Monday 25 March 2013

To Islay - Queen of the Hebrides....

Machir Bay with Coull Farm in the distance
Round about Eastertime, we usually head northwards to the Inner Hebrides for our first wild camp of the year. For several years we were always the first to sign the 'Camping Book' after crossing to the remote little island of Ulva. It took some time but eventually the dour ferryman came to recognize us and would greet us with "You're back again". And that's all he'd say!  Well thank goodness we hadn't planned to camp on this occasion as we drove through the southern uplands in sleet and snow before boarding 'MV Hebridean Isles' at Kennacraig to cross to the beautiful island of Islay. The weather was mainly dry throughout our stay but, taking the wind chill factor into consideration, the temperature was constantly below freezing. And it was the equinox whilst we were there. The winds gave us a fair old drubbing - all week.
Brown hare trying to hide
Thankfully, we'd decided to indulge ourselves with a little luxury. Well, more the height of luxury as we snuggled into the spacious well appointed flat at Coull Farm overlooking the vast expanse of Machir Bay on the west coast. We've stayed here before, on three occasions, and this time Pat Jones had left a rather nice bottle of Chardonnay and a bowl of sweets on the table to welcome us back. The wine was a good accompaniment to our roast chicken that evening - and the next.  Outside our window huge flocks of barnacle geese grazed the fields, waddling along in a great swathe, heads down, cropping the grass like some giant mowing machine. They'd been there in their thousands since October and wont leave until April so one can imagine the vast amounts they eat during that time. Farmers are not happy! Hares loped across the fields too and the odd rabbit fed fearlessly just over the wall.
Each morning, an hour or so after breakfast, we donned our running gear to churn out a measured four miles
Lonely bull
starting off along a farm track, down a stretch of tarmac road to Machrie and then on a sheltered sandy trail behind the dunes with hoards of black beasties, trekking horses and sheep for company. A notice on the gate that some might find intimidating advised people to beware of cows with young calves, also that there was a bull in the field.  In fact, the cows were more afraid of us hooded runners than we were of them. The bull was in a field of his own, fenced in, always in exactly the same spot when we ran past, and invariably facing in the same direction - gazing across at the frisky black beauties feeding on choice silage beyond the lochan, and out of reach. We felt sorry for the poor creature surrounded as he was with barbed wire and nothing to eat but the sparse grass beneath his feet.
Running the length of Machir Bay
Another gate led us out from the dunes and onto the pristine white sands that stretch for 1½ miles towards the fields of Coull Farm.  Here we'd oystercatchers and little ringed plovers for company. Giant rollers trailing whisps of blown spume came roaring in to crash on the shore in a mass of creeping foam. A tractor trundled across the horizon followed by a cloud of screaming gulls. Except for the farmer's wife and her friend walking their dogs, we saw no-one. Imagine, having one of the most beautiful beaches in the Hebrides virtually all to ourselves. OK, it was cold, and the wind was usually against us, but we were well wrapped up to face whatever the elements cared to throw at us for that short(ish) space of time. Those exhilerating morning runs across the white sands of Machir Bay are largely responsible for our repeated visits to Coull Farm. It's that beautiful.

After a quick change and a warm drink to replace lost fluids we drove off to do other things.   My wonderful
Kildalton Cross
partner was bitten by an archaeology bug that has her seeking out old chapels, ancient stone crosses, carved tombstones, standing stones and suchlike curiosities - of which there is an abundance on Islay.  Personally, I have little interest in the past and have a slight aversion to musty old museums, but dutifully I follow along, taking photoraphs and editing them to best effect when we get home. That way I derive some pleasure from the experience. One of the most photographed and must see relics on Islay is Kildalton Cross, carved around 1,300 years ago, which stands in the walled grounds of the chapel.  But it was a driech day when we arrived and my camera wouldn't do it justice in the poor light. It was a better day when we turned in to Nereabus graveyard to photograph glass covered tombstones of Clan Donald chiefs. As we came out a hearse came crawling towards us bearing the remains of a local dignitary, his coffin bearing a gold monogram, and the whole mournful entourage preceded by a piper playing a dirgeful lament.
My wonderful partner - arriving to claim her rent
However, one of the great things about Kildalton is that it's situated along what's very affectionately known as the distillery road where no less than three of these wonderful establishments impart their glorious fumes into the air. Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are names that roll off the drinking man's tongue like a litany and bring a sparkle to his eyes. Now it so happens that my wonderful partner and I are 'Friends' of the former and have  a square foot of land, in the bog across the road, on which we can claim rent from the distillery. Rent is, of course, in liquid form consisting of a not so wee dram of the various single malts currently available. I chose my usual 10 year old vintage, and right well it went down. My wonderful partner was driving so couldn't indulge but each of us was given a good sized miniature to imbibe at our leisure when we got home.
We're both keen on birding too, though there are lots of times when we haven't a clue what we're looking at
Solitary Grey seal at Portnahaven
- like the large brown raptor that flew by on a couple of occasions while we were watching from the RSPB hide at Gruinart flats. We knew of several things it wasn't, but by no process of elimination could we actually tell what it was!  My most inspired guess was a marsh harrier, but no-one else seemed to have reported seeing one there.  Nevertheless, we did in fact identify at least 25 different species including choughs, hen harriers, whimbrel, redshank, kestrels, snipe and scores of teal in various places round the island. And it was while we were focusing our binoculars on a shelduck, swimming away from us, that we suddenly spotted a huge colony of seals. So that was a nice bonus.
It's ironic that some days we walked for goodness how many miles in arctic conditions, hurrying along to keep warm, searching for birds and wildlife the guide book told us ought to be there - and never found a ruddy thing. Ardnave Point, the sand bars out from Gortontaoid, Bridgend Wood and various other places never yielded anything listed in the guide book. Always, we came across things in quite unexpected places, like, for instance, the colony of seals mentioned above. And the picturesque little whitewashed village of Portnahaven had masses of photo friendly seals on previous occasions. This time there was just one of the Atlantic Grey variety lounging alone on a rock in the bay, and trying in a wry fashion to say cheese as we pointed our cameras at him.
All in all it was a good holiday, with apparently much better weather than it was in wild Yorkshire where this
Snow blocking my door and windows (Courtesy Shelley Askworth)

