Leacraithnaich Bothy work party – May 2019 – Part 2: The work party

This is Part 2 of my bothy work party write-up.  This part is about the bothy and the work.  If you want to read about my planning and travel please start with Part 1.

I spent the first couple of days fixing the stone walls with lime mortar.  This traditional product has advantages over cement-based mortars.  I’m sure there’s a lot of science behind it – and there are many interesting webpages out there if you want to learn more – but the most important feature of lime mortar appears to be that it is porous; it allows an old, natural building to breathe and expel dampness from the inside through to the outside.  Of course, this will only work if the mortar is mixed and applied properly.

The mix of lime to sharp sand had been worked out in advance by Jim and Pete and the Lime bucket marked with a fill-to line.  Making up the mortar was a job for two or three people with spades cutting the lime into the sand then working their way round the pile of dry ingredients, folding the mix into the pool of water in the middle.  It could have been done by one person but a three person folk dance was more entertaining.

Once the texture was “just right” it was time to apply it to the walls.  I tried to keep the reason for this job uppermost in my mind; it was all about strength not cosmetic appearance.  The mortar was to hold stone against stone providing strength from the floor all the way up to the roof.  For each section of wall we’d brush out the crumbling old mortar, spray some water into the holes – always keep it damp! – find a suitably shaped stone to mostly fill the hole, spray it with water, tap the new stone as tightly as possible between the existing stones, then pack the gaps with lime mortar.  Ideally, a newly mortared section of wall would be covered with wet hessian – especially if outside where the wind could dry the mortar out too quickly.  At the very least we’d respray the wall later.  Just a light mist of water to make sure it could dry out slowly from the inside rather than quickly from the outside.  Before the mortar was completely dry we’d beat the surface with the bristles of a stiff brush; a milk churn brush to roughen up the surface and increase the surface area to make it more breathable.

Faithfull Churn Brush with Short Handle

A churn brush

Like I said, there’s good science behind this and most of it was bewildering to me but I did feel that I was doing things the proper way that had stood the test of time for centuries.

In a big project it’s important to have people productively occupied at the right time.  It’s good to have plenty of keen volunteers but sometimes there is nothing for them to do until the skilled workers have done the measuring, planning and fettling to get a task underway.  I was there as an unskilled General Hand; keen but clueless, but the mortaring was a task that I could always return to in between other jobs.

While I was busy mortaring there were people working on the roof.  The old roof had been completely removed and new trusses built before I arrived.  Over the next few days the corrugated aluminium sheets were fitted in place.  Sometimes, when I was mortaring on a platform inside the bothy, I could hear the roof-workers inches away on the external scaffolding and see the daylight slowly disappear as the roof became weathertight.

Up in the rafters

Once the roof was substantially complete, ie it looked like a roof although there was still plenty of work to do with chimney flashings etc, we could start building the internal ceiling and walls out of wood.  This was the bit that I learned most from and found most rewarding.

Using tongue and groove boards – with several people on platforms or ladders and others down below, cutting, drilling and passing up the boards – we built a ceiling.  We measured the boards from alternate ends of the bothy and cut them so that the ends of neighbouring boards would overlap rather than looking like a continuous split in the ceiling; predrilled the nail holes in the boards (but not in the joists, of course, or the nails wouldn’t have held); then nailed each board in place with lost head nails.  Then, step back 4 inches and repeat.

The ceiling starts to take shape

Hammering can’t be difficult, can it?  No, it isn’t, unless you’re doing it over your head and aiming for a tiny nail whose head you’re trying to neatly embed just below the surface of the wood.  I got better with practice!

We had a busy production line of measurers, markers, cutters, drillers, nailers all working on the ceiling.  At first I was just doing what I was told but it soon started to make sense and I understood why we doing things a certain way.  It was great that I was given the opportunity to fully participate in the work, and the more experienced workers were very happy to teach me how to do things …. like saw wood.  Again, that’s something I got better at!

The ceiling nearing completion

After the ceiling was built we moved on to the internal partition walls.  With two larger living rooms and a smaller sleeping room to build, we split into teams and I worked with Rebecca on the right-hand room (as you go into the bothy). Given that this type of work was new to both of us, I was pleased with how much I’d learned and with how we were managing to turn a bare stone building into somewhere that I’d be very pleased to spend the night in the depths of a bleak Scottish winter (or summer!).

“Our” wall starting to look like a wall

Throughout the work I was picturing how the wood would look to a cold, wet hiker in the depth of winter.  Fearing the prospect of our fine work going up the lum, I made every effort to sink each nail deep into the wood.  The work continued for another week after I’d gone home and I was pleased to later see photographs of not just the completion of the work I’d been doing but also the little extras, like skirting boards, which make all the difference to the appearance.

To support the work on the bothy we had excellent domestic facilities.  For a wild and lonely place we had some incredible luxuries.  With so many people on site for a month-long work party we needed a toilet – which was basically a barrel in a wooden hut.  Nothing fancy but it met the requirement.  The shower – yes, we had a shower! – would not have been out of place in a B&B.  Gas heated and with a choice of (environmentally friendly) shower gels, this provided a very pleasant start or finish to the day.

