored, and religion need not interfere with one’s love of wholesome worldly pleasures.  The most a man may lose with his tongue is his job, and that needn’t cause bitter tears to flow.  Stirling was the distributing centre for raiding parties as well as the bone of contention ‘twixt Highland and Lowland.  The gibbets never lacked their gruesome, swinging loads; the sanitary arrangements were left to themselves in the streets; the common folk were under the heel of a feudal system that enslaved them mind and body to the whim of the Laird.  Stirling was building itself up in blood and misery for the days when curious tourists could pry around and pay credulous coin to hear history moulded to suit their delicate senses.

Jo went shopping.  The peculiar feminine delight of alternating from shop to shop, pausing in uncertain contemplation of half a dozen variations of one desirable delicacy is beyond my accounting.  I should have rushed into the first shop and concluded the business in a couple of minutes.  I am told that all this philandering about is for motives of economy, but when I recalled the purchase of four twopenny  postcards for tenpence halfpenny I was told I did not understand.  I don’t.

Bridge of Allan was dull.  With a mind full of Banks of Allan Water and Miller’s Lovely Daughter, with whom I had sorrowed for many a long year, my dream was found to be shattered.  Most fond illusions break thus.

This is the land of battlefields.  There was Bannockburn, and Stirling Brig, where Wallace defeated the English in 1297, and a little way along the Perth road we passed close by Sheriffmuir where the Earl of Mar met Argyle in the rising of 1715.  There was a battle, a sort of comic opera engagement, in which both sides got badly scarred.  Some wit has improved the occasion with rhyme:

‘Some say that we wan,

Some say that they wan,

Some say that non wan at a’ man,

But one thing is sure,

At Sheriffmuir

A battle there was that was fought man’

At Gleneagles, nearer to Perth, international battles of golf are fought nowadays.  The going was hard to Perth, a nagging wind and rolling road, with ever glimpses of the blue Highlands westwards.  At the summit of a final ridge we overlooked the winding kinks of the River Tay, Perth below, and the tidal sands eastward towards Dundee.

We saw little of the clean, nicely built town.  A small shop supplied our stores; a supper bar lined us for a further few miles, which was the Blairgowrie road, first by the broad Tay on whose surface floated gaily a high proportion of Perth’s younger populace.  The sun was setting; behind the mountains the colours were sprayed from deep red through infinite shadings to gold, and into the pale blue of a clear sky.  The mountains were in indigo contour.  The wind had fallen.

Jo’s knee began to crook again, and so, eight miles out of Perth a turfy hollow by a stream screened from the chilly night winds of these northern latitudes attracted our attention.  There we pitched.  There was a wholesome smell above the primus stoves at supper time.  Stewed plums and custard; coffee and rolls.  Conversation.

The Lairig Ghru was now a practical impossibility, for even now we should have been camping in the jaws of the pass, at least forty-five miles further on, with the highest road in Britain between.  Obviously something else would have to be planned, shorter, less arduous.  In any case Jo’s knee would not stand the tremendous strain of hours of struggling across the debris and scree of that high remote pass, which splits the heart of the great Cairngorms.  We turned in, deciding to let the morrow take care of itself.

We had decided to re-model our mode and, by getting away early, camp earlier in the evening, enjoying a more leisured sunset hour.  At 6am we startled the sleepy cattle by the stream, and loud in brief ablutions, hurried towards breakfast.

Very shortly we came to Bridge of Isla where the road runs beneath a great hedge of beech trees, a hundred feet high, a third of a mile long, and planted in 1745, a memorable planting in such a time of uprooting.  Approaching Blairgowrie we were struck by the number of encampments, tinker, bastard gypsy, and individual tents and caravans.  Raspberries are cultivated extensively here, and we saw many at work among the rows of succulent berries.  At a stream men stood bare-legged, scrubbing barrels out.  The neat little town of Blairgowrie gave us entrance to the glen of Ardle Water.  The sun shone, a gentle zephyr replaced the high wind, and all the promise was of a golden day.  Jo’s quick eyes spotted wild raspberries growing along the hedges much as our English blackberries do.  For an hour we worked along a hundred yards of hedge, in our enthusiasm crossing a derelict fence, to berries that never grew wild.  With only five shillings left, we packed our panniers with the nucleus of a good meal.  Pink jelly oozed through the bags, our hands were stained for days, and when, a little higher up the glen Jo complained of tummy ache, I learned why we had collected so many berries for one meal.

