27 Sep The Last Wilderness of Britain
It was late June when I arrived in England. Heathrow airport was bustling even in the mid-morning on a Wednesday. I was blurry-eyed after the 9+ hour flight crunched between two champion armrest wranglers. My neck and back hurt from the discomfort of terribly designed seats that don’t seem to have been improved in the 30 years of my life. It still surprises me. Yet I endure it all to get to the one time Imperial Power of England. I go not to watch the last remnants of the overlordship fade away but to visit my family. My brother was graduating from the Royal Veterinary College after 5 years of tireless study. To celebrate, we’d be hiking the mountains of the United Kingdom for three weeks.
There he was. Bouncing slightly, as he tended to do when he walked. Smiling, as he less frequently did. He is one of those people that is always in great shape no matter what he does or eats. Supremely annoying as it is, it was great to see him in good form and light on his feet. He had planned quite the adventure for us and I was excited to get under way.
We loaded up my rucksack and fiddle in his car and began driving out of the airport traffic jam. Just as we cleared the chaos and saw the open freeway in front of us, we were startled by the distinct robotic “woop” and flashing blue lights of the police. I was a picture of apathy and exhaustion in the passenger seat. My brother was curious more than perturbed and ever polite. Cameras in the parking garage had captured my brother’s license plate and notified the local authorities that there had been a lapse in auto-insurance payments. The cops had been tasked with hunting us criminals down. In his crunch for finals, my brother had failed to open all his mail and thus missed the critical policy change that required him to reapply for auto-payments of his insurance. And big brother couldn’t have that kind of dirty greedy lawlessness. The cops were cordial or perhaps I was confused by their cute accents. They informed us that we’d be taken to the police office, our car would be impounded, and we’d have to find another way home. They were thoroughly confused when my brother suggested that he just call the insurance company, clear up the administrative error, and with updated proof of insurance we could just go on our way.
The cops returned to their go-go gadget crime fighting van to deliberate and probably radio to their boss who I imagine to be a blading cyborg with a whispy mustache that only sits on red velvet love seats and has temper tantrums when his biscotti isn’t soaked in almondnac to the right softness. I’m not sure why but that’s what I imagined. After much deliberation they agreed to the terms set out by my brother, Justin. They sent the tow truck driver away before he had gotten his sticky crumpet and marmalade covered mits on our rig.
Before we left, one of the officers almost apologetically reminded me “Big Brother sees everything.” Thanks for the reminder to reread Orwell.
Finally, we were on our way. The next two days were full of preparation, costco trips, packing and repacking, mapping and remapping driving and hiking routes. And then we were on the road. We picked up my brother’s friend, Kevin and headed towards the mountains.
It was a strange for me. As I looked over our maps and read about the peaks we’d summit, hardly any were over 4000 ft. I was used to hiking the mountains of the Sierra Nevada whose smaller peaks are above 10,000 ft, or Mt. Shasta and Whitney both over 14,000 ft. I now lived in Idaho where I lived at 5000 ft and looked at mountains everyday over 9,000 ft. I was concerned I was about to put training wheels back on my bike. Furthermore, when we told the Brits what we were doing, they referred to it as “Hill Walking”. What an uninspiring term.
My fears were quickly put to rest, however.
Our first stop was Wales. A perfectly green place, narrow roads lined with stone walls overflowing with braken. The hills were tree covered lush groves or sheep spotted fields. You knew it hadn’t changed much in the last hundred years.
We drove down the one lane road next to a dribble of a creek they called a river. We dodged other cars and bikers. I was terribly disoriented as the car hugged the wrong side of the road. Overall, I was sick of flying, driving, and just sitting. So my excitement flared when we finally arrived at the first trailhead: The Brecon Beacons. We’d be warming up by topping some mounds of dirt.
The commendable and maybe most redeemable thing about Brits that may also in fact indicate their superiority over the United States, they don’t believe in switchbacks. They can make a meager mound of dirt a terribly difficult climb by putting their trails straight up the steepest embankments. Which was the case this first day and the rest of the trip. It was glorious.
