Tag Archives: Flora and Fauna

THE LOT. A HOLIDAY DIARY.

Puy L’Eveque on the Lot River.

I’ve just returned from three weeks staying in my friend’s house in the Lot Valley, France.  The weather as you can imagine, in August, was hot and sunny.

The first week was shared with the owners and their family, the second two weeks one of my sons came out with his family.

Here is a snapshot of daily life.

Day 1.  Hot air balloon. Awoke this morning to see across the vineyards a hot air balloon landing through the mist over towards Vire. They must have had a fantastic flight in the clear morning air. I don’t know where they launch from, an unusual start to the holiday.

Day 2. Men in orange. It turns out that this Thursday is a French Bank Holiday, we get caught out with the shops being closed.  This explains why the hunters are out in the combe, dogs try to flush out deer or wild boar into the open. Not a good time to go walking. Thankfully there were no shots heard this morning.

Day 3. Full moon. I seem to often visit whilst there is a full moon which shines brightly over the back of the house and garden whilst we are finishing supper.

Day 4. In the pool. The two young children make the most of the pool as the temperature sores into the 30s.

Children, father and grandma.

Day 5. BMF training. Saturday back home in Leeds is BMF training session in Roundhay Park so the exercises were recreated on the lawn. It all looked very energetic and powerful from my viewpoint on a lounger.

Day 6. French walkers. Each day I get out for a short walk, often before breakfast. My favourite is up the garden into the woods and then back down The Combe de Filhol. Today I extend my walk around the Orienteering Course in the woods across the way. I come across a group of French walkers, holidaying in the area, marching along with a map. Normally I see no one but today as I zigzag about I bump into the same group several times, they look a little uneasy as I keep appearing from the undergrowth.

Day 7. Hints of autumn.  On my walks I started noticing fungi pushing through the undergrowth. Unfortunately they looked poisonous, On the other hand, the mirabelles, small plums, were prolific and once stewed provided many delicious desserts with yoghurt or ice cream.

Day 8. All change. I take mine hosts back to the airport and await the arrival of my family group. They are quickly through passport control, how will this be next year after Brexit?   I drive them back with a short coffee break in Isseagac, a charming Bastide town.

Day 9. Garden games. A lot of time was taken up with games in the garden. Boules, table tennis, french cricket, croquet etc. The competitive spirit was well demonstrated in croquet where some most unfriendly manoeuvers were taken.

Day 10. On the bike. For some of my longer excursions, I took one of the bikes with me but ended up walking as much as riding due to the terrain and the bike’s gears’ obstinacy. One of my favourite trips which I hadn’t made for some time was over the hills to St. Martin le Redon in the Theze valley. Firstly over to Touzac then over the river Lot on a splendid metal bridge. Near here is a good swimming spot in the slow running river, popular in the heatwave, One of the GR routes is joined to go over another group of hills down into the Theze valley. St. Martin is a sleepy village but has gained a little cafe since I was last here; a welcome addition. In the valley is a string of limestone cliffs which I often climbed on in happier times. Hilly tracks take me over to Duravel and slowly back to the house.

Day 11. More exercise. As if last weeks exercises hadn’t been enough my own family started on more each day. Matthew and Lou’s seemed fairly casual but Sam was into serious workouts in between fast runs.

Day 12. Shush! there’s a deer in the garden. The orchard higher up the garden has numerous apple trees which drop their fruit at this time of year. It is a regular event for deer to visit the garden for this fruit and Alex spotted one tonight, well done; they don’t hang around long.

Day 13. Off to market. Sunday is market day at the nearby town of Montcuq.  There is a market somewhere every day but this one is very popular with locals and tourists. Every sort of stall [produce, clothing, antiques etc.] street entertainment and an interesting village to explore.

Day 14. The Poolman cometh. An ageing hippy drives up in his Morris Minor van, he has a collection of them, and cleans the pool.

Day 15. Snakes and glow worms.