The scenery became grander as the road climbed higher, with a wooded ravine below and glimpses of rapid waters.  At Bridge of Cally in six miles the Ardle stream bent westwards with the Pitlochry road, and we entered Glen Shee, a barren depression along which the river chattered on its stony course.  By the hamlet of Persie we had riverside lunch, nineteen miles behind us, thanks to our three pounds of raspberries steadily dripping themselves away.  With the typical uncertainty of the Highland climate there came a gust of wind, grey mists blew over the peaks and crept down the glen, gradually obliterating the landscape.  A touring cyclist, dawdling along, joined us in a hurried dive into capes, and with us struggled along the tilted road.  The rain passed, but the mist held fast, hiding the high peaks about us.  Our new companion, a Londoner with three weeks ahead of him, a last fling ere he got married, he confided, caused heartaches to my partner who was silent for some time in rapt visualisation of what we could do with such a holiday.  With unseen mountains edging closer, we passed the Spittal of Glenshee at 1,118ft, climbed higher and harder into a cold northerly wind, mile upon mile until, in a final upward convulsion round the Devils Elbow we reached the summit of Cairnwell pass.  This is the highest main road in Britain, 2,200ft.  For twenty miles we had been climbing, for twenty miles the scene had been changing from the green beauty of the glens to the grey mists swirling over brown and black wilds.

On Cairnwell summit the northerly wind screamed in our faces and on it came sleet, cold as a winter gale.  The vaporous abyss of Glen Clunie yawned below, yet in spite of the fierce down-grade we pedalled hard to hold our own.  For a few brief moments the mists broke, and far ahead, through the ragged frame, we caught a glimpse of great mountains and the white streak of a snow-filled Cairngorm corrie.  The vision of moments, the treasured memory of years!

The teeth chattered with genuine cold all the way down the wide desolation of Glen Clunie.  There is an old Wade bridge by the new road, spanning a river in spate; lower down Clunie Castle stood in a thin belt of trees like a tall man half naked.  The rain ceased, the wind died away, the road became dry, and we entered Braemar in the Dee valley, ‘Royal Deeside’ some say.

Scottish Holidays007           Braemar is the kind of place that breeds snobbery; amongst very expensive things in very select shops are a few very cheap things like the magnificent viewcards at a penny each.  After the purchase of our humble necessities we dashed our ship of economy upon that stall, until only a wreck was left to us.  There was a magnificent limousine outside a hotel.  Presently there emerged from the place a vast bundle of furs which moved with infinite poise infinitely slowly to the waiting car. A very servile chauffeur arranged a luxurious pile of cushions and humbly placed my lady amidst them.

This opulent parasite must have become aware of our contemptuous grin for we were given a haughty stare calculated to freeze us.  The stare went wrong; we had to laugh at her.  Jo suggested we kidnap her and force her to cross the Cairngorms afoot with us, sharing for food the remains of the raspberries which still shed their lifeblood steadily.  She would have reached the Great Glen a better woman for it.

The Lairig Ghru was out of the question of course, and except for turning back, only one practical course remained if we would make for Fort William – a long trek through the moors of Geldie Burn and Glen Feshie to Kingussie.  We calculated the distance to be about thirty-three miles of which only twelve or so are rideable, leaving a central distance of twenty-one miles to walk, scramble, get over as best we could.  Too much of a conjecture for our London friend who said goodbye and fled down the Dee valley in search of the luxuries of life.  We had our kit, the time was 5pm, and we had laid in stores for the night – iron rations for two nights if need be.  There were two shillings left.  A hundred miles away, at Fort William, was the possibility of a remittance.  Failing that, well, we would have nearly four hundred miles to go……  And both of us were quite unconcerned.

To the Linn of Dee our road ran through thin belts of pine amongst which the timid deer flitted nervously; across the river the mists brushed the pine-tops of Glen Quoich.  In spate, the Linn of Dee was almost terrifying, boiling under the bridge and flinging its white foam into a sheer sided chasm.  Thereafter the bridle road emerged into the wide moorland basin where the Tilt and the Geldie Burn join the peaty Dee.  White bridge crosses the Dee in a setting of austere wildness, magnetic to the mountain lover.  At this point the narrow defile of Glen Dee comes down from the heart of Cairngorm – the Lairig Ghru itself stretched into the twilight mists.  Jo was affected; I was saddened.  A thought cherished for years, three attempts, and twice so near – she found it very hard to leave – for how many years?

In the gathering darkness the road was not worth riding.  We passed a ruined clachan, grimly set above the chattering Geldie.  The track was interminable, running level in a monotonous wilderness.  Grey tongues of mist curled; nights shadows hung overhead, hesitating to fall; and the light mountain rain fell steadily.  We sought a camping place but bog, rock, and gullies where peaty water spouted was all we could find.

Desperately weary, we reached a footbridge over the stony burn, and there, at 1,650ft we found enough hummocky grass to pitch our tents.  At midnight there was still grey light, but in half an hour, when we turned in, black night had closed and even the noisy stream half a yard away was invisible

Scottish Highlands Part 2

But the next morning I was literally chased away by clouds of ferocious midges.  I became a fugitive as surely as were I a fleeing Jacobite of the unruly ’45.  The weather too, had changed with the shifting of the wind from east to south-west, bringing a mist to the mountains and a stifling dampness to the glens.

