30 August 2013

Scottish flora and fauna

With only photographs to illustrate the itinerary and the company the previous blog post was quite full already. But I took all kinds of pictures of the resident organisms too! Pretty lichen, caterpillars, nice flowers... and a grisly scene of a clump of beetles eating a dead mouse. And a nasty stowaway; in one of the bothies I found a very big slug in my backpack. And it had clearly goen in with a full stomach! The thing had been shitting green gunk all over the place. It was evicted.
I also saw a herd of deer in the distance, and closer by a young tree that was only as tall as the small adjacent yellow flower. And bog cotton blowing in the wind! And I thought I'd make a compilation... I recommend clicking on it to see it at proper size! Enjoy!

28 August 2013


Few people mean as much to me as my sister, but put us together for more than three days and we are at each other’s throat. She had been wondering for quite a time whether we could go hiking together one day, and circumstances made that extra topical this year. So then when I heard of group hikes along the so-called Stevenson Way I thought we might be onto a winner. The Stevenson Way, by the way, is a route that is based on the book “Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stevenson, which is in turn based on historical events in mid-18th Century Scotland. I hadn’t read the book, but the route looked nice. We would do the part called the Rannoch Moor walk. I was busy moving house to York, so I decided to let my sister sort things out and go with the flow. So we registered!

About a week before we would leave I received the travel details from the organiser, Ian. I was slightly concerned to see this group we had so actively sought to dilute each other’s company consisted of only three people. Oh dear! But now we just had to make the most of it. There was some confusion on what to expect and what to bring (this trip was new, and it showed), and there was some hurry because of my sudden trip to Belfast, but then on a Friday evening I was at the station to welcome Marieke. She was a bit agitated; just at the wrong time, and old foot/knee/ankle injury had flared up, and she wasn’t sure if she could do the trip. I decided to turn my “normal” backpack upside down, empty it and chuck it into the corner, and put all my stuff in the big winter pack. I figured we had best be self-reliant; if we had to pull out at least the rest of the group, which then would have been one lonely German chap and the mountain guide, could go on. I made sure I had a stove, lots of fuel, pots and pans, and coffee; we had all we needed. And the next day we were back at the station. And in Glasgow we met Susan, our guide, and Ian, the organiser, who would join us for the first day. 

Ian drove us to Glencoe, where we met the entire rest of the group, in the form of Olaf the German, and after an intermediate booze-buying stop (I had forgotten to bring any – must have been very distracted) and a final stop in Kinlochleven, where we divided the food and ate fish & chips so as to be nourished for the trek to the first bothy (the Scottish version of a mountain hut) we’d sleep in, we were off.

Kinlochleven, where we started

It was a wet day, but the terrain was beautiful, and our fellow travellers turned out to be very nice people. So far so good! But rather soon we met walkers coming the other way, mentioning that one of the bridges we were heading for had been swept away. They had had to wade! And we hoped to be able to avoid that: it tends to lead to very wet feet. But we got to the river, and had to admit there was no avoiding of wading. Through we went! Ian showed his chivalry by walking everybody’s bags through, and guiding us through one by one. You don’t want your customers to be swept away by a swollen river…

We would see much of this: Marieke getting excited about mushrooms, and educating us about them.  Susan in the background.

Lots of water on the hills! 

Ian guides Marieke through the stream

Later we would realise we would have to wade several time that day. It didn’t speed us up; by the time we reached the reservoir light was fading. The bothy was still many kilometres away! But in a bothy you can make a fire, and dry your stuff, so we pushed on anyway. It did come at a price; Olaf needed a patch of compeed before we reached the reservoir. We would get used to that: next year he might want to consider wearing compeed socks! By 10PM we switched on our head torches. And around that time, we reached a river we couldn’t wade through, and had to go around. And the path vanished. So by the time we finally saw a structure looming in the dark it was past midnight. Time for a quick fire, and then bed! 