With the bothy unavailable as a shelter or bedroom, I slept each night in my tent.  People self-catered their breakfasts but all other meals and tea breaks were provided by John in the group canteen.  As a Vegetarian, and not wanting to complicate mealtimes for the majority, I had carried in 6 days food but was very happy to supplement my supplies with the team’s spuds, rice, veg and bread. We even had a fridge-freezer a few hundred metres away in a hydro scheme shed.  Yeah, roughing it!

There was so much for me to learn on this work party but the most important question I needed an answer to was how to say Leacraithnaich.  It’s something like LeCrannoch.  The locals all seem to call it Teàrnait, after the loch, and there was some discussion during a tea break about whether the Ordnance Survey had given it the wrong name and whether we should really be renovating the ruin a couple of hundred yards away!

I hope this is not Leacraithnaich bothy!

The tea breaks were an important part of the day.  A cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake gave us the opportunity to have a natter and enjoy the scenery and wildlife.  One day, a white tailed sea eagle soared in giant circles off to the East.  Of course, my attempts to capture it in a photograph failed but this was the first time I’d seen an eagle in the wild and I was felt so excited and privileged.  The dry weather, which was good for us on the work party, had exposed Loch Teàrnait’s sandy beaches.  It looked beautiful but the lack of rain was a cause of concern to the estate and our own drinking water burn started to run low – until the rain arrived on the day I departed.

The wildlife which made most of an impact on me was, unfortunately, the ticks.  My one evening walk, after dinner, convinced me never to stray from the path again as I could see the little blighters waiting on my trousers until they could find a nice juicy bit of bare flesh to latch onto.  I routinely brushed myself down before getting into my tent and performed tick checks morning and night.  5 managed to find a way through …. but they didn’t survive their meal.  I’ve not had a tick for several years so either Ardtornish is a hotspot for them or it’s a good year (ie bad year) for ticks in general.

I really enjoyed my week on the Leacraithnaich work party.  It was such a beautiful location in which to spend my holiday and I learned so much.  At the start I’d have been happy to do the fetching and carrying and to be the tea wetter but I was given the support and guidance I needed to learn new skills and “get stuck in”.  If I ever stay in that bothy I’ll know that not only did I help out at the work party but I mortared that wall; I built that partition; I made that ceiling.  Of course, I did none of this on my own but it was good to be part of a team which achieved so much.

The aim of the Mountain Bothies Association is To maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use & benefit of all who love wild & lonely places.  If you’d like to support this work please consider becoming a member  or making a donation.

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Leacraithnaich Bothy work party – May 2019 – Part 1: Planning and getting there

This is Part 1 of my write-up of my participation in the Mountain Bothies Association work party to renovate Leacraithnaich bothy in April//May 2019.  It’s a long, rambling story, so if you’re only really interested in the bothy part of the tale you might want to wait for Part 2.

In May, most years, I take part in the TGO Challenge – walking Coast to Coast across the Highlands.  It was the TGOC which introduced me to bothies and led me to join the MBA.  I’d always felt that I should contribute to the upkeep of the bothies but with most of them being so far away from my Wirral home I’d only been on one work party – at Dulyn bothy, in North Wales, about 10 years ago.  I was interested to read that Leacraithnaich bothy would be having a month-long work party in April/May this year.  It was a bothy I’d be unlikely to visit, despite being within the TGO Challenge area, but the timing of the work meant that I’d be able to spend a week at the bothy plus travel time either side.  I would miss the TGO Challenge but I’d still be in the Scottish hills in the best month of the year.

When people learned of my plans they naturally asked which bothy I’d be working at.  Not having the vaguest clue how to say Leacraithnaich I just told them it started with an L and was 2 ferries, a bus and a Land Rover away from Oban.

Pete, the MBA Area Organiser for Southwest Highlands and Islands, had sent the volunteers excellent information about the work party, including travel options, months in advance.  However, no matter how hard I studied his guidance, the maps and various train, bus & ferry timetables, this was going to be a complicated journey.  Eventually I realised that it was more sensible to have an overnight stay in Oban rather than get stressed about early trains and missed ferries.

You might have expected me to find the packing for this trip quite simple.  After all, I’d be sleeping in a tent in Scotland in May – which is what I do every year – so surely I should just take my usual TGO Challenge gear?  No, it was more complicated than that.  I wanted to take my safety boots, but some more comfortable walking shoes too.  Oh, and my Crocs, of course.  So three pairs of footwear?  I may as well take my Exped Down mattress and a decent pillow for a bit of extra comfort in bed.  And I’d need to carry in 7 days’ worth of food just in case the chef couldn’t cater for a Vegetarian.  I soon realised that there was no chance I could fit everything in my usual Osprey Exos 46 rucksack, so I split the load between the big pack on my back and a smaller one on my front.  As long as I didn’t try to break into a run it was surprisingly well-balanced.

Self-sufficient for a week

A rail replacement bus between Carlisle and Glasgow wasn’t ideal but, overall, the trip to Oban was smooth and I had a pleasant evening in the town from which I had started my 10th TGO Challenge in 2016.  As I’ve never yet repeated a start point I hadn’t expected to be back so soon!