picture of my house was taken while I was away. Fortunately, my wonderful neighbours had cleared the doorway prior to my return home, otherwise I'm not quite sure what I would have done? My snow shovel was, of course, behind the drift!  It hadn't exactly been a relaxing holiday. Running an undulating four miles each morning, much of it on sand, then walking the hills for the rest of the day isn't every octogenarian's idea of enjoying themselves.  But it was both invigorating and stimulating, spent among superb sea and landscapes and I can honestly say I'm looking forward to going again to the island that's known to many as 'Queen of the Hebrides'. Besides, there are seven more distilleries we've yet to visit.    

Wednesday 13 March 2013


      When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
      I summon up rememberance of things past.....
      Track racing was never my preferred discipline but last week one of my racing contemporaries, Peter Dibb, flashed a piece of paper under my nose that had me wondering whether I should have given it a bit more attention. It referred to my first ever introduction to a Track & Field League meeting held at the Dorothy Hyman stadium in Cudworth way back in August, 1995.  I remember it was a balmy summer evening and we'd some difficulty locating the venue, only arriving a few minutes before the gun went off for the start of first race, the 800m. After some nifty footwork we made it to the start with seconds to spare. I was 63 at the time, and Peter a year younger, but it helped us immensely to be running with athletes in younger categories whom we could use as pace-makers. I was pulled round in a fairly comfortable 2.33.04 to be 1st M60 while Peter was 2nd in 2.35.00.
      But the next race, the 100m, is the one I remember most. Next to me in the line-up was a chap called Joe Moran of Manchester Harriers, a renowned sprinter who took his racing very seriously indeed. He'd brought along his own starting blocks and went through a whole gamut of formalities and foot shakings before settling into them. In the 'set' position I leaned forward slightly, right hand on right knee, waiting for the gun. I'm not sure who got away quicker, Joe or me, but what I do know is that I beat him to the line - by the skin of my nose. We were given the same time - 15.60 - but the judges awarded it to me.  Very much to Joe's annoyance. Instead of shaking hands, the traditional Track protocol, he went straight to the judges and implied they must have made some mistake. The judges were adamant and the result stood. A friend of ours, Jack Betney of Clayton-le-Moors was third in 16.3 and Peter was 4th, also in 16.3. Joe disappeared into the crowd to await the start of the 200m when he'd no doubt be seeking revenge.
      Meanwhile Peter and I decided we'd amass some League points for our club, Longwood Harriers, by running the 1500m.  Peter was notorious for competing in every event on the card, not just on the track but also in things like the discus, shot put, long jump and javelin. Otherwise he got bored just standing around. Once again I came home 1st M60 in 5.18.8 with Peter 2nd in 5.34.6 - another  creditable double for our club.
The 'piece of paper' that inspired this post