 Ian and Olaf before it got too dark to take pictures

Well-deserved sleep in the bothy

The next day the easier bit of the trip. Ian left us, and in nice weather with showers we walked along a beautiful valley to Loch Treig. There we found a gravel road rather than a winding, boggy path (which was what we had had so far), so it was little effort to walk to a nearby youth hostel. And on this first full day already a pattern emerged: Susan and me up front, bantering away, and Olaf and Marieke some distance behind, probably also bantering. And with regular compeed stops.
The initial plan had been to camp, but with our boots still soggy we changed plan. So we checked into the hostel, doodled away some time, and went to the nearby Corrour station, which seems to be the highest and remotest railway station in the UK, and which has been made famous by Trainspotting. It’s not only a small station in the middle of a lot of nothing, but it’s also a restaurant. And we would enjoy that! 

Looking back on the bothy

Towards Loch Treig

I was there too

If you look closely enough you see Corrour Station and a train 

 Loch Ossian; between the trees is the youth hostel

Inside Corrour Station restaurant

The next day we would yet again walk to a bothy; the one near Ben Alder. The route first followed the same gravel road, which turned into a path, which turned into bushwhacking. Along the way I had a small episode of parting with my stomach content (oh dear!); sometimes one’s stomach is a bit more obstinate than normal during a hike. But my fellow walkers took some of my luggage and soon I felt fine again. 

Breakfast: scrambled egg (from egg powder) with salami!

A hike classic: group picture in sun glasses

When we had crossed the water divide the sun came out, and we walked to the hut through a postcard. By now Marieke’s injuries had caught up with her, and she was walking with difficulty when we reached the hut. Good we had a day of rest planned!

 Sister portrait

 Towards Loch Eiricht, where the Benalder cottage is

It was very crowded in the bothy, so Susan decided to sleep outside. I decided to have a wash; the loch was cold, and I had to go to a far bank in order to not upset a group of camping teenagers, but I felt great after it! I even dared a small swim. And we went to bed early.

I had to go out for a leak during the night - and of course brought my camera

The next day everybody else left. We had the place for ourselves! We decided to climb nearby Ben Alder, except Marieke, who was in need of some recovery. So we packed some warm clothes and some chocolate- and cereal bars into small bags and headed uphill. We walked straight into the fog, and had little hope of seeing anything at the top, but that turned out to be undeserved; just before we reached the top the clouds parted, and we had amazing views from underneath our hats and gloves. It might have been August, but it was cold up there! 

Breakfast outside, as it was crowded inside. But outside it was crowded with different organisms...

Me under the Ben Alder top

We came back into the sunshine. Time for another bath in the loch before it would start to rain again. And then a lazy evening with a fire, a game of Tantrix, a bit of whisky and some banter. We now had gotten to know each other rather well; the pint-sized and tough-as-nails guide, who spoke French and Russian and had many a story from her long history as mountain guide and person who does all kinds of activities with kids of all kinds of disadvantages, who didn’t drink coffee, tea or alcohol but liked cooking and pixar-like movies. And Olaf the freelance illustrator, who spoke really good Dutch and felt a bit short-changed that he had travelled so far to go on holiday with some Dutch women, while he lived only some 60 km from the Dutch border. He was the man with the cool tools and the suffering feet, who was a veritable human lyre bird in that he could imitate all the sounds around. And he gave rise to a new verb; because of me carrying all Marieke's and my shared stuff I had a heavy backpack, and on day one he saw me laboriously lift it onto my back, and said "you don't have to do that' we'll help you!" And he did. And I'm not one for rejecting kindness, so I got into the habit of asking for an "Olaf" when we moved on after a break. And even though it was more often Susan who answered, it's still known as Olaffing.

Trying to dry stuff on and near the stove

The lazy evening didn’t stay lazy; Susan decided to go and get some firewood, and I went along. I soon found out that was not without disadvantages: my boots got wet(ter) again, I was attacked by midges (forgotten the repellent – d’oh!), and to make things worse I found an irresistible but damn heavy log. My whole bath was undone by new-made sweat while I lugged that to the bridge. When I handed it to Susan a bit chunk broke off and fell into the river –nooo! Carried that for nothing. I grumpily lugged the rest to the hut and was very glad to get there. We didn’t even burn it, but someone else will one day have fun with it I trust.