Day16. More pool activities.  The weather was perfect for relaxing in the pool. One of the challenges was to do a length on the banana,

Day 17. Orienteering. In the woods I’ve set up a simple orienteering course. The family were keen to try it and being competitive split into two groups, I’ll call them the tortoises and the hares. They disappeared for an hour or so and needless to say the more careful tortoises came in first. This proved the hardest to find in a pile of stones in the middle of the trees…

Day 18. Eating in and out. We have mainly eaten at the house, two vegans to feed plus two picky ‘enfants’. Despite that, the family have eaten out at several local restaurants. Chips and salad is the best option for vegans in France. For a special occasion, I specifically booked the nearest place we could walk to. Le Caillau is a lovely courtyard restaurant with a reputation for good food. They told me they could cater for Vegans. My family appreciated the atmosphere and the food but I thought they could have been a little more creative with the seasonable vegetables, What have I missed out – wine tasting, Martignac with its Medieval church, lavoir and cazelle, Buzzards, Bastide towns, castles, mosquitos, kayaking and LOTS  more.

Day 19. Chez mois.  Je suis de retour a la maison maintenant, c’est l’Automne.   Que fait Boris?

 

THE BOWLAND MIDDLE KNOLL.

The Puddleducks cafe was just opening as we parked up in Dunsop Bridge so coffee was taken on their outside terrace. The plan today was to ascend Middle Knoll, a hill above Whitendale that neither JD or myself recollected visiting. On a recent walk here I was surprised to see how rocky the eastern slopes of Middle Knoll appeared and I was keen to investigate closer at hand a feature on the map marked Blue Scar.

After a gentle stroll up the waterboard access road we took the left fork leading to Brennand Farm but immediately branched off on a path through the heather on the slopes of Middle Knoll. As we gained height we herded a few cattle in front of us. At some point we mutually agreed to start the steep climb up pathless ground to the summit, for about 500ft we staggered laboriously upwards trying to to keep to the easiest ground. This was one of those convex hills where you never see the top, you just have to keep going. The summit at 395m was marked with a few stones. The best views were southwards towards the Fylde Plain.

We crossed a nearby wall and ate our lunches in its shelter. Descending we were soon on the top of Blue Scar a steep shaley feature, a few little rock buttresses stood out but it all appeared loose and dangerous.

Curiosity satisfied we descended to the col but failed to find the path coming up from Brennand and stumbled about in high bracken and reeds for some time. Heath Bedstraw was in profusion. Eventually we came steeply down to Whitendale Farm.  From down here Blue Scar was prominent. Those familiar Peak and Northern Footpath Society signs pointed in several directions, we chose the pleasant path leading down above Whitendale River to the luxuriant Costy Clough.

After that we rejoined the outward route on the road alongside the River Dunsop. We thought that the beech trees down the valley had an unusually rich crop of nuts on display this year.

Feeling weary from the heat and the steep trackless terrain on Middle Fell we were glad of a pot of tea at the cafe.

*****

LAZING IN THE LOT.

I had no plans for the holiday at my friend’s house [above] in The Lot Valley, France. This was my first time abroad for nearly a year and I struggled to get insurance. I’m feeling as fit as anything but because of the tablets I’m having to take etc no one wants to know me. The insurance I managed covers walking up to 1000m which is ridiculously low – there are road passes in France double that height. For now it doesn’t matter but I’ll take it up with them later.

As usual, I was ‘chef’ for the house and made use of as much fresh produce as possible, the supermarkets here have a huge choice. Lunches were salads and evening meals featured fish quiet often. The weather was hot so nobody was wanting large meals though large quantities of the local wines were drunk. This is the land of the dark ‘Cahors’ Malbec reds but also good dry rosés. Local restaurants were revisited though on several occasions I was happy to miss out and dine alfresco by the pool.

Most mornings before the house was awake I would do a circuit from the garden up into the woods and then down into the secluded Combe de Filhol. I love this route of a couple of miles, I often see deer and there are masses of flowers in the meadow above the combe. Orchids and poppies were prominent at this time of year.

An extra attraction was kestrels nesting in a wall in the buildings in the combe. One nestling was happy to pose for me.

A couple of days before we left a Jay fledgeling was found on the patio, it didn’t appear to get any food from its parents. As I was having breakfast on our last day suddenly another fledgeling dropped from the maple tree, there must have been a nest up there all the time with the adult Jays coming and going in secret. I wonder what happened to the two Jay fledgelings.

