Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Well Done Alex!

Alex Thomson and his boat Hugo Boss finished the Vendee Globe in third place this morning. Very well done! In three attempts, this is the first time that the thirty-eight year old has completed the course. Read about him here.

Aside from the race itself, I watched his press conference live this morning, held just a couple of hours after he finished, having been alone for eighty days. That's a tough thing to have to do, and I thought he was brilliant! The transcript of the conference is here.

The official Vendee Globe website is here.

Photo is a screenshot from the press conference.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Round the World in 78 Days

Congratulations to Francois Gabart who has won the Vendee Globe, the solo non-stop round the world race, with his boat Macif. The Frenchman - at 29 he's the youngest ever skipper to win - arrived back in Les Sables d'Olonne today, in a record time of seventy-eight days, two hours, sixteen minutes and forty seconds!

Armel Le Cleac'h in Banque Populaire is just a few hours behind, with Alex Thomson in Hugo Boss set to finish in third place. The website is here with all the articles and videos. It has been a fascinating race to follow!

Of course, it's not over yet. It may be three weeks before the last boat in the race reaches the finish. Alessandro Di Benedetto is nursing a broken rib, and when his boat, Team Plastique, gets home it will be to a hero's welcome too, I'm sure. As of today, just twelve of the twenty starters are still competing.

Photos are screenshots from the live web coverage of the finish. Top: Macif just four miles or so from the line. Above: Francois acknowledges the 150,000+ spectators as his shore team brings the boat to the pontoon.

Friday, January 25, 2013

More garden visitors

When I was watching the birds in the garden at Skip recently (here), I noticed that among the chaffinches there was something a bit different. I suspected it was a brambling (described on the RSPB website here), but did not get a decent photo. Today, as the snow was falling heavily in the afternoon, a group of six or so came to visit the feeders.

This gave me an opportunity to record the occasion. My photography efforts don't compare with those of the experts (see examples here), but then again I've taken these shots through a double glazed window!

One seemed to have mastered the peanut feeder and seemed happy to share it with this blue tit. The others in the group were feeding on the ground, and on the seed feeder tray.

It is a handsome wee bird, that's for sure. It overwinters in the UK, breeds in Scandinavia.

Today's caption competition!

Photos © Skip Cottage

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A winter's day in Annandale

Snow on the ground, and a blue sky, showed Wamphray at its best today! This is looking towards Blaze Hill. If you look closely you can even see the moon rising from behind the hill.

I've mentioned Blaze Hill (and the Tartan Army) before, see here.

Jim Storrar recently sent me some old photos of Wamphray. Thanks, Jim. This old postcard was one. Blaze Hill, as it is called on both old and new OS maps, was apparently known by some in the early twentieth century as The Bleeze Hill. One meaning of the Scots word 'bleeze' is 'bonfire'!

(Note to self, I must find out what the other six beacon hills of Annandale are.)

Apart from the trees, the area hasn't changed much in a hundred years, compare here and here.

Fortunately we haven't had the extensive snowfall experienced on the east of the country (touch wood). I maintain a website for a friend in the Yorkshire Dales, and Burtersett has had a good covering, see here. This is the 'Old Carlisle Road', which skirts Newton Wamphray, looking north towards Moffat.

 There's something about trees in winter!

This is a different view of Skip, taken from the east, with a long lens across the main West Coast Main Line, which is out of sight in the foreground. In other words, if you know where to look, this is the view you would see of Skip from the train!

Photos © Skip Cottage

Saturday, January 19, 2013

January Visitors

A little coal tit waits its turn as two great tits and a blue tit dominate the peanut feeder.

"Hurry up, guys, it's surely my turn now!"

Actually, the sunflower hearts feeder seems to be the most popular among the coal tits. These seem to be thriving this year. I counted more than a dozen this morning. They can empty this feeder in around four hours!

So what else was in the garden this morning?

This nuthatch seemed to enjoy the sunflower hearts too.

The blue tit is surely the cutest of garden birds!