On the Sunday morning I caught the ferry to Craignure from where the waiting bus took me to Fishnish for the ferry to Lochaline.  The timetables told me that the bus arrived at Fishnish ferry terminal 5 minutes before the ferry was due to depart but that foot passengers must be there 10 minutes before departure.  I reckoned that this was probably an unnecessary requirement at a terminal which is no more elaborate than a stone slipway, and I was right.  As long as the loading ramp hasn’t been lifted you could jump off the bus and leap onboard the ferry.

I’d arranged to phone Pete when I was on the ferry to Lochaline so he could come and pick me up.  However, I knew that mobile phone coverage at the bothy was not reliable so I was not surprised when he didn’t answer the phone.  I left a message and bought an egg roll and cup of tea from the tea shack at the ferry terminal.

The women in the shack knew about the bothy.  Teàrnait, they called it.  Hm?  I’d never have guessed that was how Leacraithnaich was pronounced.  I checked the map and noticed that the lochan next to the bothy was called Loch Teàrnait.  We must be talking about the same place.

It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed sitting on the grass doing nothing or chatting to the old fella who’d been visiting this area with his wife for their annual holiday for the last umpty-seven years.  Although I was waiting for a lift, I knew I could walk to the bothy if I had to so I was pretty relaxed and just enjoying sitting in the sun.  After about an hour, though, I thought I might as well start walking.  I took the old road along the shore of Loch Aline.

Northwest shore of Loch Aline

Despite the extra weight on my back (and my front) I felt quite comfortable yomping towards the hills.  Maybe I should ditch the workparty and try to blag a place on the TGO Challenge instead?

At the North end of the loch I bumped into Pete coming to collect me.  I’d been a bit vague about which ferry I’d be on so he was aiming for the next one.  With some shopping to pick up in Lochaline he then took me back to where I’d just come from.  Oh, well!

Chores complete, we drove back to the bothy with me spending more time staring at my mobile phone, to see where the signal started and stopped, than admiring the view.  Something I’ve noticed with bothies is that they’re often completely hidden until – all of a sudden – they appear out of nowhere.  On the journey, Pete had been telling me about how the work had been going so far but I didn’t really know what to expect until the building finally came into view.

Leacraithnaich bothy from the track

I’d arrived just in time for a tea break and was introduced to too many people to remember in one go.  Some had just arrived; some were soon leaving; and some were leaving but coming back.

I’d seen fairly recent photos of the bothy on Quintin Lake’s twitter feed and was, at first, quite shocked to see that the whole of the inside had been gutted.  Of course, this was completely necessary but I don’t think I’d realised until then just how big a job this was.  I admit to feeling sad at the sight of the bothy library lying outside amongst the scrap wood.

I pitched my tent on a flat-ish bit up the hill.  I had an excellent view of the bothy and the lochan and could happily have sat and watched the others work but I needed to earn my leisure time so was soon back at the canteen receiving a Health & Safety brief before setting to work with a bucket of lime mortar….

Looking down at the bothy from my camping area

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A cheap B&B near Snailsden Reservoir

When other plans fell through, I found myself available to go to a Half Man Half Biscuit gig in Holmfirth.  However, this would have messed up my intention to do a wild camp over the weekend of the Summer Solstice ….. so I decided to combine the two.

I had a few potential camping spots in mind.  The Trig Pillar up the hill south of Snailsden Reservoir looked remote enough and would have met my requirement to bag a benchmark everywhere I go.  In my imagination I framed the most amazing sunrise photograph with the sun peeking out from behind the Trig Point. There’d be a bit of midge-repelling breeze up there, too.

Arriving in the area about 3 hours before the gig, I found a layby that might have been a good place to leave my car overnight so I parked up and went for a wander to weigh up how difficult the navigation would be in the dark and to suss out a suitable camp site. The area was obviously popular with walkers and the former quarry and water works meant that the paths were clear and generally easy to find.  I’d have had to make a slight detour through some bracken but I was confident I could find my way later.

It was a warm sunny day and I’d been keeping an eye on how the weather was due to develop.  I’d been studying the sunrise and sunset times on this website.  I know – from my experience of wild camping – that there is usable daylight long after the official Sunset time.  Sunset was at 2140 but the gig wasn’t due to finish until 2300 and I was trying to work out how much light there would be.   Nautical Twilight ended at 0011, so I hoped that I’d not be in pitch darkness until after midnight when, hopefully, the Waning Gibbous moon would kick in.

Deciding to take a shortcut back to my car, and (successfully) testing the waterproof lining of my left trail shoe, I cut across the dam end of the Snailsden Reservoir and found a rough patch of ground just off the reservoir access road.  It had clear views East – so good for the sun in the morning – and, critically, would be very easy to find in the dark.  Camp site found, I moved the car down to Hinchliffe Mill and walked into Holmfirth.

Of course, I can’t visit somewhere without looking for benchmarks and I was pleased with my Holmfirth haul.  A couple of cut marks, a pivot and a rivet, including these two on Holy Trinity Church:

The HMHB gig was enjoyable, as usual.  This smaller venue was more fun than the Liverpool and Manchester gigs I’d been to last year.  I took my preferred position up at the front, slightly to the right, and was entertained not just by the band but by the good-natured moshing to my left.  My left trouser leg did seem to end up with quite a lot of beer on it, though.