 The bothy seen from a distance

That night we used two rooms! Luxury! And the next day we packed up and left. We walked past the loch, through utter swamp, until we reached another gravel road. We stayed on it until we reached an actual tarmac road. That was on purpose; Susan’s husband would restock us. This spared us carrying food for the whole week! And that very evening we would even have fresh fruit and veg! And the time we spent waiting wasn’t lost; Susan was worried about the rest of the trip. From here on it would get die-hard again, with lots of up and down and no paths. And no way out. She wondered if Marieke and her knees were up for that. No fun walking through the mountains if you’re in agony! But there might be another way; a signpost had alerted her to the probable existence of a path she wasn’t previously aware of. It would take us to the end point via easy terrain. And that would not be as beautiful, but it was feasible. We decided to go for it…

Good roads and phone signal

 Advice from a friendly local

When Susan’s husband arrived we were very glad to see him. Not only because he brought apples, oranges, carrots, grapes and more dry food, but also because Susan had told us about him and he sounded like a spiffing chap. And he came across and exactly that spiffing!

After dinner we walked on a bit, to get away from the road, and found a hilltop where there was the biggest chance of a midge-deterring breeze. Unfortunately, that breeze didn’t come. How happy we were with the midge nets!
Detailed signage 

Me in one of my favourite situations: just having had a bath! And on the river the midges didn't find me.

The next day we would largely walk through a forest, and then either camp in or near it, or push through to yet another bothy. And with fresh memories of the midges we hoped for the latter! And we made good progress. Soon we reached the end of the forest. Where everything suddenly became less straightforward; the path vanished and a swamp appeared. We tried to cross, but that involved lots of realising you couldn’t go on and having to turn back, talking increasing detours, sinking down to your thighs in the gunk, and getting stuck. Bad idea! We decided to follow the railway embankment instead. Not entirely the purpose of the embankment, but better that getting stuck for real.
The woods

 The railway, which floats on top of the swamp

After the embankment came the hummocky grass terrain. I don’t like that stuff! It’s very uneven, and you can’t see where you put your feet. Now it was Marieke and me in the back. I was glad to see the bothy! By the time we got there my feet hurt properly, and I decided on sitting on my arse for a bit, and drinking whisky (“so no change then” Susan remarked), until the pain subsided. Luckily it did. Time for another wash in the river! And that’s the advantage of travelling with continentals – then you can do that with several people at the same time! No British fear of the body. And it refreshed me no end, but that night I struggled to stay awake during a game of Tantrix…

Hiker (tired) and guide (chirpy) in bothy

The river looking pretty

The next day would be the last full walking day. All day on flat gravel roads. When I figured I was probably in more pain than Marieke I asked her to carry the tent, which she of course then did. We found a spot next to a river again. It was a nice spot, but it had many midges and ticks. We had had a few already, but here they were wandering around everywhere. But we had an escape – there was a pub at walking distance! That I couldn’t resist. So after my bath (I had forgotten we were in civilisation now – I was happily standing stark naked in the river when a dog walker came past. Oh dear! But she didn’t seem to mind, and even indicated that a bit upstream I could swim) we headed up there. I enjoyed the beer, and Olaf enjoyed the opportunity to get out his sketchbook and draw some of the other guests. And when we heard the place served food we decided to stay. Another pint! And even time for an exquisite whisky!

When we were about to leave we found Ian again, who would spend the night with us. And then drive us back to a convenient railway station the next day. We could report all had gone well! Yes, there had been injuries, tricky swamps, lost equipment (my spork and Olaf’s mug) and nasty beasties, but that was all within reason. We were getting a bit sentimental; tomorrow it would be over! It had been good. And Scotland said goodbye with a beautiful sunset. And with some gillie who tried to chase us off the land. Unfortunately for him, Susan knows the law of the land, and wasn’t having any of it!

 Our modest camp

 Goodbye from Scotland...

