Tuesday 25 August 2020

Monday 24 August 2020

10-16th August 2020 - A small isles adventure



The date had been set for a month or so, based solely on a period of neap tides, the location to be set nearer the time to make the most of the weather. With a couple of weeks to go our chosen dates seemed to coincide with a spell of settled weather, but the confidence in the forecast was low. A week to go 10 days of low winds were still being predicted, no matter how many times I refreshed my browser. With a day or so to go the lull was stubbornly holding on and a dream trip to the Small Isles was on.

A number of years ago we had motored a yacht around this area while a group of Dutch paddlers kept pace with us having a trip of a lifetime. Ever since we had wanted to return for a paddling trip and the time had finally come.

Day 1 - Arisaig to Camas Sgiotaig, NW Eigg.

Just after 8am we left Kendal and headed up the M6. After just a couple of very brief stops (I need to reduce my morning coffee intake) we arrived in Arisaig for a late lunch, Eigg beckoning from over the glistening sea with both the Red and the Black Cuillin providing  a stunning backdrop.

As we loaded a week's supplies into the boats we made use of day trippers leaving and slowly shunted the van into ever better spots in the small lay-by so that she would be cosy for the next week. 

It would be nice to say that we then paddled off into the distance, but the tide had rendered the water we launched into a small pool, separated from the sea by a small bar. So after just a brief time afloat we were carrying again, the boats heavier than they have ever been.

The sea reached, we pointed our bows towards the northern tip of Eigg and began our crossing. There was slightly more wind than we were expecting and along with the heavy boats and occasional breaking waves it was difficult to get into a flow. The amazing scenery and flocks of Manx Shearwater proved welcome distractions and as we paddled the wind eased, the sea calmed and we could concentrate solely on the incredible surroundings.

Paddling closer to the Eigg shore, it became apparent we were pushing the current, but rounding the point and turning in a more southerly direction we had that with us too and we're whisked towards our campsite for the night.

The guide book had mentioned possible surf on the beach but fortunately it sounded worse than it was and we were soon safely on the beautiful, sandy beach. With camp made and enjoying tea while the sun set over Rum, it was hard to believe that we had been at home that morning.

The sunset behind the Cuillin of Rum was spectacular and I went to bed eagerly anticipating our next crossing the following morning.

Day 2 -Camas Sgiotaig, Eigg to Harris, Rum.

Faffing with my spray deck meant my timing through the surf was less than perfect, the resulting cold shower though bringing the day sharply into focus. Ahead of us lay just over 10 kilometres of glassy sea to the southern end of Rum. The only distraction on the crossing being to visit a floating 'object' with a number of seabirds standing on it. On not too closer inspection it appeared to be a cow that had been in the water a little while, it's smell hitting us long before we could identify it visually.

Having followed the southern coast, catching the occasional glance of the feral goats that inhabit the island, we turned into the bay where we hoped to be able to spend the night. Suddenly my heart missed a beat. Ahead a large black dorsal fin moved slowly but purposefully through the water. In the blink of an eye it seemed to be joined by two others. Finally my brain caught up, though my heart kept racing. A lone basking shark's impressive fin had been joined, first by its tail and then by its nose. Knowing that these impressive fish, the second largest in the world, are vegetarians did little to calm me, it was still a very big fish. We watched for a few minutes as it continued to graze before slipping down into the depths.

The guide book mentioned that Harris bay makes for a good landing due to its sandy beach and even has a photo of a kayak on said sand. It's worth noting that there are no longer any traces of sand on the now small boulder beach and it would make for an interesting landing in bigger seas. Fortunately for us the little wind that was blowing came from the north and so the bay was extremely well sheltered. 

The boats safely on the shore we found a lovely piece of flat grass for our tents and went off to explore.  Our first stop was at the edifice that dominates the bay, the Burlough mausoleum. I'm not sure what the internments were actually like, but you imagine a stormy night, the hills brooding over the torch carrying mourners with the rain and wind battering them as they made their way along the winding track to their final destination. 

As well as a couple of more modern, but abandoned, farm buildings there are a large number of much older ruined walls and enclosures.  One of the most impressive made from the rounded stones of the raised beaches found here. This must have been a gargantuan task and you wonder how effective the resulting enclosure would have been.

While man has worked hard to produce walls from the stones, the power of nature is clearly on view in the number of raised boulder beaches, remnants from the island's glaciated past.

Eating our tea on the shore the basking shark returned with a friend and continued their long slow circling of the bay. Sometimes just their dorsal fins visible, at others their tails and bulbous noses too. 