We did a 9 mile loop hiking to the top of 4 hilariously named mounds: Corn Du, Pen y Fan, Cribyn, Fan Y Big. There was almost no shrubbery nor trees. Long expanses and big rolling grass. From the top it was a lovely rolling sea of greenery on all sides, waves moving through the long grass as far as the eye could see. We passed goats on our way up and plenty of people. We’d hope for more seclusion on our next stop.
Overall it was a great workout with some steep trail that got the legs burning.
From there we packed in the car and headed North to Snowdonia National Park and home of the highest peak in Wales: Snowdon. Justin, Kevin, and I munched on peanut butter pretzel bites from a large tub. I navigated and Justin drove.
Targetting a designated campsite on my maps, I led us off the highway, down a narrow stone wall lined drive and through someone farm. We weren’t lost, we had found the campsite. Driving past the residence’s front door, we found the parking for camping. The camping area was an oversized lawn next to the river. We’d be sharing it with numerous campers and cows and sheep that milled about. The light was waning and we shooed away animals as we set up. I was glad to be in the company of two vets who had vast experience with farm animals. I personally was having nightmares of being trampled in the night. But they seemed unafraid so I adopted their sentiment. I introduced my mates to instant mashed potato SPAM burritos (a staple of mine from the PCT) , we shared a pot of baked beans, and all tucked in to sleep.
The next day we packed up our gear. Moved our car to an all day parking lot and started out. We were taking the Watkin’s Trail which was one of the less used and more difficult ascents. We immediately got lost after trying to take a shortcut. Needless to say, all of us were turned around and we spent an hour bushwacking in the wrong direction until it was plainly clear we weren’t anywhere we thought we were. We climbed to the ridge top and hoppon on some stone boundary walls to get a better look. We all disagreed on which way to go. It was surprisingly cordial and finally we agreed to get out the compass. That helped orient us to the peaks and we were back on our trail after following some sheep shit covered paths through thick bracken. From there it was glorious.
We didn’t see a single soul as we ascended into a deep valley between two peaks, the crumbling ruins of stone buildings our only company. We passed the Gladstone Rock where the Welsh Leader once rallied his people with a speech about earning Justice for Wales. In the barren valley floor surrounded by towering rock walls, it was fantastic to imagine the rugged welsh climbing to this point, dragging their kids, and cheering as an old man’s voice echoed through the rocks. With that a distant memory and solitude our only companion, I gave a shout and heard a hundred echos in the deep canyon of a valley before silence returned. It was a natural auditorium most certainly.
We moved on higher finally reaching the steep valley wall and a set of seemingly endless stone steps. We begin our climb and final ascent to Snowdown. We reached a ridgeline and, from there, we would be scrambling up rock and loose dirt to the top. It was a short scramble but one of sufficient danger to get the blood really flowing especially for those with aversions to heights. I’m one of those people and it was good practice for what was to come.
Climbing the final rise, hand and food over boulders, we were met by a flurry of civilization. One moment we were in complete isolation, hadn’t seen a soul all morning. The next, we were facing a train stop built to the top of the mountain that was unloading 50 people at a time. The peak of the mountain was swarmed with folks, all shapes and sizes, waddling and wagging their heavy cameras around their necks. We were ragged and sweat drenched, just beginning to find the sanctity and peace in nature’s companionship. Here, we were violently ripped from that alternate reality and back to this mini city on the hill.
We waded through the throng of people to begrudgingly touch the top of the peak. How anti-climatic?! We were all a bit let down. Most of all, Kevin’s mood was sour. His knee was killing him from the climbs the day before and this most rescent scramble. We discussed our options and Kevin decided to take the tram down and Justin and I would walk down and meet up later in the evening. Kevin would scout out a pub and inn while we pushed ourselves a bit more that day.