The gig finished just before 11pm and in less than 20 minutes I’d picked up my rucksack from the car and headed off into the dark.  Only it wasn’t really dark; there were street lights and big houses with massive security lights which illuminated miles around.  Then, suddenly, I turned a corner and faced a wall of darkness.  For a second or two I pondered whether I was being an idiot.  Was it really a sensible idea to walk on my own in the dark in order to lie on the ground when I could sleep in the car?  The moment’s ditheration gave my eyes time to adjust and I realised I could see more than I’d first realised.  I walked on.

The stone stile at the reservoir’s gate was awkward in the dark and I had visions of, almost literally, falling at the last hurdle but – at about a quarter past midnight – I was in the place I’d planned to bivi.  I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by switching on my headtorch so I stamped up and down to find a flat bit of ground then laid out my mat.  Of course, as soon as I lay down in my bivi bag I realised that I appeared to be lying on a badger – but one good thing about having no tent is that it is so easy to move.

One thing which had played on my mind as I walked in the dark was “Where is the moon?”.  I kept looking all around but couldn’t find it.  Yes, there was some cloud but only light cover and I was puzzled.  Lying on my back looking at the stars, I turned my head to figure out what the annoying light polution was just above the ground to my right.  A-ha! That’s where the moon was.  It must’ve risen just after midnight.

With intentions of watching the stars and moon, I soon drifted off to sleep but woke after a short time and realised I was already cold.  I put some extra layers on, including my thin gloves, and had a fairly comfortable – if not exactly cosy – night.

Sunrise was due at 4:37.

At 3:17 the sky looked like this:

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At 4:20 – so still 17 minutes before sunrise – it was like this:

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Sleep reclaimed me and when I next awoke at 5:49 the sun was high in the blue sky and there were fluffy white clouds:

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I enjoyed the warmth from the sun whilst having my breakfast of coffee and Welsh cakes.

Packing up is quick and easy after a bivi night and I was pleased, if slightly surprised given how little sleep I’d had after pitching so late, to be walking by 7am.  Retracing my steps back to the car was a completely different experience in the daylight.  I’d taken one wrong turn in the dark and had realised something was amiss when the texture of the ground under my feet changed.  In the light it was so obvious which way I should have gone.  Maybe an occasional night walk would help me learn to use all of my senses and not just rely on my eyes?

This was probably my shortest ever camping trip, both in terms of distance and time, but it was an enjoyable overnighter and the walk in the dark added some interest to the usual routine.

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The Mystery of the Gate in the Hedgerow

Do you remember this gate?

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I blogged about it in 2014.  A locked gate in the hedgerow; leading to what?  This gate, and its matching cousin on the other side of Brimstage Lane, has remained a puzzle lurking at the back of my brain.  One day I’d understand why it was there.  I just needed to find some time for a bit of research first.

Fast forward to mid February 2019.  A lovely sunny Spring-like day and I took the afternoon off work to go for a bike ride and bag a couple of Wirral flush bracket benchmarks – SJ 3129 8198 and SJ 3216 7502 if you’re interested. Clatterbridge roundabout is scary on a bike at the best of times and particularly intimidating during the Friday afternoon rush, so I hopped off my bike to push it on the footpath and – blow me! – if there wasn’t another one of those gates in the hedge!

You can see it here on this Google Streetview from 2009 You can just about make it out through the undergrowth on the 2016 Streetview if you know where to look. I’ll go back and get my own photo at some time.

This one wasn’t locked and there appeared to be some sort of utility inspection hatches beyond the hedge. However, with the light fading and my backside aching after my first long bike ride for a couple of years I didn’t investigate any further and continued my journey home.

Over the next few days I looked at old OS maps on the National Library of Scotland’s website but the answer to the question didn’t jump out at me.  I then remembered a website I’ve had hours of fun with in the past……

The “Where did my evening go?” bit

The Cheshire Tithe Maps webpage is a ginormous time sink and I love it!  Focussing on the area between Brimstage Lane and Clatterbridge roundabout, I looked at the historical maps for any hint that there used to be some sort of path, track, road etc that could have connected those gates. Bits of path sort of matched what I was looking for, but something wasn’t making sense. The gates were new. By “new”, I mean they were made out of metal and it would have been a peculiar ancient thoroughfare that had completely faded from modern view but was significant enough to warrant metal gates. I was puzzled and my head hurt.

But….. hang on….. what’s this? The 1970s aerial photos seemed to show something running in a straight line between Brimstage Lane and Mount Road near the roundabout and hospital. Some sort of ground disturbance which, if my estimation was correct, ran in a perfectly straight line between the two gates. Yay! I’m on to something.

Here’s a segment of aerial photo showing the M53 motorway under construction [top left corner to bottom right] and one of the Leverhulme estate causeways [running NNW / SSE] which still exists. The white scar running from the middle of the left edge of the photo down to the bottom right crosses Brimstage Lane just south of Keepers Cottage and appears to be in the right place to meet the gate at Clatterbridge roundabout.

Brimstage Lane aerial photo 1970s

1971-3 Aerial Survey of Cheshire. Copyright Cheshire County Council 2009

Scissors and sticky tape

The tithe maps website only shows a small chunk of map or aerial photo at a time.  If I zoomed in, I could see detail but lost the context.  If I zoomed out, I could see the bigger picture but could no longer identify exactly what I was looking at.  To see the whole picture I was going to have to print out segments of the aerial photo and stick them all together. So that’s what I did …….