I walked the hills behind the house up to the prominent communication tower and thoroughly enjoyed the rollercoaster of a ridge with views over The Lot valley with the villages of Duravel and Puy L’Eveque down below.

Up here the thyme created a heady summer fragrance and butterflies were making the most of the sunny weather.

A couple of afternoons I enjoyed walks with my host if there was someone to help with his wife. I think he will need new boots before we return,

The longest day passed and there was a Strawberry Moon.

I worked in the garden and picked up a Tick for my troubles.

We were lucky to leave France before a record-breaking heatwave was due to arrive.

 

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL. Reflections.

Inverness to John O’Groats – 147 miles of coastal walking.

A trail of two halves, not just the way I did it but geographically also. The first half to Helmsdale is rural walking often along the shoreline whereas the northern half is rugged cliff top walking. Over the years many LEJOG walkers have ended up walking the dreaded A9 to finish their Odyssey which must be an anti-climax. Local walkers, Caithness Waybaggers, started looking at a coastal route away from the road and an American Jay Wilson who’d settled in the area became enthused by the idea. In 2016 a charity was established to promote the walk – Friends of the John O’Groats Trail and they have their own website http://www.jogt.org.uk/

Volunteers have worked hard on researching and way-marking a route, with more funding stiles and bridges have started to appear and the route is getting publicity and more people are walking it.  A ranger, Jim Bunting, has been appointed with funding for a year which will help push things forward.

I first became aware of the route last year when I was planning a week’s walking to help complete my own personal LEJOG walk which I’d been doing for over 50years without realising it. I’d recently finished off gaps down in the west country and was left with the way north of Inverness. So last summer I set off from Inverness with the main idea of staying off the A9, it was only when on the way that I fell into step with the JO’GTRAIL. Waymarks were rare but the walking was easy, mainly on small lanes and tracks with lots along the low coastline – lovely sandy beaches which could be used at low tides for easy walking and a quick swim when needed. Seals were constant companions along the coast. There was a bed at the end of every stage. I was enthused.

Fast forward almost a year, interrupted by illness, and I’m back on the trail. This time I have a  Harveys Map which I hardly used – too small a scale for my eyes, but more importantly a draft guide from the powers that be. This was a work of art, Wainwright style, which will hopefully come to publication. [I’ve donated to the cause for the use of it and whatever else]  I worry about commercial intrusions from the likes of Cicerone. The volunteers who have put so much into the route deserve their guide to be definitive.

A lot changed in a year and waymarking is coming on a treat. They have adopted an octagonal emblem reflecting the octagonal house of the legendary  Jan de Groot  and his brothers, Dutchmen of the 15th century who plied a ferry from the Scottish mainland to Orkney, Their house was one room, with eight windows and eight doors, to admit eight members of the family; the heads of different branches of it, to prevent their quarrels at the table.

This northern half of the trail is ‘not for the inexperienced’ as is the mantra – a trail in progress.

Despite the main road being within a few miles inland you feel very isolated on the cliffs. Many fences have to be climbed without stiles as yet, lots of barbed wire to rip your best Gortex pants to bits. Depending on which side of the fence you find yourself there are the dangers of frisky risky cattle or crumbling cliff edges.

Crossing rivers can be a challenge depending on rainfall and tides. I was impressed by some of the bridge-building that has recently taken place. I was also impressed by the depth of fast-flowing water on other unbridgeable burns. Take care!

Despite all that this trail is an experience not to be missed. The geology is amazing, the birdlife incredible, the flora unique, whales and dolphins common sights, historical sites around every headland, the local population welcoming. The geos [sea inlets] are outstanding even if they seem to double the distance of each day’s walk. The little simple harbours, most long ago abandoned, are evocative of the herring fishing industry of the 18/20th centuries. A novel by Neil M Gunn, a native of Dunbeath, The Silver Darlings refers to the sight of the masses of fish visible to clifftop watchers. As the shoals were spotted small boats would be launched from the harbours to maximise the haul.

What more do you want?

I can foresee that once established and trodden [the summer bracken growth is a problem] this will become one of the most sought after challenging walks in Britain. I’m glad I walked it in its infancy for the adventure it provided.

Enjoy.