The next day we had breakfast (large amounts of porridge – Ian had brought more, as we had run out!) and packed up. Ian’s car was only a mile away. We said goodbye to Olaf who decided to walk to Bridge of Orchy where he would spend another night. And after admiring Rob Roy’s grave, and a coffee stop where we also shopped for tat we drove to Stirling, where Susan lived, and we caught the train to Edinburgh. It was over! And we had had excellent company in a beautiful part of the country. It had been a good decision! Anyone who fancies a good Scottish hike but doesn’t have the time, or can’t be asked, to organise it themselves, or who needs extra company: do as we did! It’s splendid!

And goodbye from us. Group picture: me, Susan (the guide), Olaf, and my sister. And a mushroom.

26 August 2013

Belfast: the trip

It was a bit of a hectic time. I would go on a hiking holiday, and that always takes a bit of preparation time. Once you’re in the middle of windswept Scotland you want to have everything with you that you need! But then Rob submitted his draft thesis. An entire thesis is a lot of text to go through. And that needed to be done before I would leave, as he had to submit to the examiners soon in order to have his viva before he’d be off to his first postdoctoral job. And before the holiday we would also have a project meeting. One of the things we would discuss was fieldwork plans; I had to draw up some stratigraphic information for that. And we would discuss the endlessly postponed Iceland manuscript; suddenly, people were throwing comments at me from all angles. And then there was this invitation to come to Belfast for an interview! So at the airport I was still wondering a bit if I’d forgotten something.

On the eve of my departure I had mentioned Belfast on Facebook. And I have two friends from there, both currently living in Plymouth. I figured that were I given the job, they might give me some advice on where to live and what to do. But they came in handy before; one happened to be in town on the same day! Simon the Historian phoned to suggest he’d show me around. I’m lucky!

I touched down, found a bus, got to town, dug out the map I had kept after my visit in 2002, and walked to the B&B. In my room I found the key to the bike I had rented, and which was parked outside. Spiffing! All went so smoothly that when I phoned Simon he wasn’t even in town yet. But soon we met at the university main building.

We roamed through town a bit. He pointed pubs out he liked, or his brother liked, gig venues and restaurants. And a column commemorating the first landing of American troops in Europe, on January 26th 1942. You’re a historian specialized in Northern Irish – American relations, or you’re not. And he showed me the waterfront. And then we decided it was time for a pint of Guinness. And while we were at it, we had dinner too.

Town Hall

Then we said goodbye. I promised to let him know the outcome! And I trusted I would hear the outcome from what he had come for: a football match between NI and Russia. Oh dear... (Although NI would win! Hurrah!)

After I’d said goodbye to Simon I rode back into town. And out on the other side. I rode past the Black mountain which flanks the city on one side. Would I end up living here I might want to try to live close to it! I also passed thick streams of youngsters on their way to a big concert. And then I went back into town, admired the big fish that inevitably pops up when you google images of Belfast, and went back to the hotel. There I took advantage of the big mirror to decide on an outfit, and read a local newspaper. Ready for tomorrow...

 The fish sculpture and my rental bike

And then the morning came. I decided to first localise the building the interview would take place in, and then see if I could find Maarten Blaauw, who is involved in one of our sea level projects. And I found him! It was nice to have a cup of coffee, and after that he kindly brought me to the school office. I there met another candidate; a palynologist. She seemed nice! And then I was called up. The interview panel consisted of only three people; the PI, the head of school and Paula Reimer. They were very nice! I hope I did well. I think I did. I expect to hear on Friday...

The building the interview took place in 

I didn't hear on Friday. I left for Scotland knowing that not hearing anything wasn't a good sign, but that it did not mean anything conclusive. And while in Scotland I rarely had signal, but when I did, I still heard nothing. And then I came back to my house, finding lots of mail on the doormat. Nothing from Belfast! Until, after I thought I'd dealt with all the mail, my sister said "you seem to have more mail" and I noticed an envelope that was leaning against the door, and was camouflaged as such. I noticed a big Q on it. Oh dear. Mail from Belfast after all! I didn't get the job...