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Piecing together the evidence. Computer, various paper maps, scissors and sticky tape.

I could now see that the ground had been disturbed all the way from Thingwall to just outside Ellesmere Port.  Running in straight lengths across the fields and along the railway for part of the way.  When I say Thingwall, I mean the Crosshill covered reservoir.  Apparently it has a Trig Pillar and Flush Bracket but I’d not been able to get into the site to bag it a week or so earlier.

The lightbulb moment

Now, if you’re like me, you may have just read the word “reservoir” in connection with a long, straight ground disturbance and not put two and two together.  However, if you’re more like my work colleague, Chris, you’d have thought “Erm, could it be a water pipe?”. Ding! It was as if a light had been turned on.  Of course, it’ll be a water pipe!  I double checked what was at the Ellesmere Port end of the “thing”.  Ha! Sutton Green Water Treatment Works!

Grateful for Chris’ logical thinking (but kicking myself for not spotting the obvious myself) I was now pretty confident that my gates were something to do with a water pipeline that ran between two covered reservoirs but I needed evidence.

On the wettest Sunday so far this year I went and checked a couple of places where the “pipeline” intersected roads.  I found another gate. This one is on Station Road, SJ 293 841.

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And next to this gate was this little beauty…..

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I’m assuming (yes, ok, hoping) that WW stands for Wirral Water. The Wirral Water Board became part of North West Water in 1973.  North West Water later became part of United Utilities.

I also walked up the causeway, on Leverhulme estate land, shown on the aerial photo above.  I found no gate, but there is a concrete stile in the right place.

The pieces of the jigsaw were now coming together nicely but I still needed some documentary evidence to confirm my deductions.  Pipelines don’t just appear; they are planned, budgeted for and laid.  There must be a record of the work.

The surprisingly not boring bit

I searched the internet for “Wirral Water Board minutes” and found, via the National Archives, that 10 years worth of minutes – 1963 to 1973 – were held in the Wirral Council Archives.  I gave them a call and arranged a visit.

The archives staff were very helpful and, after a short anxious delay when it appeared the minutes may have been transferred to the reference library, I was soon sitting with a pile of blue bound minute books.

The minutes are indexed … in a fashion, so – starting with the July 70 to June 71 minutes – I looked for any reference to Crosshill reservoir.  Bingo! Minute 21 dated 15 Jul 1970 described how easements had been paid for the laying of a 36″ main from Sutton Hall to Crosshill.  I switched to the previous year’s minutes and found minute 194 on 18 Feb 1970 decribed the impending completion of the new 36” main between Sutton Hall and Crosshill.  This was exactly what I wanted to find.  At the time that the aerial photographs were taken, Wirral Water Board were laying a 36 inch water main between Crosshill, Thingwall and Sutton Hall (Sutton Green being the nearest named place on most maps).

Conclusion and workings out

This is enough detective work for now.  I’m happy that the gates were probably linked to the laying of the water main in the late Sixties / early Seventies.

I’ll eventually tie up the loose ends.  For example, I would like to know:

  • Why was the water main required?  Did one reservoir keep the other topped up?  Is it common for reservoirs to be linked?

  • Why were the gates required?  They are only personnel sized, so you couldn’t drive a digger or pipe-laying machine through them.  Was regular inspection required after the main was laid?

  • Will the rest of the WWB minutes yield any answers?  There are only ten slim volumes so I’ll go back at some point and read them all.

  • What does CP mean on the utility marker on Station Road?  Cathodic Protection?

And, most importantly …..

  • Can I bag the Trig Pillar / Flush Bracket which is within both reservoir sites?!  Both sites are secured (especially Sutton Hall water treatment works) but maybe a polite letter to United Utilities may do the job?

 

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Bonkers bivi in a balaclava

In January 2018 I resolved to camp every month of the year. By the end of January I had failed in my resolution. In 2019 I set a more reasonable goal of “getting outdoors more” and making good use of brief opportunities to walk, camp, cycle etc. Last month’s activity was a Manchester canal walk. I hoped February would be a little more adventurous.

I love cold weather and was desperate to spend a night out in it. Not having enough time for a long walk (or for a circuitous public transport journey), I parked in Llandegla and headed south on Offa’s Dyke Path. There’d been no fresh snow for a few days but the cold temperatures had kept the pavements icy and the hills a patchy white.

I’d been reading up on the difference between different types of twilight and reckoned that – with sunset at 1659 – I’d need to have found somewhere to camp by 1745 at the latest if I wasn’t to need my headtorch. I started walking just before 4pm.

Llandegla seems to have become a favourite walking destination for me in the last few years and I didn’t need to refer to my map often. The snow got deeper and cleaner as I moved further away from the village. When out of the forest I kept an eye out for flat patches that I could camp on.

I’d half planned to reach Esclusham Mountain before camping but ran out of daylight so I headed for somewhere that would hopefully not be easily seen from the path and would have running water nearby. I found a flat, level area (with a reasonable phone/data signal) and cleared the snow. I fumbled with the poles on my Vaude bivi and actually ended up reading the instructions! I think they say something about “This tent is designed to be easy to erect, so if it’s not easy you’re doing seomthing wrong”…… but I always find it a faff to get the poles into their little pockets. Maybe I should practise in the daylight when my fingers aren’t turning into icicles?

