TAC 50 Index
OK, it may only have been Arthur's Seat, but it was a new Marilyn and, more importantly, it was a significant summit after ten hill-less weeks. The views were not stunning but the nearby Pentlands were clear, the Ochils were a hazy mass and the Bishop and the Lomonds stood out to the north. Eastwards we could pick out North Berwick Law and the Bass Rock and further round the lumps of the Lammermuirs, where I had once run myself into the ground in search of a single TAC quiz point. We felt like exiles returning to our native land after many years of banishment.
For what heinous crime had we been banished? We might, just might, spread an unpleasant disease to the Highland sheep - a species which is slowly destroying our landscape in the name of profit or subsidy. "Hoofed locusts," John Muir called them. Then there are the deer. We are constantly informed that there are far too many of them, but to reduce their numbers by weakness through disease would not be sporting.
For weeks we have been fed misinformation and downright lies - from Comeback Code pamphlets telling us that "humans cannot catch foot and mouth disease", or Mr Fitba [aka former East Fife right-winger, Henry McLeish] himself telling us that the hills are "not closed". We have endured increasing frustration, occasionally almost boiling over in raw anger, only appeased by a trickle of woodland walks and hill corridors opening up. But we have endured it because of the invisible blackmail hanging over us that any breach of the regulations could become ammunition for the land "owners" at future access pleadings. Surely this is the last time hillgoers can be expected to bow down in meek compliance. We have played the game to their rules too many times; next time must be our turn.
The weekend before Easter I was on the hills for the first time in seven weeks. In that time I had done a bit more cycling than I might otherwise have done, and a bad dose of 'flu had provided some distraction, but it had been a frustrating period. The worst was looking west from the high ground south of Inverness towards snow-covered hills against a blue sky at a time when skiing was OK but hillwalking was forbidden. Now that some of the restrictions were being eased, the Gay Outdoor Club was able to meet at Ballater. On Saturday we did the circuit round Loch Muick from Lochnagar to Broad Cairn; on Sunday it was Culardoch and Carn Liath. Although the choice of hills was influenced by the foot and mouth closures, at least it did not affect our ability to follow the routes we wanted to.
The next weekend I was with a couple of friends on Beinn Dearg and the western Fannaichs, in poor weather. For Beinn Dearg there was the minor nuisance of a slightly longer approach through the forest than normal. The next day we were confronted with signs insisting that we follow one particular route and return the same way. Given the very strong westerly wind, it was certainly not the most appropriate route for the prevailing situation. There was also the annoyance of seeing a Keep Out sign on a path signposted by the Scottish Rights of Way Society.
If I believed that all these restrictions were justified, I would find it easier to accept them. Given the very slow rate at which hills are being opened up, and the apparent reluctance of the Scottish Executive to do anything more than publish a toothless "Comeback Code", I am very pessimistic about the prospect of anything like normality returning soon, or at all. I have been looking at the drafts of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the Land Reform Bill. The code looks reasonable, but would have no legal status. The draft bill is worse than useless as far as access is concerned. It would, in effect, give landowners the right to close off all or part of an estate by just putting up notices. In view of the reluctance of the majority of estates to allow access now, although the official advice is that there is only an infinitesimal risk of FMD being spread by hillwalkers, it seems likely that this power would be abused by some landowners. There is also the risk that the landowners will use the outbreak to push for changes in the bill which restrict access still further. In that case, the effects of this outbreak could be with us for many years.
There's something you should know: these days I am mostly a mountain biker. I cut my hillwalking teeth in the four years I spent at university in St Andrews but now live in Leeds, so have had to find another outdoor sport. Trying to do Scotland in a normal weekend is just mad and while the Lakes or Snowdonia are only about two hours away and have fine mountain scenery and solitude, it's difficult to get both at the same time. The Pennines and North York Moors are much closer - nice enough for an occasional walk, but really not that inspiring. But a bike lets me cover at least twice the distance I would walk, and the tracks we ride often add a lot of interest and challenge to the day as well.
It's fair to say that FMD is affecting me less as a biker than as a walker. At first I did some road riding but the novelty soon wore off. Now we seem to be involved in an un-dignified chase of information on which areas have re-opened and making the best of what's available. It's the open moorland crossings, long descents into valleys and climbs out the other side that I enjoy most and there's been none of that for a couple of months. Planned hillwalking trips have fallen by the wayside: an Easter get-together with university friends in the Lakes and a weekend in Glen Roy in early March. I've not been up a hill since January and have not done a proper mountain bike ride since the end of February. It's starting to show. On the positive side I've worn out fewer bits of bike and my knees haven't felt this good for years. The downside is that I feel less fit than two months ago and go to work on a Monday feeling less refreshed than after a proper outdoor fix.