But if I have a favourite, it has to be the robin. I remember clearly when I set up my very first bird table in the garden of my Kilbarchan cottage, back in 1989. I hadn't seen many birds at all up to that time, but set up the table anyway and put out some food. I turned around to continue to work on the garden, looked back, and there was a robin already checking out its dinner.

I have at least a couple of robins at Skip this month, but they tend to be quite shy. This one was happy to pose for me this morning!
It's a dunnock, sheltering from the snow shower.

The goldfinch is Skip's most flamboyant visitor.

I am amazed how quickly the word goes round that food is available. No sooner than one goldfinch had found that the feeder had been refilled, others soon appeared.

 This had me stumped for a little as I looked at it through the long lens.

Here's a better pic. It's a female chaffinch.

Here's the male, with its colours rather more subdued that it usually has later in the year. I often see large flocks of chaffinches scouring the road under the beech trees (presumably for the beech mast). A fewer number visit the garden, mostly on the ground below the feeders, but the occasional one will check out the feeder tray.

Everyone else scatters when a greater spotted woodpecker pays a visit. This is the wariest of visitors, and the most difficult to photograph. Any slight movement on my part, even from behind the window, and it's off!

So that is a bird sample from 11.00 - 12.00 on January 19. I regularly see a wren, and a blackie, but not today.

Photos © Skip Cottage

Sunday, January 13, 2013

What a difference a day makes

This was Annandale at its finest yesterday, with late afternoon sun catching Gateside and Craig Fell behind.

Today was somewhat different! This Virgin Pendolino is heading for London down the West Coast Main Line and going very tentatively through the snow.

Snow is great fun... as long as you don't have to travel anywhere!

Skip's standing stone was wearing a cap this morning!

There's a garden here somewhere!

Photos © Skip Cottage

Saturday, January 12, 2013

My toothpaste is frozen...

I mentioned back in November (here) that I would be following the progress of the Vendee Globe, the solo round the world sailing race. I have done that, and every day I log on here to read the news and the stories of the previous twenty-four hours. It has been fascinating. Only twelve of the twenty starters are still in the race. Two Frenchmen (Francois Gabart on Macif, and Armel Le Clearc'h on Banque Populaire) have effectively been match racing at the front of the fleet for most of the race, and, after sixty-three days, they are now nearing the Equator on their way back up the Atlantic. A Brit, Alex Thomson, is currently in third place in Hugo Boss.

A couple of mornings ago I was lying in bed snuggled up warm and listening to a live radio linkup on the Chris Evans show with the other British sailor, Mike Golding, who had just completed his sixth rounding of Cape Horn. His comment that his toothpaste was frozen has stuck with me since! It is easy to forget just how tough such a race is. Mike, who's 52, is in sixth position in Gamesa. I just think that it is a tremendous performance by both sailors.

The screenshot below is from the week 9 highlights video. It gives some impression of what the conditions can be like, as well as summarising the current placings. On the photo is Jean Le Cam who was rescued four years ago when his boat capsized near Cape Horn. He's safely round this time on SynerCiel. Cape Horn is in the background. Click this link or on the image to find the whole video.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Tower Hunting

It was nice to see some blue sky today and I took the opportunity to do a wee bit of exploring! It hardly seemed like January 9 though, it was so mild. Still, plenty time for winter to arrive!

I had decided to try find the ruins of Blacklaw Tower just north of Moffat, on the east side of the Evan Valley. It was a pleasant walk in, and out. Except that, just on the right of this photo...

... are six lanes of motorway!

Still, it was easy enough to block out the motorway noise, and just appreciate the surroundings. My OS map told me that Blacklaw Tower was up from here.

If I hadn't had the map I would still be looking. That lump on the right IS the tower, or what remains of it. And yes, I found the strangely cut trees a bit odd too!

Things are a little more impressive from this angle! The details of Blacklaw Tower, built in the sixteenth century, are described in detail on the RCAHMS website here. And the associated map (see here) shows how extensive the complex of tower and associated buildings was.

The situation was a good one, protected on the east side by the deep gully cut by the Blacklaw Burn rushing down to the Evan Water.