The stars were already starting to twinkle by the time I was in my bivi at just after 6pm. The forecast had promised temperatures down to -5 degrees C and I could tell that it was going to be a cold night.

I’d taken lots of clothes and was glad of them. I think the most important thing when camping in the cold is to be decisive and act early. Do not hope to stay warm; put on extra layers as soon as there’s any suggestion that you might be starting to cool. And if that means stripping off some outer layers in order to put on an extra mid layer then do that before you start to shiver.

I went to bed in my Ron Hills, socks, long sleeve base layer, T Shirt, light Polartec fleece jumper, light bodywarmer, and Balaclava with a polar Buff on top. In the night I put a Buff round my feet [Oh, WHY did I not bring my down booties?], draped another fleece over my hips and put on my windshirt. This was in a -10 down sleeping bag which is usually toasty. At no point was I cold, but I was beginning to wonder what my plan was if the weather got much colder. I could have put on my waterproof trousers and my Paramo smock and I wasn’t wearing any gloves, so I still had some extra options. Something which made me laugh was when I started thinking about how to spots signs of hypothermia. Poor decision making is one …….. but here I was lying in a posh bin-bag in the snow on the coldest night of the year so far ….. so maybe this was one symptom I would have to disregard in myself!

I’d taken the Vaude bivi as I thought it would be warmer than a bivi bag but, on reflection, there was a flaw in my reasoning. The Vaude bivi is definitely warmer if it’s fully zipped up but that means that breath condensation is a big problem. In the morning I had snow showers inside the bivi every time I moved. A simple bivi bag would not have been so wet inside, but I would probably have wanted a mini-tarp shelter to keep the frost off my kit.

Keeping my equipment from freezing was a matter of prioritisation as I could not double-wrap everything or put it inside my sleeping bag. I wrapped my boots in a bin bag and then wrapped my waterproof trousers round them and put them behind my knees [I’m a side sleeper]. They were fine. In case my water bottle froze, I put some water in my pan before I went to bed so that I could definitely have a hot drink in the morning. The water in the pan froze but the water bottle didn’t! My midnight snack was a frozen Snickers bar which I snapped in two. I kept my electronics in my sleeping bag with me.

I woke a couple of times in the night, but I always do. I would have been more comfortable in a tent but that would have taken more planning and needed more time to make sure I found a suitable pitch. Would I bivi out in such cold weather again? Yes, but I’d take my sleeping bag liner, my down boots and probably use my Rab Survival Zone bivi bag instead.

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Berwyn bivi (with buses and benchmarks) – Part 2 of 2

Continued from part 1

I was in the cloud nearly all day, which was a shame as this seemed like a really nice place to walk.  I wondered what views I was missing.  Unlike the first day (Thursday), when I saw nobody, I did bump into a few fellow walkers.  They were all the sort who said hello and maybe stopped for a brief chat; which I am sure would not have been the case if the weather had been better.  I did titter to myself when one young man emerged from the mist and said “Oh, thank goodness I’ve met someone and now know I’m on a path!” as if meeting me was a sound navigational achievement!

Although Cadair Berwyn would take me off on a Southerly detour and I would have to retrace my steps, I was curious to see if there was a Flush Bracket on the Trig Pillar.  It does not appear to be listed in the Ordnance Survey’s published list of benchmarks but Alan had sent me photographic evidence that it existed.  I found it and am now wondering how many other BMs are not listed?

Even a concrete triangulation pillar is a welcome sight on a day like this ….


…. and it DOES have a benchmark

Although I was enjoying my walk, time and impending darkness were now starting to niggle me.  I wanted to camp within easy walking distance of Llangollen so that I could catch a bus to Wrexham in the morning but, realistically, I did not have enough time to reach my planned camp site before dark.  At the Wayfarer memorial I had planned to carry on following the county boundary, NE to the Ceiriog Forest, but could not easily find a path to follow and did not fancy the idea of finding my way through the mist.  Instead, I followed the track SE past the derelict Shooting Hut then up the hill to Pen-plaenau.  If I could at least get down to the river at Dolydd Ceiriog I could fill my water bottle and weigh up my options for camping.

I don’t mind walking in the dark and, as I looked – on the map and on the ground – for possible places to camp, I weighed up whether there was any reason why I should not carry on walking.  As the light faded I realised that I would have to camp now as it was becoming increasingly difficult to see any clear patches amongst the heather at the side of the track.  I could find myself in the situation of spending the night in my bivi bag lying on the track if I did not make good use of the available light to fashion some sort of shelter.  I also knew that the track would be safe to walk on in the dark in the morning so it was probably better to stop now and be up early tomorrow.

I found a rough patch of stony mud not far from the track.  It looked like it had been cleared, as there was lots of cut/broken heather, and the ground was bare rather than covered in the moss that grew in other places.  It was too late in the day to be fussy. Foregoing any attempt to build a perfect shelter, I knew I just wanted something watertight, windproof and with enough room to spend the night comfortably.  The resulting shelter was basic and the type I refer to as a Squashed Toad. I pegged out the middle of one end and put a walking pole at the middle of the opposite open end.  I then used tie-outs all round, and a lifter at the back, to keep the tarp roomy and taut.  I was pleased, during a nocturnal trip to the bathroom, to see that the light rain was blowing over the back of the tarp – so I’d obviously pitched my shelter the right way round. Despite the shelter’s basic configuration and the pretty awful location amongst the heather I was warm and dry with enough room to do everything I needed to do.  I also had the pleasure of being able to see the stars for a few brief periods during the night.