As the evening drew on the colours of the surrounding hills transitioned through myriad colours, leaving a sim card full of photos, each with slightly more vibrant hues than the last. Unfortunately we weren't the only ones enjoying the evening. The horses and Highland cattle I didn't mind, but the midges were out in force. To use a word coined by youngest in an earlier trip to Scotland, it was 'midgerable'.

Day 3 - Harris, Rum to Camas Sgiotaig, Eigg.

The nearly two week long stretch of good weather over the West coast was marred by a single windy day. With forecasts predicting Force 6, we knew it wasn't going to be a paddling day and we needed to decide where we were going to be land bound. We were also now two long open crossings from the mainland, a new situation for both of us and we were feeling quite 'out there'. Erring on the side of cautio, we decided to abandon our plans to keep heading West and decided to turn tail and return to Eigg.

To make the most of the currents it was to be an early start, so it was early to bed with the benefit of escaping to midge free tents. The night was not a sleepful one. Most of the rest of the country was being battered by thunder storms and I first awoke to bright flashes of light.  I lay, counting, waiting for the thunder. 20, flash, flash, but no sound. 20, flash, flash, but again silence. On getting out of the tent to see whatwas going on I found Dick too was struggling to sleep. At least he can tell the difference between a thunder storm and the regular flashing of a lighthouse, the loam of the Ardnamurchan continuing its regular pattern. With neap tides, the sounds I kept hearing on the beach definitely weren't the tide as I initially thought, but probably the cows or horses going for midnight strolls. Finally my alarm signalled it was time to stop lying awake and I emerged to two surprises, Dick's tent had gone and midges, at this time in the morning?

I made out Dick sitting on the beach, he'd had a restless night too and had started packing early and then retreated from the midge ridden grass to the midge ridden beach for breakfast. In the bay, the sharks continued their feeding.

Our insect infested breakfast wasn't a relaxed affair and it was with some relief that we launched into he smooth waters of the bay. We seemed to have judged our timings perfectly and we were transported along the Rum coastline until once again we could make a bee line for Eigg. Long before we saw it our noses told us that the cow was near once again, being swept slowly first north and then south by each tide cycle.

The flatness of the sea was briefly broken by a pod of porpoises making their way to somewhere, but mostly we glided under grey skies towards the hazy outline of Eigg in the distance.

It was great to be back on our beach in Eigg and the tents were soon up again. A bit of a swim (I didn't get in very far - it was cold), a bit of a bath in a stream (not so cold), a catch up with home an time to reflect on what has to have been almost perfect conditions for our crossing.

Day 4 - exploring Eigg.

While it didn't look horrendous the forecast was still for high winds and having a bit of time to explore is no bad thing.

We headed north from our campsite to where we had seen a white tailed sea eagle the previous day before heading steeply up hill.

The views were simply stunning whether it was back to Rum, north to Skye, east to the mainland or south towards Muck and the Arnamurchan beyond. The heather in full flower smelled sweet too as we brushed through it on rarely walked trods.

For those into their trig points, our local summit boasted a 'Vanessa'.

The colours under cloudless blue skies were stunning.

Day 5 - Camas Sgiotaig, Eigg to *****, mainland.

The plan was to paddle down th west coast of Eigg, round its southern tip and then find somewhere to camp around Galmisdale. We would then be in a good position for returning to the mainland the following day. The se was quite lively around the headlands of the west coast and the waves were further confused by a fishing boat seeing to pots that seemed to lie exactly the same distance off shore as we were paddling.

Turning the corner onto the south coast though, the sea suddenly calmed and exchanged a few words with the fishermen on the boat, our first interaction with other people since the trip began. The sea to the east looked calm and inviting. Concerned about finding a remote campsite in this more inhabited area we simultaneously began to think, do we go for it now? As though to cement our thoughts the coastguard repeated the favourable weather forecast and the crossing was on.

My excuse is that we'd already been in the boats a couple of hours and I'd had quite a lot of coffee for breakfast, but for the second time on the trip I needed to perform the series of uncomfortable manoeuvres required to enjoy a comfort break. Thanks Dick for holding the boats steady.

Fed, watered and relieved we continued the crossing under brightening skies with the Arisaig shoreline slowly increasingin size while Eigg diminished. 

Leaving the main sound for Loch nan Uamh ***** a dolphin suddenly appeared suspended feet in the air, just in front of Dick's boat. Before I was fully able to comprehend what I was seeing it crashed into the water and was gone.