      We'd no sooner got our breath back than it was time to line up once more beside the peeved Joe Moran for his other speciality, the 200m. Again, it was a close race but I beat him by the slender margin of 31.4 to his 31.8, to once more take the M60 title. Peter was 4th in 33.3 - so 9 more points for Longwood.  Once again, Joe quickly disappeared into the crowd, ignoring protocol.     
      We later scored another 11 points running the 400m which I won in 66.7 with a tired Peter coming second in 73.2. Whether tired or not, he'd recovered enough to line up for the 3000m, which I'd declined, and actually got his first win of the evening in 11.10.0, ahead of Derek Howarth of Leigh Harriers in 11.46.5.
      There was an amusing sequel to the evening's activities. Whilst I'd been otherwise engaged, Joe Moran had sidled up to our friend, Jack Betney, to ask who the hell was this Gordon Booth? After all, Joe was a stalwart of Track & Field League events whereas I'd never before attended one in my life. I was completely unknown. Jack's answer left Joe somewhat stunned and speechless.
"Gordon?  He's currently top of the British M60 marathon rankings, he ran London this year in 2.53 something"  Jack informed him.
"Whaaatt????" Joe, a top class sprinter on his day, could not believe he'd been beaten - twice in one evening - by a marathon runner.
      Peter and I drove home well pleased with our performances while having a good old chuckle regarding Joe's sporting attitude and antics on the night.  Some time afterwards I met Joe again at a 10,000m track event where I believe he was officiating. His face was all smiles and he shook my hand warmly. He'd got over his double shock and said so many good and respectful things, I suspect my head swelled a bit. I never raced him again.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Pushing limits in the snow....

A wild track down from the moor on Sunday's run
    Needless to say, the shorts I'd been swanning around in last week flew back into the drawer pretty smartish as the temperature in Hebden took a nose dive to -5ºC. And that was just in the village. I can't imagine to what depths it plummeted in that nithering north easterly that roared across Grassington Moor. One thing I do know - I was absolutely perished! It numbed the muscles of my face and almost froze me to a standstill. I dread to think what might have happened if I'd slipped on the ice and turned an ankle - or worse. There was no phone signal or anyone around to hear my six blasts on a whistle if I'd had need to blow it.  Not that they'd have heard it anyway in that freezing holocaust. The only time I could hear anything else was when I crossed the floor of the ghyll where lapwings were wheeling and whirling in their aerial dance routines - peeeee wit...pweewit...pweewit. As soon as I climbed the other side I was back into that roaring wind.
Calmer and less windy back in Hebden ghyll - to my great relief!
    Snow had drifted along the wall sides, half blocking gateways and creating wonderful rippling effects among the grass and reeds.  I'd to climb over gates where fasteners were too frozen for my fumbling fingers to operate. It didn't snow, thank goodness, but the black, angry sky looked absolutely full of it. I'd set off to run ten miles into the wilds of Mossdale, in search of illusive curlews, but my body temperature was dropping dramatically, forcing me to cut it short and drop back into the ghyll sooner than I really wanted. Unlike last week when I almost felt I could have run forever, I found myself in the painful situation of having to force my stiffening old legs to perform their natural duty. That eight miles had taken nearly two hours to run (if you could call it that) and was never so hard won.
St Peter's Church, Hebden
    My hot shower never felt better as I languished in its blissful warmth for longer than usual. Not that it managed to thaw out my befuddled brain. An hour later I wandered along to the Chapel to read my lesson, only to discover the service was actually being held in St Peter's Church. I diverted and eventually got my bum parked in a pew that felt so cold I was afraid it might trigger a visit to the loo before I strolled up to the lectern to deliver my bit of the service. That would have been very unfortunate seeing how St Peters doesn't have a loo!  I was reading Psalm 32..'when a great flood of trouble comes rushing in it will not reach them' (v6). Well, thank goodness for that!  I'd also forgotten my weekly offering so I hope the Church doesn't go into liquidation before we're back from Scotland.
A bit nippy by Woodhouse Farm
    Monday dawned fine and dry, though a light covering of snow had fallen overnight. Once again, the temperature was hovering on -5ºC so I dawdled around, drinking cups of coffee, checking emails and messages while waiting for the sun to warm the flags. Huh! By 10.20 we'd blizzard conditions and hardly able to see across the road. I decided I might need another layer, three thermals instead of two underneath my jacket, for a planned six mile run. There was no way I was going up onto the moor again until my brain had had chance to thaw out. For this run I'd stay low. As I trundled along the riverbank towards Appletreewick in yet another particularly heavy shower I couldn't help thinking how all those early lambs would be feeling a bit sorry for themselves. As if to confirm this a local farmer happened to be taking one into his barn as I passed, dangling it by its hind legs. I'm not sure whether it was alive or dead, though I suspect the latter as the farmer wasn't his usual cheerful self.
"It's a bit nippy" I shouted.
"It's moor na' bloody nippy" he replied as he disappeared into the barn.  End of conversation!
Still snowing by the river
    I hurried on, passing occasional walkers most of whom only had eyes showing from a welter of winter clothing and woolly balaclavas. Unlike the previous day I was feeling good again, dressed in just the right amount of gear and plodding along at just the right pace. With virtually no wind chill factor it felt comparatively mild, even when it was snowing so hard I could hardly see across the river - a matter of 40 or 50 metres. My 12 min/mile pace must have looked a bit slow to a jovial gentleman on Burnsall Bridge who suggested I might benefit from a pace-maker. He was the only one I met who seemed to be enjoying the conditions as much as me. 'Exhilarating' was the word we agreed upon to describe the weather before continuing our different ways, me along the river path where a pair of Mallard were wiggling their rear ends rapidly in a sandy basin, creating circles while apparently enjoying a freezing cold jacuzzi. I'm not sure about the purpose of these ablutions, but I can guess!
Clean yourself up, ducky!
    In mixed weather I've only managed to run 25 miles in the last eight days. Most of it was enjoyable though I'll admit to getting a little worried during those savage conditions on Sunday. It's not often I allow my brain to ruminate on the 'What if' factor. I have the utmost faith in the strength of my bones, the capabilities of my body and my strong survival instincts. I'm aware of my limits but on occasions I get very close to crossing the border. I well remember an occasion last year, also on Grassington Moor, when due to a slight injury I couldn't maintain sufficient speed to generate enough body heat in the arctic conditions. I reckon I only just got back down in time - but I was ever so pleased with myself when I did!
    In a few days time we'll be travelling to Scotland again for a holiday on the west coast of Islay, one of our favourite islands, so not sure when this Blog will spring to life again. Don't go away!