There's what seems to be a deep ditch on the north side. The tower would have had a commanding view south, now obscured by the trees of Craik's Craigs Plantation.

Just a little of the vaulted roof of a lower story can be seen.

However, next time I'm heading home down the motorway and getting close to Moffat, I'll certainly remember a pleasant January 2013 walk. This is the point where the Blacklaw Burn goes under the M74.

Back home at Skip, the end of a good day was marked by a beautiful sunset.

Photos © Skip Cottage

Friday, January 04, 2013

Thirty Years Ago

If you will forgive a wallow in the past, I'd like to reminisce on what I was doing exactly thirty years ago. I had spent Christmas and New Year walking across Nepal, and early in January was nearing the Khumbu region. It was the adventure of a lifetime. The years have dulled the memories just how hard it was at times, although I recently found the journal I wrote during the trek and details came flooding back.

That's my diary on the left - a little notebook bought in Katmandu!

I need to back up a little and explain what took me to Nepal. I had loved hills and mountains ever since a school friend took me up my first Munro, Ben Narnain in the Arrochar Alps. A geography teacher began a hill walking group and his enthusiasm inspired me, especially when we spent five days in the Christmas holidays based in the Crianlarich Youth Hostel, must have been 1963-64. The weather was clear and dry, although cold. We climbed all the surrounding hills in near perfect winter conditions every day, before returning to Glasgow on the train. 

Over the years that followed, curling might have been my winter sport, but hill walking and exploring Scotland was my summer occupation. In 1980, my friend Johnny McFadzean, a hill farmer from Galloway, decided he would like to see Mount Everest! Well, it took two years before we managed to make it happen - and in the interim we walked the West Highland Way as a 'warmup'. Exodus (one of the original adventure holiday companies, still going strong today, see here) advertised a trek to the Everest region, not in the usual spring or autumn Nepal trekking seasons, but in December-January. I could get off work then, so our adventure became possible.

Our trek began in the far south of the country and we walked over the next three weeks pretty much due north through the foothills of the Himalaya, well away from other tourist routes. We got lost a couple of times, but that just added to the adventure. There were seven paying customers, a leader, three guides, a cook and his helpers, and a variable number of porters who carried our tents and personal kit, leaving us to walk just with day sacks. Luxury indeed.

Still, keeping well was the priority. It's no fun having even a simple stomach upset while walking every day. Towards the end of the trek, there was the effects of altitude to contend with.

Above are some scribbles from my Jan 7, 1983, diary entry. We had camped two nights at Dingboche, which is over 14,000 feet, as we attempted to get acclimatised. The day before we had gone much higher, then back down. In the middle of the night, I realised I would have to go outside and empty my bladder. It was toasty warm inside my winter season down sleeping bag, and the prospect of a nighttime 'excursion' was not something to look forward to! However, I threw on my jacket, ripped open the tent flap and plunged out... straight into something warm and furry. It turned out to be a large village dog which had been lying across the front of the tent to take advantage of the small amount of warmth that was seeping through the flap! It wimpered. Mind you, so did I!

Our target was to reach the top of Kala Pattar. At more than 18,000 feet (5,500m) feet this is a pimple by the standards of the surrounding mountains. It's not technically challenging, but whether one makes it to the top or not depends on how well you have acclimatised to the altitude. Getting used to the altitude is the biggest problem of treks in the Khumbu. My diary is full of comments about being breathless, and awakening at nights in a bit of a 'panic'. The dangers of altitude are well recognised, see here. People are affected differently. Two of our party were stricken quite badly.

I was lucky, I made it to the top of Kala Pattar on Saturday, January 8, from our camp at Lobuche. I recall this being physically the hardest day of my life, and reading my diary again, the details flood back.

So, where are the photos? Yes I took some. I didn't have a particularly good camera. 35mm slides were the thing back then and  - in pre-internet days - the only way of sharing your photos and your experiences was to invite 'friends' round to your home, get out the slide projector, rig up a screen, and bore them to drink with your stories! These days there are lots of photos to view online, so much better than any I took myself. I'll show just one - the view of Everest from the top of Kala Pattar:

This photo was taken by Jerome Ryan, an amateur photographer who loves mountains. He is happy to have his pix used for personal, non-commercial use. His website is quite amazing, see here. He has a set of twenty-three photos from Kala Pattar, some taken with a long lens, in beautiful conditions. Do have a look at the collection here. The pix are spectacular!

