This is my first time walking in Scotland. As someone who rarely leaves Norfolk I always thought that the drive to Highlands was akin to a trip to the moon. I’m just fresh back from another hike along another lush glen in the Argyll Forest. A thigh-burning climb up a deep verdant gorge, overhung with trees draped in dripping moss. The moss is everywhere, clinging to both granite and wood. To our left, as we ascended, a bubbling burn travelled down steeply in a series of gullies and waterfalls; seeking the huge sea loch below. The lower reaches of the glen were lined with deciduous trees. Oak, sycamore, beech, hazel and chestnut. With the leaves now turning, the rustic tint of autumn adds to the melancholy of the brooks constant song. As the path wound upward, the strange time-twisted forms of the trees my mind was drawn to JRR Tolkien’s Ents. Higher up, the gorge was walled with granite and huge, towering pines. All the way up, I was scanning the surroundings for sign of movement. This is pixie territory and in three days (if you discount the one roadkill we passed) I’d seen just one red squirrel … and that was close to our holiday cottage. There is time yet, but I was hoping to see more. The chances of pine marten, golden eagle, osprey or wildcat are mere pipe-dreams. Further up the glen we broke out above the tree line and stood admiring the view across the strath. I felt I was looking at a million pine trees and again, my mind was drawn to the cover picture on my old childhood copy of The Hobbit. The bare hilltops and moors hold no appeal for me on this trip, I must confess. Heather and bog hold their own place in my heart but I will rarely linger long above the tree line now. My soul is in the wood and forest … as it is in Norfolk. Like Cumbria, the rain is part of the package here. You just have to learn to live with it, as we outdoor types know. Walking beneath the tree line at least affords some shelter from both deluge and wind. Perhaps the most enthusing moments for me so far have been seeing my first hooded crows and a goshawk. Those of you who read my shooting articles or books will appreciate that I am fascinated by corvid cunning and intelligence. Studying the ‘hoodies’ up here has captivated me. I had always thought of them as ‘loners’, like their carrion crow cousins but up here I’ve seen them in small (perhaps family?) groups. In the car park at Lochgoilhead, they were quite approachable. Tamed by the lure of food from tourists, I suspect. Away from the tourist spots they were as cautious as a carrion crow. The variations in amount of smoke-grey plumage was interesting too … from half to full mantle. The goshawk sighting was quite by chance, in the persistent rain unfortunately meaning my DSLR was covered up. We saw it just below Creag Bhaogh. What I first thought was a small buzzard took off from a crag and soared past us, then floated down towards Glenbranter. We all commented on the grey plumage and it took a reference to one of my books later to confirm. Incidentally, today, we took the opportunity to walk around the Allt Robuic waterfalls. In full spate after three days of torrential rain, the force of the cataracts were awesome. I couldn’t help thinking that if this were in Cumbria someone would have wrapped the gorge in fencing and charged you to see it. Well done Scotland! As for red squirrels, at least I’d seen one. The rest of the family were disappointed they hadn’t seen any. Near Penrith a few years back we’d seen (and photographed) several. I had to remind everyone, though, that with a national population reputed to be only 110,000 the chance of a sighting was always going to be slim. Perhaps the most disappointing ‘failure’ was the lack of red deer. Even while touring in the car among the high peaks, we didn’t see one. A dearth confirmed when we sat to dinner at the Creggan Inn, Strachur last night. I had picked it for its venison. I searched the menu handed to me and questioned the waitress? “Sorry, sir. We have none”.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2017
Have you ever visited somewhere to come away feeling that you hadn’t explored the place enough? I felt that leaving Pen Llyn (the Lleyn Peninsula) last year. For two reasons. The holiday cottage, Ty Bwlcyn, that nestled under a ‘Marilyn’ called Carn Fadryn, screamed for a return visit this year … because I hadn’t climbed the craggy peak. Not that I had been lazy last year. A hasty decision to climb Snowdon on what turned out to be a dreadful day on the peak (I was only wearing shorts, T-shirt and a lightweight waterproof) resulted in a strained thigh muscle. Though I made it up and down, it put paid to any further testing walks that week. In comparison to Snowdon, the climb up Carn Fadryn seemed a minor ghost to lay to rest.