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Harbingers of Spring

Sure sign of Spring - me in shorts
for the first time this year!
I dream'd that as I wandered by the way
Bare winter suddenly was changed to spring,
And gentle odours led my steps astray,
Mix'd with a sound of waters murmuring
Along a shelving bank of turf........
     So wrote the romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley in his flowery poem 'A Dream of the Unknown'. Similar words came to mind last weekend as I jogged gently along sunlit trails by lonely streams and up into the hills where lapwings were whirling and filling the air with their beautiful noise. I wouldn't go so far as to say Winter has 'suddenly' turned to Spring though there's abundant evidence of its awakening, not just in flowers, new born lambs and birds becoming territorial, but in a surge of energy that had me donning shorts for the first time in months and running longer distances with seemingly less effort.
     After a couple of four mile runs during the week, over what I morbidly refer to as my graveyard route, I was lured into new territory back in the Yorkshire Dales on Saturday.  On a previous run to Wig Stones, we'd noticed a new track leading up onto the moor and disappearing into the heather. My wonderful partner, ever on the lookout for new U3A walking routes, decided it was time to investigate and discover where it goes. So, what better place for a run on a beautiful sunny day?
Mallard on Grimwith reservoir
     We ran round Grimwith reservoir, a great bowl in the hills where Mallard formed little rafts and Canada Geese bugled across the water. From a shooting hut we took the steep track by a long straight wall through Trunla Allotment, over Trunla Gill and up to a gate leading to Wig Stones Moss. From here our new track zig-zagged north into unknown territory, adjacent to Sykes Dike, until finally finishing at a 1,000 litre diesel tank gamekeepers have installed to refuel their vehicles in the absolute back of beyond. We reckoned it was feasible to run/walk due west from here, past Great Wolfrey Crag and return to Grimwith via Gate Up Ghyll. I was secretly pleased when my wonderful partner announced she didn't feel quite up to doing the full circuit that day and suggested we return by the way we'd come. A pleasant seven miles that set us up nicely for our evening banquet of roast chicken and celebratory wine. Well, we'd earned it.
Crocuses among the rubbish in my garden
     She sneaked out for a run while I was recharging my batteries at a Communion service in Hebden Chapel on Sunday morning, and didn't get home till lunchtime. So I'd to go it alone in the afternoon. At this time of year we derive great pleasure from seeing, hearing and recording signs of Spring - the first curlews, skylarks and wheatears to arrive at their nest sites, frogs back to their spawning grounds, coltsfoot, lesser celandine, violets and primroses in the ghyll - and we spend hours combing wild places, looking and listening for these welcome first arrivals. And that's what I was doing on Sunday afternoon but, sad to say, none of the afore mentioned harbingers had yet returned to their usual haunts.
      Nevertheless, I'd a very pleasant run to places little visited since the onset of winter, an eight mile circuit round the upper reaches of Hebden Ghyll and back by quiet trails and little known paths, far from the madding crowd. What's more, I was running easily - nay, effortlessly - so apparently fully recovered from the sneezy lurgy and hacking cough that struck me down in the unseasonably cold Canary Islands a month ago. Hopefully I can build on this fitness, boost the mileage and have enough confidence to return to racing though, guess what, low pressure is forecast with the prospect of more snow in the next few days. That might set me back a bit!