We made our plan in the enclosed restaurant and gift shop sitting near the top of the mountain. We bid adeiu to Kevin as he limped to the cable car. The attendants refused to fill our water bottles claiming they couldn’t vouch for the health of the water and therefore were forbidden by law to give out water. Mind numbing. Disgusted with the whole scene we were far too eager to get out of there. We had heard there was a nice ridge-walk on the way down with spectacular views. Our guidebooks actually described it as “probably the best ridge walk in the UK”. That sounded pleasant, we could run down and be with Kevin in no time.
The name of the ridge was Crib Goch, the same name of the peak at its apex. It started lovely enough, Justin and I jogged down a well worn trail. We didn’t go down long though until it leveled out and plateaued. The ridge began to narrow and before we knew it we were slowly scrambling along a harrowing knife’s edge with certain death drops on both sides. I was certain it would get easier ahead so we pressed on. It got worse. Steep and without a clear path, we struggled to find a safe way at times. Coming to a wall of rock we’d move around it to the left to find nothing but air and 100s of feet below us. To the right we’d find a narrow ledge that seemed the equivalent of walking a window ledge on a sky scraper.
To make matters worse, our backs were saddled with heavy and poorly packed backpacks. We had planned to camp somewhere on the mountain that night. With Kevin’s injury plans had changed. Now, clutching with white knuckles onto this knifes edge, the wind would pull and push at the heavy pack on my back. Further unnerving me was the fact that no one else was going down this. Others were coming up, giving us odd looks as we passed them or climbed around them lowering down on the slick rock. Well, it was clear we would be running down this.
Breathing deeply we took our time and slowly but surely navigated safely down to the base where our trail met up with the tourist trail. From there it was a jaunt to the road. We met a nice couple there who offered to give us a lift to our cars. From our car we went to find Kevin and recount our exciting afternoon over a couple pints.
We were ready for the castle portion of our journey. So the next morning it was North back into England and towards the West Coast. We targeted an island where we heard you could sleep in the ruins of a 14th century castle. We arrived at a tiny port town, parked the rig, and packed up for an evening adventure. A ferry would take us to the island and we walked out to the docks to find it.
We were greeted by a narrow long rotting pier and a tin can of a dingy proudly flying the skull and crossbones. The captain of the vessel assured us through his toothless grin that indeed this was the “Ferry” to Piel Island and Piel Castle. A funny lad, he chatted with us all the way across although I had no idea what he was saying.
We arrived and met the King and Queen of Piel Island – the owners of the pub and inn. They told us to camp wherever we’d like and come back for a pint and a good meal if we’d like. We had the island and castle to our selves aside from a row of four houses at the opposite end of the island from the castle. First order of business was a good dip and a better meal. We soaked in the warm waters of the shallow inlet around the island. Food and real ales followed. We met a fellow who was on his way back home after sailing solo around Ireland. We shared stories of glory and it turned out we were lunching with the ex-CEO of North Face UK. Just another outdoorsman.
When low tide came, from the suggestion of the owners, we took a walk across the foot sucking sand that had been ocean just hours before. It now connected us to another island and the mainland. We walked first to an uninhabited island known as sheep island, too overgrown for any comfortable exploring in our shoeless state. From there we headed to the South End where there was a Caravan Park and Pub. Thoughtlessly, walking through the caravan park we entered into a scene from Snatch:
We found the Public House where 11 year olds were sharing pints. We shared one our selves them made quick business to get back to our castle on the island before high tide came. Justin and I had brought a backpacking guitar and fiddle. We played in the ruins of the castle before heading to bed. It was a calm night with gorgeous oranges creeping through the ruins around us.
Lake District, SkaFell
Next stop, the highest peak in England: Scafell Pike. North again we went into the Lake District. Along the way scouting out small towns and pubs, looking for a picturesque spot to call home for the night. We made it all the way to the base of Scafell Pike finding the Whoolpack Inn in Eskdale. There was still daylight so we headed out on a hike bushwhacking to swim in a couple Tarns (a small mountain lake). After an hour or so of hard bushwhacking over soggy boggy ground, we found one Rocky Tarn to our liking. The heat of the hike in us, we cooled down with a swim. The light faded and we made our way back to our Inn to watch the World Cup and sip on real ales.