Now, what about JOG to Cape Wrath?

 

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL – 14B. Nybster to John O’Groats.

Journey’s end?

The same bus driver picked me up this morning as had transported me back yesterday, he was keen to know where I was heading today. By the time he dropped me off at Nybster we were on first name terms, they’re a friendly lot up here.

Walking down to the small harbour the weather was awful, maybe I’d misjudged the forecast. Anyhow I was on my way. There were a couple of geo’s and the odd sea stack for starters though the rain was getting on the camera lens.

Ahead in the mist were some castle ruins on a headland. Bucholie Castle dates from a 12th-century Norse nobleman but what remains today is from a 15th-century rebuild.

By now the rain had thankfully stopped but the wind remained strong.

Lovely open walking around Ness Head brought Freswick Bay into view. On a sea stack fulmars were kings of their castle. The other house/tower/castle call it what you like has Norse origins which are normal in Caithness. I was able to wade a stream, have lunch and then walk leisurely across the beach towards Skirza Head.

A diversion sign took me on minor roads to avoid some clifftop properties although I was tempted to go direct. Maybe access negotiations are delicate so I didn’t want to inflame matters. At least I didn’t end up in the field with this chap.

I arrived back on the coast at a small harbour.

Rough and dramatic walking along the cliffs covered in Sea Thrift, it seemed to take me an age to get around Skirza Head and a couple of geos. There were lots of seabirds on the cliffs with guillemots doing their best penguin impersonations.

Ravens meanwhile were doing their best acrobatic displays, I wonder if they are responsible for this egg stealing. More likely to be Herring Gulls.

Yet more dramatic clifftop walking with my first distant view of Duncansby Head and its stacks.

Then I was peering down into the largest geo I’d seen, Wife Geo. A complicated chasm with stacks and caves within its depths.

Open boggy moorland lay ahead and then the impressive Stacks of Duncansby held my attention for some time. I came round Duncansby Head below the lighthouse and joined the masses milling about in a car park. Some were whale watching.  Stroma, Hoy and South Ronaldsay were just visible in the mist.

I left the road as quick as I’d joined it and took a bearing across the open moor to the Bay of Sannick, I was the only person on its beach. A bit of scrambling around the headland, Ness of Duncansby, and I was on a made gravel path heading straight to the circus of John O’Groats.

A couple from the Wirral took my picture at the appropriate signs, I bought a postcard for my old walking buddy Mel who is now on kidney dialysis, enquired without joy at the TI office about bus times, had a coffee from the kiosk who gave me the correct bus times – one in 5 minutes.

I’m now in Thurso for the evening before a long train journey home tomorrow and reflections on my journey.

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL – 13. Wick to Keiss.

A dreich day on Sinclair Bay.

Not so many photos today, it rained.

Near my b&b in the old part by the harbour was a building  – Telford House, further research shows that the famous engineer and architect Thomas Telford designed the area, Lower Pulteneytown, and harbour which allowed the herring industry to flourish from the beginning of the 19th century.

Wick is also in the Guinness Book of Records for having the shortest street in the world. Ebenezer Place is just 6ft 9in long. The street is one end of the Mackays Hotel built in 1883 by Alexander Sinclair who returned to Scotland having made his fortune in America.

Nonetheless I can’t say I was sorry to leave Wick, maybe I’m being harsh.

In view of the weather I had thought of taking a short cut on roads to Ackergill but the guide suggested it would be a shame to miss Noss Head and Castle Sinclair.

The forecast was for rain all day but as I walked along to Staxigoe it was the wind causing discomfort rather than the light drizzle. I used the shelter of a bus stop to weatherproof myself for the rest of the day. The little harbour at Staxigoe had all the usual features of an old herring port but there was also an unusual barometer pole from 1850 to help the fishermen gauge the conditions at sea, fairly bleak today.

 

Walking on the road led to Noss Farm, the guide mentions a sign ‘Walkers Welcome’,  it’s covered over – I wonder what happened? Some pleasant cliff walking followed, although the cliffs are much lower the scenery is still very dramatic. Grey seals lazed on the flat rocks and in the bay their heads were bobbing above the waves. A couple of geos were passed with small flat sea stacks.