Features on the coastline became clearer and clearer and there we were rounding an island into the bay we had camped in a number of years before. It had been a superb crossing and I wanted to capture the moment Dick landed so I went on ahead to land on the stunning white sand, just in time to catch his boat sliding up the beach to a halt.

Saturday 21 March 2020

19th March 2020 - Another fine trip

Pool Sink to Wretched Rabbit with Mike

12th March 2020 - Harnesses are so last year

Bull Pot of the Witches with Tony

27th February 2020 - The Cold Hole

Sell Gill Holes with Dick and Tony

Saturday 15 February 2020

13th February 2020 - Beat the clock pizza

Back in the day, Mike told us, the Royal used to have a beat the clock pizza special. Arrive by 6pm, you pay £6. 6:30, £6.50 and so on.
The very generous donation by the family Rushton of a voucher entitling us to pizza for two and a bottle of prosecco gave us the opportunity to put our own spin on the theme.
The first thing we required, when we met at Devil's Bridge at 5pm, was a short trip to allow us to clean up a bit before arriving at the Royal in Kirby for our latest possible, before they stop serving at 8:45,  8:30pm reservation.

With our newly found regard for water and the amount of water that has fallen recently a few ideas for trips were quickly discarded, before a nice dry trip to Fire Hydrant chamber in Easegill was decided upon.

It's fantastic to be able to walk across the fell in the light, though oddly it actually seems harder to follow the path without the line of shining dots that are only revealed by night fall.

We don't tend to meet many folk on a Thursday night so we were also quite surprised to find a rope down the Lancaster Hole pitch, our rope looking much muckier in comparison to the shiny in situ nylon.

Once at the bottom of the pitch we were off, Bridge Hall, Kath's way, Fall pot (down and up) and Stake Pot itself passing faster than I could reel them off in my head. The week's wet weather making the Easegill mud almost frictionless. 

At Stake Pot inlets Mike set off like a London cabby fully versed in "The Knowledge". At Cannock climb we swapped beautifully shaped, clean washed passageway for sandier but beautifully decorated chambers. Passing the 88' pitch I was ever more impressed with Mike's route finding,  the actual way on never looking like the obvious choice.

One final squirm and we popped up into the stunning Cape Kennedy chamber, it's stalagmitic rockets silently waiting on a countdown that will never reach zero. A few yards on we entered Fire Hydrant chamber, again it's eponymous formation waiting for a shout that will never come.

The return journey to the bottom of the pitch seemed to pass even more quickly and soon the three of us were following the reflective dots back across the moor. These have been superbly sited and again our thanks must go to those who have put them in.

Arriving at Bull Pot Farm, the car's clock read 8:37pm. We were going to have to be quick. A speedy change and brief chat with the Thursday night diggers and we were off, phone poised for the moment we crested the hill and regained signal. As Tony tried valiantly to guide the car safely around the myriad potholes, I asked the hotel to put in 3 pizzas., we'd be there in a few minutes. The phone call was made trickier by a sharp bang, followed by an ominous rumbling sound. Yorkshire country lanes are definitely not the natural home of low profile alloys.

Reaching a flat section of road we jumped into action and despite only needing to change one wheel rather than four, still had it done in a time that wouldn't be thought too sloppy by an F1 team.

Typically the market square car park was full so Tony dropped me off and went to find a space elsewhere.  8:57pm and I was stood at the bar, unfortunately the mirror behind it reflecting a rather mucky person, somewhat out of keeping with the rest of the well dressed clientele.

Huge thanks have to go to the Rushtons, a pizza definitely beats a packet of crisps any day. Also to the staff at The Royal for serving us in the moments before the kitchen was going to close, for swapping a bottle of prosecco for three pints and being extremely welcoming to three of the scruffier customers they're going to see this weekend.

Friday 7 February 2020

6th February 2020 - Manc in Manhattan

Last week Mike and I had been turned around by a deluge in Boundary pot before the description said we'd even meet water.  This week, approaching the nick in the true left bank of the gill, there was no water sinking and I felt slightly more confident sliding into the entrance.

The incredible spiders in the first chamber were definitely bigger than last week, having spent 7 days gourging on their prey.  We slipped quietly past and were soon in the crawl leaving the second chamber. What a difference a dry week makes! There was no water at all going down the hole and I confidently wiggled down.