This time I sat at the cottage garden bench, below Carn Fadryn, determined to see the view from the top at some point. A view reputed to be one of the best on the peninsula on a clear day. For two days, with the peak shrouded in cloud, I sought alternatives. For two evenings I watched the ravens that roost there labour up into the mist on wide wings, their guttural croaks inviting me up after them. Norfolk has no ravens, so these birds fascinate me (as do all crows) but I reckoned that an invitation from a raven is akin to a ticket to your own funeral. There is something about the raven that conjures images of carrion, blood, carnage and the plucking of eyes from the dead. I mentioned earlier that I had two reasons to return to Pen Llyn? The second was to add another crow to my wildlife photography collection. A crow fairly common to these Western cliffs and coastal hills but rarely seen across other parts of the UK.
The coastal path walk from Anelog to Aberdaron, pre-ordained and planned prior to arrival, could have fallen foul if not for the generosity of a local farmer come baker come campsite owner. We arrived at Anelog expecting a car park; we found a farmyard with a camp site and bunkroom. We couldn’t find anyone in charge until a bakers van turned up. The driver asked if we were ok? “I’m looking for somewhere to park while we walk the coastal path?” I offered. The guy swept his arms around him. “Plenty of room here!” he laughed. “Park up at the bunkhouse … when you get to Aberdaron, look for my bakery. The only thatched roof in the village. You’ll be wanting a drink and a scone!” His wink told me a deal was struck for the parking fee. He owned the lot, a master of diversity. “To find the path, turn left at that tree.” He pointed at a lonesome pine. “Ignore the ‘Private’ sign, go left over the mountain and you’ll drop onto the Coastal Path. Enjoy your walk”. We were grateful (as in the group). I was disturbed. Mountain? What mountain. This was a coastal walk. A bit of ‘switchback’ maybe? A random descent into a remote cove and a climb up the other side? Mountain! An exaggeration, for sure. As we trudged up through a grey mist I looked at the path ahead and groaned inwardly. If a mountain is defined by its steepness, not its height, this was a mountain. A few deep breaths and up I went. At the top of Mynydd Anelog, I already had that Snowdon feeling. Pain. Why do we do this to ourselves? My legs and stamina are defined by the county and countryside I walk. Norfolk’s highest hill is about 103 metres. Beacon Hill, near West Runton. I’ve never bothered. Yet the views were stunning as the sea-mist started to recede. The first two miles of the walk were (to me) a relentless attack on my damaged thigh. Not on the ascents but on the descents. Later I was to rejoice that we did the walk this way around (Anelog to Aberdaron). The climbs over Mynydd Mawr, Llanllawen and Mynydd Anelog at the back end of the eight mile walk would have slaughtered this flatland hobbit. Probably mere bumps to Monroe-baggers, but Alpine to me. The descent from Mynydd Mawr took us down to majestic views across the strait between the peninsula and Bardesy Island and that’s where I found what I was looking for. Around the cliff tops, crows wheeled and jinked. Their aerobatics immediately made me think ‘jackdaw’, yet the size of the birds was significantly larger. The call, too, was distinct enough to separate this species from any other. “Kee-aww” … a semi-shrill cry. Choughs, one of the rarest British corvids. For the next hour I enjoyed watching and photographing a bird I had never seen before in my six decades as a wildlife watcher. The design of the chough (pronounced ‘chuff’) seems, at first, clownish. The red, curved bills and red legs must have a purpose in the grand scheme of evolution but what that purpose is escapes me? In the short time I watched them the choughs were feeding like rooks, harvesting hidden grubs from the lush, moist cliff-top turf. A benign feast. Almost a disappointment, as with the ravens (whom I expected to see lurching from crag to cairn with half a sheep in their mighty bill). What I did note, re the choughs, was that superb wingspan and the thick fingered wing-tips that produce such agility in flight. Some birds seem to have to fly to survive and feed. Other birds seem to fly for the pure exhilaration and privilege of flight. Watch the chough and you will see such a creature. A bird totally in tune and comfortable with its environment. A bird to whom flight is more than an expression, more a definition, of freedom. The walk around the tip of the peninsula, to the East was less testing on the legs but still very pleasurable on the eye. Up on Pen y Cil, the southernmost promontory, you can see Bardsey Island on your right and turn your head left to see your destination, Aberdaron. When your legs are tired, it seems distant and unattainable. Take a deep breath, focus on Aberdaron (with its cream teas, scones and cold lager). The path is gentle from here apart from a short steep descent and ascent at Porth Meudwy. This was the secretive bay from which the saints sailed to Bardsey Island to avoid persecution. I wondered, as we passed through, if the scent was of seaweed or of sanctimony? A thousand saints that the Vatican may not know about reputedly left this quay. The view from the path takes in the tiny islands of Ynys Gwylan-fawr and Ynys Gwylan-bach, jointly known as Ynysoedd Gwylanod (the seagull islands). If you’re lucky, the tide will be out when you reach Porth Simdde so you can descend the steep steps and walk along the beach to Aberdaron. If the tide is in, you face one last lung-busting clamber up the steps to regain the Coastal Path and home. The saints were with us today and we sauntered across the grey sand to pay our dues at the bakery (the scones were delicious)and enjoy a long, golden, ice-cold draught outside The Ship Hotel.