The conditions on January 8, 1983, were not quite so spectacular, but once I had recovered somewhat on reaching the top, it was one of the best days of my life! Made me realise and admire what real mountaineers accomplish!

A week later we were flying out of the little airstrip at Lukla, back to Katmandu and home to Glasgow. There are now lots of YouTube videos showing planes landing and taking off from Lukla. Don't watch any of them if you are a nervous flyer! Here's a video from the above mentioned Jerome Ryan from October 2009.

It's a busy place these days, as most trekkers to Everest simply fly in and out via Lukla. Tarmac was only laid on the landing strip around 2000. When I was there in 1983 it was just dirt. A photo here gives an impression! That's not the only change in the region, to judge by all the photos on the Web. I'm glad we went when we did.

In 1983 I was thirty-five years old. Now I'm sixty-five. Where have the years gone?

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happy New Year

A happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year to all friends and blogallies!

As far as the weather goes, it's been a mild festive season, and I notice that the snowdrops and daffodils are already pushing up to sample what's ahead in 2013 (above). New life. Don't you just love the seasons.

I long ago gave up the whole idea of New Year's Resolutions. But I do have some personal wishes for 2013. Before I talk about them, I thought I might share my best memory from last year. Well, the year was a difficult one for me, being confined at home at times with a body that seemed to be paying me back for rough treatment over the years. That did have one advantage though. I watched the Olympics and Paralympics, let's just say, thoroughly. And among all my viewing highlights there was one session which I remember above all. It was Team GB's first medal. Having watched the disappointment of the men's road race - and still somewhat skeptical that all the hype about the Games would crash into big disappointment for everyone - I settled down to watch the women's road race. Now, women's road cycling doesn't garner much publicity usually. I really didn't know if we had a medal chance or not.

But when Yorkshire's Lizzie Armitstead was able to join a breakaway, in the foulest of weather, it all became exciting. VERY exciting. There were four riders in the break. Then only three, as the USA's Shelley Olds punctured (how cruel for her was that!). As Olga Zabelinskaya, Marianne Vos and Armitstead fought to stay ahead of the peleton in torrential rain I found myself on my feet, shouting at the television as if possessed. Talk about being in the moment! I'm glad no-one was watching me. In the end, Vos, the favourite, pipped Armitstead in the sprint for the finish. So the first medal for Team GB was a silver one. As we all know now, that was just a start, and the Games and the Paralympics which followed were just magnificent, with many memorable successes, and emotional times. For me though, it was that first medal that got me totally engaged and immersed in London 2012. Thanks Lizzie. 

You can get a flavour of the women's road race from the video at the top of this post.

Back to 2013, I hope I am able to give my garden at Skip the care and attention it deserves, and to continue with its 'development'.

I hope I will see more mainline steam!

And I look forward to getting up close and experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of these wonderful machines!

More than anything I hope I am able to get out and about to continue to explore Annandale and other parts of Dumfries and Galloway. Less rain might be a bonus!

I hope my walks will include fabulous days like this one last May! Recognise the view, anyone?

Being able to find hidden gems like this again, would be great. And no, I refuse to say where it is!

Anything else? Certainly. Friends and family will continue to be important, and I'll no doubt maintain an interest in the sport of curling. Not to the same extent as before though - realising I would have to give up the Skip Cottage Curling blog was the hardest decision I had to make last year. But I hope to continue being passionate about the sport's history. And there are lots of other interests that I may yet share here.

Yes, it's fingers crossed for 2013. And hopefully the camera will continue to work OK.

Happy New Year! Especially so to the thirteen sailors still competing in the Vendee Globe solo round the world race, see here. These guys are tough! The two leaders are just rounding Cape Horn this New Year's day.

Photos © Skip Cottage