My current issues with water caused the first of my navagational hiccups of the evening, pressing on through a curtain of water definitely not appealing to me.  Through we went though and we were soon making the stunning free climbs down into Fusion Cavern.  I'd been reading the description out loud, but my voice wasn't going to carry over the roar of the waterfall so we pressed on to the downstream end of the cavern.

The streamway leaving the cavern is one of my favourite pieces of cave in Ease gill.  Delicate crystaline, false floor and myriad stal decorating the way through to the soaring Boxing Day aven.  Interspersed with the pretties, fresh foam indicated that this really isn't the place to be in wet weather and confirmed that our decision the previous week was the right one.

Stepping up from the aqueous passageway, we entered our first huge cavern of the evening, Hiroshima.  In the far part of this chamber is the stunningly engineered link that makes this trip possible. As ever we'd like to pass on our thanks to the diggers for the work they put in that allows everyone to enjoy the fruits of their labours.  In this case Sam Allshorn and Mike Cooper had also produced the fantastic description we were using to navigate through the link.

Once through the dig we dropped down into the Far East Passage streamway and were soon climbing up into the vastness of Nagasaki.  It was now over to Mike for navigational duties and unlike on my previous trips, he quickly headed off in the right direction towards the Assembly Hall.  White Way,  Thackray's, Holbeck Junction went by in a blur, the only pause being waiting for the ladder to be free at Stop Pot.

In my head, once we were at the Mainline terminus, we had Monster and Snail caverns to pass through before arriving at Cornes.  I therefore thought we'd have two "diminishings" of the passage before arriving at our destination.  Perhaps it was the speed we were travelling at, but seemingly after only a single narrowing we thought we were in the right place.

Now turning to the Braemoor route description I followed it to the letter and found myself in a sandy crawl.  The sand ahead looked undisturbed and I felt a long way from the others.  This couldn't be it.  I retraced my steps, had a moment when I couldn't find the way back, but finally emerged to tell the others it couldn't be the way on.  Mike went scurrying one way to look for landmarks we knew, while I went the other knowing that if I soon bumped into the Minnarets then we were definitely in Cornes.  This left poor Tony in the middle with everyone else disappearing into the gloom.

By the time I got back from the Minnarets, Mike was pushing down the crawl I'd abandoned with more confindence than I'd had and soon found the mud bricks that meant we were on the right path. Sorry lads.  As with the earlier Manhattan description, John Gardner's "Braemoor" description was absolutely superb, as Mike put it, "it tells you on a climb exactly which stal you'll find your right hand on."

Crawling was definitely the order of the day now and the vastness of the upper level series seemed an age away.  Suddenly, our horizontal progress was halted by a pitch!  An isolated 11m hole, dropping down Ease gill aven.

When we had met at Devil's bridge I'd shown Mike my neatly packed tackle sack with 20m of rope for a pull through down the aven and my SRT kit in.  He pointed out that even with these meagre contents it was still quite bulky and that he had a better solution.  At Bull Pot farm he assured us there'd be a rope in situ and produced 3 sets of Brook's Lite SRT kits.  Fully aware of cavers' aversion to flashy new gear, these had been designed to look like a 1980's sling teamed with an HMS krab.

It was therefore a cheery, unjaded team of 3 that arrived at Ease gill aven having travelled unencumbered and unfrustrated by tackle sacks. There had been a brief discussion over whether we should each carry a krab, or would just one do for us all, but personally I'd found the krab useful attach the sling round my body while travelling.  Kit donned, my hitch turned out to be of the Italian variety rather than the similar Clove and thus the obsticle was passed without a Further.

After a brief but very muddy section it was with some relief that we started crawling in the water again, a chance to wash off.  The water having passed through both Mike and Tony's suits by the time it got to me was far from crystal clear and even just trying to wash off the description met with limited success.

Suddenly we popped out into the County streamway with just a climb up and over a boulder choke separating us from Molluscan Hall.  Here it was once again into the water before the enlarging passageway brought us to one of the most recognisable junctions in Ease gill, Platypus.  I'd forgotten how enjoyable the stream way is via Toadstool junction to Broadway, the route maintaining its interest to the very end.

It was still and crisp back on the moor, our return illuminated by a large moon.  Arriving at the farm, the Thursday night diggers were just leaving.  Perhaps one day their current work will lead to a trip as superb as the one we had just completed.

Huge thanks to Mike and Tony for sharing a superb adventure.

Saturday 1 February 2020

30th January 2020 -

In Boundary till it became too wet. Then, County, Manchester Bypass, Minarets, Stop Pot, Wretched Rabbit. Back in County to get the ladder. With Mike.