Two days later, a blustery day cleared the cloud from the Carn Fadryn so there were no excuses to deter the climb from Ty Bwlcyn. Left out of the cottage gate and up a narrow lane until it runs out and becomes a grassy track. Soon the path starts to wind up steeply and becomes more narrow. Looking back, you can see the Ty Bwlcyn trout lake with its small island. Onwards and upwards brings you, after half a mile, alongside a remote cottage and out onto the heather at the foot of the Carn. Turn right here and follow the path to a track, then out onto a lane. Another half mile sees you in Garnfadryn, the small hamlet named after the hill. Look for the disused chapel here. Many who climb the Carn park in the lay-by here and so start half way up the hill. Just to the right of the chapel is a footpath that heads up the hill and bears right, through the bracken to follow the contour of the mount. Eventually, the penance must be paid to gain the view and the path zig-zags upward. Sturdy boots with a good grip pay dividends here when you start to follow a stream, stepping up wet rock and scree. Emerging on a wide, heather-strewn plateau you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve reached the top but there is a small climb to make yet. Head for the cairn on your left and then up into the rocks beyond it. You will soon find the trig point.The 360o view on the day we went up was astounding. The peaks of Snowdonia to the north east were prominent and we could see right around the Lleyn Peninsula. In the green and gold of early September, the fields lay like a patchwork quilt beneath us, dotted with cattle and sheep. Pwllheli glittered out on the eastern coast and the Seagull islands to the south stood sentinel over the bay at Abersoch. Best of all, we were above the cart-wheeling ravens and soaring buzzards that own this crag. Apart from Snowdon itself, I have never stood on a windier peak. A wild and lonely hill with a breathtaking view.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2016
As I reach the twilight of my working life and look forward to full blown retirement, I have no fear of having ‘nothing to do’. For much of my life (I’m now 59) I’ve struggled to find enough recreational time outside work to do the things I really love to do. Writing, shooting and photography are passions of mine and I’ve always crammed them between family and the day job. Doing a job I enjoy, in my latter years, has been important to my physical and mental health. I’m lucky to have reached that age where experience tells me when to walk away from stress and conflict. I’ve learned, as a seasoned senior manager, how important it is to protect my integrity … particularly in the face of young, ambitious seniors. I was like them once, I must confess! Nowadays, I don’t take any nonsense. It’s that ‘young bull, old bull’ syndrome. The young bull is feeding with the old bull at the top of the meadow, looking at the cows and says “You know what, Dad. I’m going to sprint down there and cover one of them beauties!” The old bull snorts at him and replies, “You know what, boy? I’m going to amble down there later and cover the rest.”
I’ve seen too many old workaholics reach retirement and keel over within just a couple of years. Lives wasted. My hobbies keep me fit and sane. They are as important to me as my work and pay. Work / life balance is rarely managed by employers efficiently. You have to manage it yourself. Loyalty to an employer is rarely matched by flexibility and I’ve seen many people make over-working (for no extra pay) the norm to a point where if they stop doing it, the employer accuses them of disloyalty! There is a line in a Radiohead song (High And Dry) “You kill yourself for recognition, you kill yourself to never, ever stop”. So true.
Work / life balance is the key to ensuring that when you’ve finally paid the piper you still have those you love around you, something to interest you going forward and the health to enjoy it all. Never get caught up in that trap of thinking that what you work at is what you are. If people ask me what I ‘am’?, I tell them … I am a husband, father, writer, shooter, photographer. I don’t say ‘I am a manager’. For that’s just my job. It’s what funds the things I love to do most. If my answer to ‘what are you?’ is “I am a manager”, then when I’m not a manager, does it mean ‘ I am not’? How absurd.