The road down the western side of Loch Fyne was in a shocking condition.  Repairs were in hand – the beginnings of a movement for better roads that has since become widespread.  Beauty, however, was not lacking, nor romance either, where Dundarave, the ‘Castle of the Two Oars’, on its rocky point, made a picturesque feudal relic of the departed MacNeills, and again where the road made a crook round Loch Shira, and the damp mists rolled up Shira Glen, a home of the dubious MacGregor, Rob Roy – on the rare occasions when he was at home.  And picturesque Inveraray, tiny capital of huge Argyll, where once the Campbells dispensed a kind of irregular justice, vacillating betwixt the English George and the Scottish Jamie or Charlie.  The justice of the Campbell Court was least in doubt when a Campbell happened to be right.  Now that those rough clan days are no more than an oft-told tale, Inveraray has rebuilt itself, taken on a quaint odour mingling with the powerful odour of its staple industry, the fishing, and yet keeps the consciousness of its own lovely surrounds as a bait for the siller [sic] of the tourist.

Below Inveraray, in the brackish growth of the Lochside, six or seven cannons pointed useless muzzles toward the sea.  Rusted, with fangs of them happily drawn, they were still a grim reminder of the panic days beginning 1714.  I can’t recall how many miles I rode down to Lochgilphead, mostly by the shore, once inland over a lovely little glen, and once round an elbow of the inlet called Lochgair.  Again, I lunched on a grassy mound by Otter Ferry, with a superb view seaward down the widening waters.  Another great sweep round Loch Gilp brought me to Lochgilphead where I ought to have bought supplies, but didn’t, and went on, with not a crust, along the Oban road, beside the Crinan Canal which makes the great arm of Kintyre into an island.  In six miles I turned off to the hamlet of Kilmichael where my road at once became grass-grown and climbed steadily into a mountain region cradling little Loch Leathan.  The hills were half out of their mists, and the sun shone at intervals, so that there was beguiling beauty there, heightened by wandering Highland cattle.  There was a startling likeness to the framed prints of Highland scenes common on our English walls.

The track dwindled, became a mere path by a cascading burn, with a loch called Ederline gleaming through trees, and just as I was wondering if my map-reading had gone awry, and to what wild adventure I was rushing, I came to a road – and Loch Awe.

When I think to describe the twenty-four miles I covered by the shore of Loch Awe, my head becomes bewildered and nothing clear comes from it, but such a succession of pictures as to take me back to a delightful mental ramble all along that loveable stretch of white road.  I hesitate at the writing, as I hesitated so many times at Fincharn Castle, Innis Channel, a dozen surprises, until my inattention to the very bad road led to a tyre burst.  In the mending of it I discovered a very real hunger, with empty saddlebag and never a shop in miles.  I climbed a long hill behind a man who wore the kilt of his clan and carried a scythe on his shoulder.  On the summit the head of Loch Awe lay below, a fine assembly of peaks, close on a dozen over 3,000ft, dominated by Ben Cruachan, whose head was buried in a single white cloud.  I forgot the hunger tumbling down to Cladich fork-road, where better sense prevailed only after a mental struggle.  The forward road would have led me into the heart of Cruachan, but I must needs turn southwards towards a rendezvous with Jo.  I climbed hard, feeling the warning knocks of hunger all the way.  The descent that followed wound down a moorland pass with the young river Aray growing in sound, down into Glen Aray and bewitching woodlands which reached magnificence in the grounds of Inveraray Castle. Never had I seen fir and pine of such girth, such spreading stateliness.

It was past eight – seven hours since my last meal – when I reached Inverarary again, and all the shops were closed.  There are side doors to every shop, however, so I went nothing short in the packing.  But I was past my tea, unable to eat, though not feeling too strong.  Back round the head of Loch Fyne, by Dundarave at sunset to Cairndow, this time continuing along the lochside, steadily climbing, steadily loosing the power in my legs.  At the summit I was nigh completely whacked, with nine hours and sixty-five Highland miles behind my lunch at Otter Ferry.

Night was upon me.  The darkening silver of Loch Fyne placidly fading into distance below; the shadowy outline of the Loch Awe giants barely visible.

I turned into a rift in the hills and descended fiercely at a careless speed, heedless of the awful surface, heedless of anything.  Hell’s Glen.

Hell’s Glen is a savage place of rock and crag and a wild desolation about it.  I pitched my tent hurriedly by a roaring burn that came in a leap from a tottering corrie.  A ledge of rocky earth tilted steeply was my bed.  During supper a little wind grew into half a gale that fitfully whined and howled up the glen, shaking the little tent like a leaf.  What a place!  Beneath a gash in the cliffs; a rushing stream below, desolation without a tree or habitation; the howling wind buffeting and mingling with the chatter of water.  A place that might grip the imagination and let that imagination people it with other-worldly things.  But I was tired and went to sleep.