16 August 2013

Being Dutch

“You should meet Annemarieke; she’s great! And also Dutch!” I heard it many times since coming to York. And I tend to have the somewhat grumpy Dutch approach to compatriots; I have been surrounded by Dutch people for most of my life, and people of any other nationality are exactly as spiffing as the Dutch, so why would I seek them out? And that’s a reasonable point, of course, but there is something I gloss over by thinking that way. Cultural reference!

One of the Aussies invited me for another game of “Klop”. I went to the designated location, failed to find her, and got her on the phone instead. She said she’d be there in a few minutes, but the elusive Annemarieke was probably already there! Recogniseable by her Dutch bike. So I saw a lady without a bike, then noticed a Gazelle in a nearby bike parking area, and figured the lady must be Annemarieke. And she was! So we met, and sat by the river with a beer and some focaccia. And we talked! In faltering Dutch. We’d both been abroad for 6 years, and speak English all day. Switching back to your native tongue can be a bit difficult! We were glad the Anglosaxons were imminent; they’d be our cue to switch back to English.

And then we played Klop. And then I said “Klop. Kent u die uitdrukking?” (If you’re not Dutch you won’t understand!) And she did an impersonation of Dutch cultural icon “de vieze man”. And I changed the lyrics of a Doe Maar song to fit the game of Klop. And we were generally annoying and unhinged. We had a great time! It was great to have fun with someone who understands all your daft references. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get invited together again. But I realised that, yes, simply being a compatriot can indeed be an asset. And not all Dutchies will be as daft and extravert as Annemarieke, but they’ll all know de vieze man! Hup Holland, en oranje boven and all that!

 Night Klop with Annemarieke in the foreground


12 August 2013


I am getting ready for a trip to Belfast. What am I going to Belfast for? I have plenty to do. Next week I'm on holiday, and before then lots of things have to be finished. And we have a project meeting too. So what has gotten into me?

Maybe I have lots to do, but there is more than the present. I have to think of the future! "Ik moet aan mijn salaris denken, en aan mijn relaties..." My contract in York runs out next year, and with the financial crisis and all one had better not wait until the very end to try to find a new job. And something very attractive came up in Belfast. So I applied, and lo and behold, I got invited for interview! So I prepared a presentation, picked my tidiest clothes out of the wardrobe,and soon I'll be back in the city I only visited once before, in 2002. Things have changed since then! And maybe more things will change soon. Watch this space...

The only Belfast picture that made it into my photo album: Queen's University!

10 August 2013

Sunday in the Lakes District

After a spiffing day underground (or rather, a day in which we spent as much time underground as we had done walking to the entrance) I woke up happy, and in a beautiful landscape. And it's easy to stay happy in such circumstance! Over breakfast we made plans. Chuck and Hannah would go their way, and Matt, Gary and me would first go for a walk, then have a look at the local museum (might have nice mining paraphernalia!), and, if there was time, go past the Wensleydale Creamery on the way back, to stock up on Dales cheese. What a prospect!

 The campsite from a distance

And it all happened. We had a nice, impeccably navigated, three hour walk, through the beautiful landscape. When Gary plonked down on a rock, declared it time for picknick, and conjured up a bag of chocolate buttons, while I laid down on the moss and looked up at the sky I realized this was the kind of Lovely Day that deserves capitalization.

The museum was a bit eclectic; there was mining stuff, but also a display on local rock climbing pioneers (leading a climb with the rope just tied around your waist! Brrr!), and on sheep farming. And a whole room on local hero Ruskin (I had barely heard of him), and a big room on the Bluebird - the vehicle with which a chap had tried to break the world speed record on the local Coniston Water, and died trying. And there was some arbitrary miniature slate architecture.

After all that I couldn't stop dozing off on the way back. I woke up when we turned into the parking lot of the Creamery. All that cheese! A nice end to a great weekend. I am truly blessed.

09 August 2013

Coniston Copper Mines

Down a mine with the YCC! And this time not just a tame walk-in; no, this time it would be a proper multi-pitch SRT trip down a mine! One can imagine I looked forward to that.

It would be seven of us, none of which would have ever been to this mine before. Not ideal, but one has to make the most of it. I had bought a guide book from the eighties, which mainly dealt with the surface, but also mentioned the trip we had in mind. And Matt had printed out some trip reports from other clubs. Together it had to do!