A great modern philosopher, Dr Wayne Dyer, once said that you only get treated in life the way you allow people to treat you. I heard that at a point in my life when I really needed to hear it, for I was being taken for granted in both by personal and work life. I looked inwardly and changed my life radically, some would say selfishly. Yet another of Dyers observations hit me hard too. If you are living your life through a sense of obligation, then you are a slave. And no-one should live the life of a slave. Cutting the chains of obligation freed me to enjoy a life of exploration and fulfilment. And I still am.
The only ‘mistress’ now who commands my full attention (for I can never leave her side) is Mother Nature. Money? It comes and goes. Work? A necessary function which I give my full attention for my contracted time … and no more! We’re not on this Earth for a practise run. This is it folks. One life, live it!
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, April 2016
You know, sometimes we go off thrill seeking or looking for that ‘different’ view that takes our breath away. I’ve never been one for pyramids, temples, skyscrapers or other artificial vistas. Half the reason I moved to Norfolk fifteen years ago was due to it raw beauty, coastline, inland waters and big skies. Meeting my gorgeous wife was the reason for staying here. Having returned from Snowdonia (and the inevitable hike up the mountain) a few days ago we were looking for something different, locally, to visit and I remembered that a nearby fishery (Taverham Mill) had been mentioned in one of those local advertorial magazines that get pushed through the letterbox. It had mentioned that it had been developed into a nature reserve and was open for public walks. I had visited the tackle shop on site twelve years ago when I dabbled with coarse fishing. As a shooting man, the dabble didn’t last long as I haven’t got the patience for angling. The impression from that first visit was of a very private and protected fishery … but I had got no further than the shop.
Having phoned the visitor centre a few days ago to check restrictions, we were delighted to hear that we could take our old lurcher, Dylan, around the reserve. So often in East Anglia, we find that reserves ban dogs (one reason I will never subscribe to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, despite the wonderful work they do). As a shooting man, I fully understand the need for control of dogs and use of the lead around wildlife and livestock. In North Wales last week we had found a completely dog-friendly environment. Not only on the beaches (where dogs had their own go-zones) but also in nature reserves, shops, pubs and hotels. Signs like “Muddy boots and dogs welcome” were everywhere. But I digress!
We turned up at Taverham Mill this morning with a touch of cynicism at the claim of a two-mile ‘red-route’ through the Reserve. We live about two miles away as the crow flies yet we struggled to imagine how Anglian Water and the workers / volunteers here could have put together a two mile path? We were greeted by Richard and Harry in the visitor centre and they explained that we would have to walk the ‘red-route’ (the longer route) outside the otter fencing, as we had the dog with us. Richard took our £6 (£3 per adult, no charge for the dog) and teased us with the offer of a £40 annual season ticket, with that £6 deducted. Yeah, nice try, Richard! He showed us the map of the reserve and we set off.
Within twenty yards we stopped by the weir to watch the waters tumbling into the pool from the Wensum and I snapped a grey wagtail on the steps above the torrent. I stopped and held my breath, looking around, trying to imagine a mill here long ago. The ancient willows dipped their foliage into the turbulent water and I was looking at a Constable scene. Swallows dipped across the pool hawking flies as we studied the foliage and listened to the birdsong. We set off to follow the ‘red route’, marked by posts with a crimson ring, and (to the right) it took us up the edge of a very secluded part of the River Wensum. The wardens have carved viewing and angling points through the shrubbery on several parts of the grassy path. This is otter and kingfisher country. On the left was an expanse of grazing marsh … kept under control by a small herd of Highland cattle. This was barn owl, kestrel and heron terrain. As if to prove this today we watched a kestrel rise from the sedges and settle in a dead tree among the woodpigeons, who didn’t flinch at the little raptors presence.
Half way along the river stretch, as we unlatched a gate, a pair of little egrets and a harnser rose awkwardly from a pool. I was too slow with the camera for the egrets but caught the heron as it circled. We crossed from the river to the woodland path, still outside the otter fencing, and met mine enemy, the grey squirrel. Several of them. The control of these pests is what gains me permission to many of the local farms and estates to shoot quietly and respectfully with an air rifle. I’m guessing they could do with some control on this reserve if songbird and wildfowl eggs are to survive.