The way towards the lighthouse was across marshy ground with several varieties of orchids growing. No idea what they are.The lighthouse is still operational and has its own letterbox with a quirky sign, where else would you find this – must be a lovely community around here.

When I saw Castle Sinclair Girnigoe ahead the longer route was vindicated. An impressive and evocative structure in a stunning setting. It has a long and varied history as is common with these Scottish outposts. The powerful Sinclair family were residents from the early 14th century to the mid 17th century. By now the wind was bringing in heavy showers so it was head down across the fields to Ackergill Haven. Up the lane was a scattering of houses and what looked like a village hall, wondering about some shelter I approached the open door to find an active gym with people doing their stuff. It seemed incongruous out in this remote place.

 

 

 

 

 

Round the back the route was signed into a field containing inquisitive, nervous and sturdy cattle, I crept around an adjacent field.

I think these are whale bones, on a wall…

There was a private driveway leading to Ackergill Tower, a stately looking building possibly a shooting lodge, surrounded by high walls. I found a relatively sheltered corner with a picnic table, perfect for lunch.

At this stage I was still relatively dry but once out of the shelter of the estate buildings the way went onto exposed sand dunes. Ahead in the mist was a golf clubhouse and I had visions of hot coffee, alas all was locked – no golf today.

Pushing on I was able to avoid the taxing ups and downs of the sand dunes and walk along the beach, it was a long beach. The birdlife was different, waders at the water’s edge and terns flying overhead.

I came to the crossing of the River Wester and realised how deep and fast flowing it was on the beach made worse because of high tide. I was prepared to bypass it all together until a little inland the water was wider and I paddled across, I was already soaked anyhow.

The next obstacle was the railway for launching pipelines into the sea.

At Keiss there is a small sheltered harbour and beyond it I could just make out Noss Head back across Sinclair Bay. One can imagine the relief of those fishermen when they returned from stormy seas to harbour. There is not much else here.

Appropriately my lodging is the Sinclair Bay Hotel, cosy and warm with some decent food and ale. The forecast for tomorrow looks grim. Sweat dreams.

*****

JOHN O’GROATS TRAIL – 12. Whaligoe to Wick.

There’s no rush – too much to see.

I slept in. A relaxed breakfast followed so I didn’t set off till after 10am. There was no rush as it was drizzling slightly, I’d only gone a few fields when I saw a sign for Puffins. Sure enough on a small cliff near the path the little birds were arriving prior to nesting. I made my way along the narrow ledge to relish the experience. Along came the farmer who’d seen my approach, not to admonish me but to engage in good old honest chat. He had an interesting history and was full of information about the locality. Further up the trail as I walked inland he reappeared to take a picture for the JOGTrail Facebook page.

The next few hours were a delight on a mainly good path alongside the continually interesting coastline. Lots of large Geo’s to get round, sea stacks galore and the prolific bird life.

Ellen’s Geo.

Stack of Ulbster.

Sarclet Haven

Riera Geo

 

Riera Geo

At the massive Broad Geo I met a party coming southwards and found that their leader was no other than Jim, the new path warden, more conversation followed. This was a great spot for bird watching – I told you there was too much to see.

Mainly guillemots.

Razorbills

Broad Geo

A little further on and along comes the highest sea arch in Britain, the Needle’s Eye at the head of Ashy Geo.Off shore are a couple of hundred new wind turbines, I could just make them out.

I became lost once or twice on the broader, lower fenced areas, beware of your best waterproof trousers on the barbed wire fences.

The cliffs now are much lower but still show a diversity of geo’s, stacks and caves.

By the time I arrrived at Old Wick Castle my enthusiasm was waning.  It is one of the oldest castles in Scotland, though originally built in the early 12th century by Norse kings who then ruled Caithness, it was well situated between defensive geos.

Minor roads through industrial areas, probably most connected to off-shore work. The harbour was busy, you can catch a boat to the Orkneys from here.

My simple b and b by the harbour had the steepest stairs up to the second floor, no pity on the weary.

Wick town centre was a little run down but I managed to find a cheerful Italian for supper.

Accommodation – Harbour Guest House, 6 Rose Street.

*****

Out of interest here is the elevation profile for the day –