The next day our summits began. We drove to an established car park in Wasdale. From there it was arduous climbing up Lingmoll, from Lingmoll to Great End, Great End to Broad Crag, Broad Crag to Scafell Pike, Scafell Pike to Scafell. It was a day of blustery rainy weather and dark attitudes. None of us could agree on how fast to go or what routes to take so we spent most the day in disagreement. We battled eachother sparingly falling into silence, then battled our personal demons as we took turns charging first of one peak then another. By the 5th peak, my legs were shot. I could hike hard and long but the steepness of each ascent and descent was killing my joints, my knees and ankles were achy crunchy pain pits. We spread out, not talking to each other on the way day.
We were each out there for something different. That day it was clear. Although we didn’t celebrate each peak with glee, hardly handshakes, later that evening as we put the mountains in our rearview mirror we all came around to appreciating what a hard haul and great accomplishment we had made.
Scotland, Lock Moy, Ben Nevis, Knoydart
It was to Scotland from there. Justin and I said farewell to our friend Kevin who headed home on the train. We lingered in and near Glascow for a day. First we jogged up and down Ben Lomond (our first Munro). Then we sampled the town enjoying its wonderful shops and culinary treats. An asian fusion restaurant was a good break from the trail mix and pub burgers we had been eating.
From there we set out in search of ancestry. We are partly from the clan McIntosh which is a subclan of MackIntosh. The seat of the clan was on an island in a lake, Loch Moy, very near Loch Ness. It was on our way to some big mountains so we decided to take the detour. When we arrived, we couldn’t find Loch Moy. Consulting our maps, the lake was hidden by thick forest and the fences of private property. We refused to come this far and not sit in the seat of MacIntosh. So, we hopped the fence and snuck through the dence boggy forest. We found the edge of the lack and avoided seeing anyone else although we could tell by the tracks and dung on the ground someone definitely ran their horses through there regularly.
Reaching the lake edge, there weren’t many options. We could take pictures of the island from where we were…or we could swim. We took our shoes off and shirts and stashed them away. I hung my shirt from a tree so we could have a visual marker of where to swim on our way back. I sealed our camera in a ziploc bag and held it tightly in my left hand. The water was brisk. More cold than I anticipated in the beginning of July and it was hard to breath. With one hand in the air, I took a side stroke out into the channel. The wind blew little ways of redish water into my mouth. I spit them out catching my breath again as we swam. It was longer than I had thought at first glance and I was winded swimming this way. There was no choice but to keep going in my mind. I switched the backstroke and floated better.
Breathing hard we made it onto the forested island. Right away we saw ruins of an old structure. The foundation lay near the edge of the island and works its way around the perimeter. It would have taken up the entire island. It was not a large island, a couple hundred meters wide and long. We worked our way, shoeless, through the prickly overgrowth trying to avoid the spines of thistles. We reached a statue built from a reconstructed chimney with a plaque that bore the crest of MackIntosh, the symbol a wild looking cat with claws at the ready, the saying bold: Touch Not The Cat Bot A Glove.
We tromped around the island a bit more before swimming back towards our stuff. Justin carried the camera on the way back and I enjoyed a more leisurely swim. We snuck back across someone’s property and into our car.
The remainder of the trip had its mini stories, its mini epics. We climbed the highest peak in Scotland, Ben Nevis, with an early morning ascent up an exposed ridge shrouded in fog. We drove out to Knoydart, known as the last real wilderness in the UK. We battled the insanity of midges, of deep boggy trails, of drenching rains. We hiked a 30 mile day through the boggy stuff after sharing tea and breakfast in one of the most remote towns in the UK, Inverie. From there we were tuckered. He was ready to see his family, and I was content with the exercise and the time well spent bonding with my brother.
All in, it was a wonderful few weeks spent exploring what wilderness and challenge remains on the small island called Great Britain. There is plenty to be had and plenty to bring me back again, from the Isle of Skye to the many Munros, to the rolling vales of Wales.