As for the distance, I’m happy to report that we were proved very wrong. This was a delightful walk and the amount of owl, songbird and bat boxes put up shows a serious intent here to encourage wildlife. The otter fence is sensible and the photo’s in the Visitor Centre show how important it is to maintain the fish stock. This site is an perfect example of how country-sports and wildlife management can exist side-by-side for the benefit of all.
When we returned to the Visitor Centre I asked for more detail about access, as the Centre’s opening hours are nine to five. Owls and otters keep to a different timetable. Season ticket holders have open access, all hours … subject to scrutiny by volunteer wardens. I was sold. I bought an annual family membership on the spot. What a diamond this little reserve is … and right on my doorstep. Well done, to all that made this happen.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2015
The opportunity to spend a few days in North Wales was too much to resist, even for this hermit. We booked a cracking cottage (Ty Bwclyn) near Dinas on the Llyn Peninsula, set below a 370m hill called Carn Fadryn. Compared to nearby Snowdonia, the granite-tipped crag was insignificant yet was set to capture my interest far more than the highest mountain in Wales (which we conquered later in the week). Rising from a sea of lush, rolling sheep pasture Carn Fadryn looms like a vast green and grey pyramid. Half of the base is draped in a skirt of conifers, the rest is pink heather, bracken and granite. On the opposite side to my view were the remnants of an Iron-Age fort. From the first evening, sitting in the warm autumn garden watching the carn, I was intrigued at the hierarchy of avian activity from base to summit. There was a granite scar at the bottom of the carn, a few hundred yards from the cottage garden, which was home to a raucous colony of jackdaws and a pair of kestrels. Watching the antics of the jakes and the hunting ‘windhovers’ was entertainment enough on the first evening but then at about seven o’clock I kept hearing strange sounds above the cottage and watched a procession of large crows beating their way towards Carn Fadryn’s summit. Ravens … an alien species to this Norfolk dweller. The percussive sound of pinion feathers powerfully sweeping the air reminded me of the mute swans passing overhead on the Norfolk Broads. The triple ‘cronk’ confirming the identity.
I don’t see ravens in Norfolk, so know little of their habits. Though I have seen and photographed them in Cumbria, The Pennines and Coastal Cornwall, I had always regarded them as relatively anti-social birds like carrion crows. Perhaps just pairing for the breeding season? What I saw up on top of Carn Fadryn over last week completely altered that misconception. Every evening, the ravens soared in from all points of the compass to congregate around the summit. Through my binoculars I watched not just a gathering roost but a celebration of acrobatics. Wheeling and diving, chasing in pairs, soaring on the thermals. All the while, at the base of the mount, the jackdaws hassled and harried … often taking off from the scar like a flock of noisy racing pigeons to wheel and soar before returning to the sharp, narrow ledges. From time to time, a pair of buzzards would leave the pine forest to ride the hill’s thermal helter-skelter only to be challenged from above by the ravens and from below by the jackdaws. A skirmish the raptors were destined to lose every time I watched it. Thus was the hierarchy. The jackdaws held the sheep meadows and the scar. The kestrels held the wires and the sedges from whence they drew their voles. The buzzards held the conifer wood and the ravens defended the high peak as they probably had in Vortigen and King Arthurs day.
Snowdon? What a miserable affair that was. Glorious weather (18oC) and views until half way up then the clouds swept in. My stumpy Norfolk legs were ill-prepared for the ascent and hugging the trig point at the top in pouring rain, a 30mph wind and a temperature of 5oC was more in relief than celebration. Like all high hills it was devoid of wildlife above 600m in such conditions, so (for me) just a boring lump of rock. But, hey … I did it. For me, probably my last ‘mountain’. I prefer the lower hills and rolling coastal footpaths, which offer both scenery and wildlife.
My biggest disappointment with Llyn was a failure to see either peregrine falcons or red kites on the coastal cliffs. I saw choughs, though from too far to photograph. The kites have probably drawn away to some commercial feeding centre where carrion is thrown to them so that tourists can watch them, robbing the raptors of their natural hunter / scavenger skills. A ridiculously cruel ‘un-wilding’.
This was my first trip to North Wales and I loved it. Betys-y-Coed, Beddgelert, Porthmadog, Abersoch, Porthor and Aberdaron are all recommended. As is the Ffestiniog Steam Railway.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Sept 2015.