Flash-lit photos of black tarps never really work out well, so there are no photos of the entire shelter, but here’s a photo taken at 5:15 pm of my first cup of tea on the stove!


All is right once the stove is on

I missed having a groundsheet but used my map case, sit mat and gaiters as an impromptu carpet.  Some annoying tarp flapping in the night was resolved with a couple of clothes pegs!

At 6am I listened to the news and lit my stove for a cup of tea.  By 7:25 I was walking up the track with my head torch picking out the potholes and bigger rocks.  I’d altered my plan and was now going to walk to Glyn Ceiriog, rather than Llangollen, and catch the bus back to either Chirk station or Llangollen.  There were only two unknowns …… the bus times and the train times.  With no phone signal, I had no way of finding out what my travel options were.  I’d made a note of some bus and train times before I left home but was now relying on a different bus running to a convenient schedule for me to meet a different train.  Guessing that the bus would only run every 2 or 3 hours I was going to need luck on my side.

I was surprised at how long it took the sun to come up.  The cloud was low and it was nearly 9 o’clock before I felt like I was now walking in the day rather than the night.  My route would take me through the Ceiriog Forest and I felt slightly anxious in case the tracks on the map did not exist on the ground.  I’ve had some bad forest experiences! Fortunately, the tracks were pretty much where I expected them and only had minor obstructions.

At Glyn Ceiriog, just after 10 am, I checked the bus timetable and found that the next bus was at 11:40 reaching Chirk at 11:54.  This could be OK as long as there was a train at around 12 noon.  What should I do?  Wait in Glyn Ceiriog for an hour and forty minutes and hope that the bus met the train?  Or start walking and see if I could get to Chirk before the bus ….. and hopefully get a phone signal on the way?  I chose the latter.  A milestone said Chirk was 7 miles and I was hoping to walk that distance in an hour and a half.  Unlikely, but I’ll give it a go.  I could always get the bus anyway if necessary.

At Dolywern village I managed to get a wifi connection and checked the train times.  Oh, great!  The bus would get in at 11:54 and my train was at ….. wait for it ….. 11:48 with the next one at 12:49 (which would give me about 25 minutes to have a shower, some lunch and get to Prenton Park).

Common sense should probably have told me to give up and just wait for the bus but I kept walking.  Maybe someone would stop and offer me a lift?  Maybe I would find an abandoned bicycle?  Maybe there was an additional 5th-Saturday-in-December bus? Anyway, I had nothing else to do so I kept plodding with an occasional attempt at an ineffective and ungainly jog.

Although I no longer had an internet connection I rechecked my phone’s web browser and noticed that the National Rail journey planner had said that part of my journey was subject to delay.  I had no further information but it gave me hope.  I reckoned I’d reach Chirk station not long after noon, if I walked, and it’s not unusual for a train going all the way from Cardiff to Holyhead to have a 10 or 15 minute delay.

At Bronygarth, where Offa’s Dyke Path crossed the road near Chirk Castle, there was a bus stop; the first I’d seen for over 3 km and I took it as a sign that I should stop walking.  I still had 3 km to cover in 8 minutes and the bus was due soon.  If there was any chance of the train being late then I needed to be there as soon as possible and I was grateful that the bus came on time.

Due to parked cars, the bus had to stop a few metres further away from Chirk Station and I resented the extra walk.  Eschewing the bridge benchmark for a second time, I peered down at the platforms and was pleased to see over a dozen passengers all looking a little grumpy.  Quickly scanning an incredibly wordy bi-lingual sign I found the important bit “…. over the footbridge to Wrexham and Chester… “.  Yes, all those grumpy people were waiting for the 11:48 and it was now 11:55.  The train actually departed just after noon, so it had been the right decision to catch the bus for the last couple of miles. With hindsight I could have stayed in Glyn Ceiriog for an hour and a half, but hey ho!

By the way, I made it home in good time for the match …. which was as dull as ditch water ….. and I know all about ditch water.

Lessons identified from this trip:

  • It goes dark early in winter; so I need to be more realistic about how far I can walk and identify potential camp sites in advance.
  • Adding additional tie-outs to the tarp, and leaving them in place, will speed up pitching and adjustments.
  • The “envelope” tarp configuration works well as long as the wind stays in the same place. A simple adjustment can cope with a minor change of wind direction.
  • In rural areas, download all relevant bus and train timetables to my phone in advance.
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Berwyn bivi (with buses and benchmarks) – Part 1 of 2

When I take part in the TGO Challenge I do a LOT of planning. Partly because them’s the rules; but also to avoid being stuck somewhere with no idea of how to get where I need to be.  This trip was not like that.  Although my blog is primarily a personal diary of my trips and experiences, I hope it also serves an educational purpose in showing when it can be useful to have A Plan (or even just A Clue).