Matt and Gary picked me up, and through the beautiful Dales we drove to the Lakes District. It was rather beautiful! Along the way, though, we received bad news: one couple pulled out. Only five left!
We were heading for a campsite Matt had picked. The roads became smaller and smaller, and the hills emptier and emptier, but we did find it. The quietest campsite-on-a-farm in the world! And there I met Chuck and Hannah, whom I had not met before. We had a drink, but soon it was bedtime. 

Our tents on the calm campsite, with nice hills in the background

The next day was for mining. We got our stuff together, said bye to Hannah who didn’t like underground stuff, and went to Coniston, where we had to park, according to the descriptions. From there it was a stiff walk up the hill. And I like a walk, but it’s always a bit less comfy in wellies, neoprene socks, and with a heavy, ill-fitting rope bag over your shoulder. But it was a beautiful route! Unfortunately, we saw we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble and parked a lot higher up. Oh well.

Intrepid explorers having the first waste tip in sight

Once we reached the actual terrain of the mine we had to look for the right place. We had a specific entrance in mind. I struggled to make sense of my guide book, and Gary struggled to align the map with the landscape. We did a lot of pottering around. And met others who did the same, and gave us some directions. Which were wrong, we would find out. 

 Navigational confusion and pretty flowers

With a very big detour we eventually reached the reservoir, next to which the entrance should be. For some reason we thought it would be at the far end, but upon having reached that end we reconsidered. Where we had started out, that was the entrance! This was not going to be an efficient trip. 

 The reservoir. On the right the mine entrance can be seen.

Having reached the entrance (only three hours after setting off!) we kitted up, doodled around, deciding on which hole exactly to go in, until Gary found it. In we went! It was a beautiful place. 

 The multiple entrances

We went down some ladder pitches, and down a strange pitch over timbers. And then up a small slope we found the top of the first pitch. And down we were! Only metres further was the top of the second pitch. The men didn’t like the look of that! The trip reports all suggested to rig the pitches in such a way that you can pull the rope through and take it with you, so you can come out on the other end, and don’t have to go back to retrieve your ropes. But as we didn’t really know the way we intended to come back up. And it looked like upon doing that, the ropes would rub, and that’s dangerous. And even mine explorers aren’t necessarily suicidal, so we decided to not risk it, and go back. Too bad! It was a truly beautiful mine. 

Chuck on the slope that leads to the first pitch, where Matt is sitting. Notice the unstable deads on the right.

 As I had been the last one down I was the first one up. I scurried around a bit, looking for other holes to explore. I found one unassuming crawl. But it got wider, and I reached a whole new lode! That was exciting! I shouted to Chuck, who followed, and brought Matt and Gary along too. After a few metres the floor fell away to unfathomable depths, but the lode was spanned by a line of timbers. And there was a safety rope bolted to the wall! So you could cross! It looked very scary; the timbers could be who knows how old, and they were a bit slippery, and they sometimes were a very large step away from each other, but when you’re on a rope, you might end up shitting seven colours, but you won’t die. So I went for it! And I felt the adrenalin rush through my body, but I made it to the other side. And of course the men followed! Upon reaching the other side, Matt declared he had NEVER done anything like that. Well, same here! But what excitement! 

Chuck crossing the terrifying stope. Pic by Gary

On the other side we found generous blue dripstones, flooded winzes, the remains of a windlass, and an old ladder. And the piece de resistance: an entire cart! It had been mounted on a short stretch of restores tramway. Very cool! But after some pictures and a candy bar we turned around. Pub time!

 Remains of a windlass

Matt and me with the cart. (Pic by Gary)

The way back was even scarier than the way in. But of course we made it again, and soon we were out. And this time it didn’t take us long to get back to the car. There we phoned Hannah, and then the changing, disguising disgusting caver odours with deodorant, and failing to agree on a place to eat commenced. And to cut a long-ish story short: a while later we had a nice dinner and a pint. And a lot to talk about! This trip hadn’t really worked out the way it was intended, but we all had had a spiffing day!