A very strong westerly wind brushed the mists across the cliffs of Hell’s Glen.  The tortuous road bumped me down its defile, awe-inspiring in the daylight, utterly deserted, to its confluence with the steep glen that runs down to Lochgoilhead.  Here the road made a double hairpin through a wood scene of great beauty.  The road up Glen Goil was no better in surface, a walk uphill for the most of an hour, if one includes the many stops to look back towards the woods and uprearing crags.  Then I was suddenly back at the ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ stone, with a hundred mile circuit behind that was hard to leave.

By Loch Long I lunched while the Cobbler peak was pushing its splintered head through the mist.  There was sunshine all the way down the lakeside; a summit view down the narrow fiord before I branched to Garelochhead.  The ‘promenade road’, seven miles along Garelochside to Helensburgh was not striking, except in the large numbers of steamers anchored, silent and deserted in this backwater of the Clyde – out of a job like me.  Now the other bank of the Clyde by Dumbarton to Erskine Ferry again.

There is a ‘recommended’ route to Carlisle avoiding Glasgow, by way of Paisley, Clarkston, East Kilbride and Strathaven, a string of small places, and in following the route I went wrong, coming to my senses in a village on a plateau called Eaglesham, so I provisioned for the night and plunged into a network of lanes which got me to Strathaven at dusk, a ‘down-in-the-dale’ sort of place liberally plastered with signs ‘Carlisle 79’, which reminded me that England was only seventy miles away, and the Highlands definitely behind.  Anyway, with only four shillings to my credit I could not have stayed on much longer.  Tomorrow’s rendezvous with Jo was only fifty miles away, so I should have camped at the first opportunity had not a local cyclist whirled me away with ready talk on his lips and braggatio in his tone.  Amused, a little interested, I rode with him through half a dozen grimy Lanark coalfield villages, on another blind crazy way, while darkness came with neither in possession of a lamp.  I rebelled at last in the glen of the infant Clyde, just below Lanark town, where lay nothing but fruit farms and occasional collieries, said good-night, and was given a campsite at the nearest farm.

These estates are very big, and their main products are peas, beans, black-berries and raspberries, cultivated in the open, whilst in huge glass-houses tomatoes are grown on the grand scale.  The farmer employs three or four permanent men, and in the picking season augments his labour with youths and girls recruited at low wage-rates from the slums of Glasgow and its satellites.  At this farm were about twelve boys and eight girls, each sex housed in separate army huts, spacious enough but very dirty.  A ragged crew, treated, it seemed, not as human beings, but as some inferior type of animal; this treatment being reflected in the foul language freely used by the females.  The boys came to talk to me, and I was interested in their outlook and work, but felt very uncomfortable as they persisted in a tone of humiliation and ‘respect’.  This to an unemployed foundry-man!

Another change took place in the weather that night.  Much rain fell, while the wind veered, blowing hard from the north-east.  My comfortable breakfast was jarred by the thought of Jo, who even then must have been fighting the wind for hours, on a hilly road, 128 miles long.  What rare pluck, what enthusiasm, to start in the small hours and face the wind and rain, the better to get a start with me!  Few men would do it, let alone a woman.

With a large, complimentary bag of tomatoes, I turned into Lanark.  The wind was behind; the fine, sweeping highway under the shadow of Tinto was a ribbon of ease.  A lashing storm of rain was my first since last Saturday.  Beattock Summit was child’s play, and soon after noon I found myself within a few miles of Beattock.  A lane up the hillside called Greenall Stairs crossed a fine section of limestone scenery  to the Devil’s Beef Tub on the Edinburgh road.  This deep fissure or pit is a single example of the Yorkshire Buttertubs.  There the wind blew fierce and cold, but put a fine effect of cloud and sun sweeping over the moorland peaks towards St Mary’s Loch.  I trysted for Jo at the very same spot in Moffat where I had checked and fed our Albert Mather the day he broke the Liverpool-Edinburgh record all but five years before.

Jo was an hour overdue; I rode out to meet her, but met instead her sister and beau loaded on a motor-cycle camping trip.  Jo was a long, long way behind, struggling against the wind.  I swept the 18 miles south to Ecclefechan, waited there until 7pm then went to Mrs McCall’s.  Anyone in northern cycling circles will know Mrs McCall.  In her cottage is a vast table groaning with fare.  Her variety of Scotch cakes and pasties is endless, and the price is absurdly low.  A favourite rendezvous for Glasgow lads, but just a bit too far from Aberdeen without a meal en-route!  It is said that the roads from Aberdeen to Ecclefechan are strewn with cyclists fallen by the wayside.

Thither came Jo, at last, utterly tired.