With two and a half days available between Tranmere Rovers’ home games I packed up my winter bivi gear and caught a train to Chirk.  From there, I hoped to catch a bus to Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog but I could not figure out, from the timetable, whether the bus was running.  Also, I did not know how long it would take to change from the train to the bus so I caught the early train to make sure I had plenty of time to catch the bus …. that might not be running.

Arriving at Chirk I realised that it took less than a minute to get to the bus stop (straight up the steps onto the road) but which bus stop?  One went towards Llangollen and the other, just round the corner, towards Llanarmon DC but both had the timetable for both directions and no “Buses towards xxxxx” sign.  I worked out which stop I needed and checked the timetable…… which was abundantly clear: only one bus each day was School Days Only, not every bus.  I now had 50 minutes to wait for my bus; plenty of time to find a benchmark.

Eschewing the one on the railway bridge I went to St Mary’s church where I was rewarded not only with the Flush Bracket I was expecting but also with a cut mark with bolt.

A bolt and Flush Bracket benchmark on St Mary’s Church, Chirk

Pleased with these easy pickings I popped into the Spar for a coffee and bun and waited for my bus.

The bus was on time and took me along the B4500 through Glyn Ceiriog and to Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog.  I lost my phone signal soon after leaving Chirk and wondered if this might be an offline trip.  You know, the way it used to be when we just went somewhere and did things and only told anyone about them when we got home?

Llanarmon DC has a couple of pubs so I stood outside one for a final dose of wifi then took the road south out of the village and picked up a footpath going West.  I planned to follow paths and green roads to get as close as I could to the Cadair Berwyn / Cadair Bronwen ridge before it went dark.

The countryside was very pleasant.  Rolling and green, not too challenging but with just enough climb.  From Mynydd Tarw I followed the county boundary marked with a fence and occasional boundary stones.

A boundary stone. I don’t know who or what WWW was. There did not appear to be anything on the other side

By 3:30pm I was looking for somewhere to camp.  Ideally I would want my shelter pitched by 4pm as it would be dark by 4:30pm.  I’ve learned over the years that my pitching location options are enhanced if I collect water before I camp.  That way I don’t have to find a good pitch which also has water nearby.  I had not seen any running water for a while but I found this tasty looking puddle and I filtered a couple of litres of it – although even the filtered water looked like weak tea.

Further on, I found some rocky crags which I thought would make a good place for a camp.  Good views, slightly sheltered and reasonably flat.  I had brought my Alpkit Rig 7 tarp and my Terra Nova Moonlite sleeping bag cover as my shelter.  Every time I tweet or blog about using a tarp I get comments about how some people prefer tents and others prefer tarps.  There is no right or wrong but here is my rationale behind this trip’s equipment choices:

I like sleeping “out”, ie not just in an enclosed tent but actually outside.  In the winter I am not going to be pestered by midges so I can use an open shelter.  I could just sleep in a bivi bag but, if it’s raining, it’s not very pleasant to spend 18 hours of darkness sealed up in a bivi bag; a tarp allows a far more pleasant evening under cover but with a feeling of openness.  I’d originally planned to take my Rab Survival Zone bivi bag and my Backpackinglight.co.uk micro tarp but, in the end, decided on the greater coverage of the Rig 7 and the lighter (probably less waterproof) Moonlite.  The weather forecast predicted cloudy skies rather than rain but I knew it was likely that low cloud would be blown under a smaller tarp.  I also took my warmest sleeping bag, my Tundra Pure -10, and a foam roll mat to sleep on.

I pitched in what I will call an “envelope” configuration, although I have no idea what other people call it.  I’d planned this set-up before I went away and it (mainly) worked well.  I tucked one quarter (70 cm)  of the tarp under as a groundsheet; had half of it as a lean-to, and the remaining quarter as a beak over the open side.  The groundsheet was not wide enough to sleep on but it meant I had somewhere clean and dry to lay out my things.  It also had the unexpected benefit of being less draughty than if I had just pegged out the end of the tarp, although this may have been because there wasn’t a lot of wind.  I also pulled out the flat body of the lean-to by using a guyline attached to one of the lifters; this has the effect of making the large flat tarp less billowy and gives more living space underneath.

Home Sweet Home

Sitting up under the tarp I had plenty of space to change clothing, cook & eat and I had good views out of both ends.  Lying down, though, was when this design reaped most benefits.  I had excellent views on the three open sides.  I could see to the horizon and, although I was disappointed that it was a cloudy night with no stars, the tarp was giving me the experience I had hoped for.

There was one slight problem in that I had not quite pitched the lean-to into the wind and, when it started to drizzle, I was getting puffs of wetness coming in from that end…. where my head was.  This was easily fixed by rigging another short guyline which pulled in the end of the tarp slightly.  I could do this from bed and it only took a minute.

The wind got up overnight and, in the early morning, I realised I would have to do a few quick modifications.  I lowered the pole at the foot end, tightened the guys at that end, and rigged another tie-out a quarter (60 cm) of the way in.  This kept everything tauter while I was making my breakfast.  Something that really puzzled me was why I could no longer sit up to drink my coffee ….. until I remembered I’d lowered one end of the tarp and could now only sit up at the high end!

I had a leisurely breakfast and it was around 9:30 before I was packed up and ready to walk.  By this time the mist had descended and I’d lost sight of Foel Wen, my first hill of the day.

…. continue to part 2

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