Locally only the Dales have seen anything more than isolated cases, but still the prospects for restoration of access look bleak. Some areas have reopened - generally in or around towns and in forests with no livestock - but there is a clear reluctance to reopen moorland for the time being. Unless things get better soon, I'll be redefining what seems a sensible distance to travel for a weekend away...
It was the first weekend after Ross Finnie's "Stay away from the countryside (unless you are a skier)" speech. We went up north anyway - we were planning to ski but took the walking gear. There were so many conflicting stories that we wanted to see for ourselves what the true position was. It turned out to be an almost surreal ex-perience. In the space of a few days Scotland really had closed. The roads and laybys normally filled with walkers/climbers were deserted. Every conceivable point of access to hills in the A9, Loch Laggan and Glen Coe areas had a Keep Out notice. We began to feel like fugitives on the run, expecting to be stopped and interrogated about why we had ice axes and boots or interrupted by a radio newsflash that the police were seeking information about an unconfirmed sighting of two walkers in the Highlands.
We drove into the Creag Meagaidh car park to read the notice and couldn't help looking about nervously and reversing out quickly. We stayed at the Tulloch bunkhouse. The place had been full but the entire booking had been cancelled as had all midweek bookings. It is these people I feel sorry for. They will not get any compensation. The restrictions that have been and are still being imposed in the Highlands are farcical. What amazed me was the way it was all unquestioningly accepted. Full marks to the guide Alan Kimber for challenging the closures. He is largely responsible for the early opening-up of access rights in the Fort William area. His website (www.guide.u-net.com) is well worth a look for sensible debate and some outrageous stories about the recent access battles.
Finally, is there anything more ridiculous than the sign on the col between Beinn Narnain and Beinn Ime, telling people that they can't go on to Beinn Ime? I hope the sheep and the deer can read.
As the countryside shutdown spread, our business, like most others in tourist areas, began to suffer. Plans to recruit two members of staff for the new season were shelved as the sales dried up and we reluctantly took the decision to close our Aberfeldy shop on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Early dismay turned to anger during the outrageous "skiers only" period as it became obvious that walkers and climbers would have to wait at the back of the queue for restrictions to be lifted. Meetings took place, pressure groups were formed, letters and emails were sent, with varying success; but the seeds of unfairness and inconsistency that continue to the present were sown during that time.
For example, as I write this (3 May), the NTS continues to restrict access to Ben Lawers several weeks after opening most of their other mountain properties. On 1 May they opened the nature trail enabling people to walk to over 2000ft, while keeping the summit snows out of bounds. Maybe the sheep have a secret new ski resort up there!
Perthshire has more than its share of access blackspots at the best of times, so we were grateful to the JMT and Atholl Estates for getting the ball rolling in our area by opening Schiehallion and Beinn Dearg at Easter. Credit is also due to TAC's Ed and Cameron McNeish among others for continuing to bang the access drum through the crisis.
Most worrying for the longer term is that large tracts of land could be closed on a regular basis when the potential loopholes in the access bill currently before the Scottish parliament are exploited by certain landowners. I would urge readers who aren't already MCofS or Scottish Rights of Way Society members to consider joining. We might all need them to speak with as strong a voice as possible in the future.
This morning I should have left Eskdale youth hostel to cross the Walna Scar road on my mountain bike. Instead, I'm sitting in a train on my way to a meeting of my teachers' union, a meeting I would have been blissfully unaware of had not this FMD disaster forced me to cancel my trip to the Lakes. So yes, I feel quite strongly about the state this epidemic has landed us in. Or, to put it more correctly, the state "the powers that be" have landed us in.
I guess TAC is not quite the place to indulge in a treatise on agricultural policy, but let me say this: I remember as a child hearing announcements on the farmers' news of an FMD outbreak somewhere. Some signs were put in place, and everybody went about their business "as usual". Just a fact of life and nothing to worry unduly about. So apparently not every change is a change for the better.
From the train window I can see the red-and-white plastic tape, cordoning off any footpath in sight. Yes, we do have FMD in Holland as well, and the response has been as heavy-handed as in the UK - although we have been spared those horrible smoking pyres of carcasses.
Nature conservancy agencies have been falling over each other to comply with government requests to close off any patch of woodland and any track to walkers and cyclists alike. (If quizzed, they say they "have been order-ed".) These closures don't apply to the tarmac roads used by 30-ton lorries ferrying slurry from contaminated areas to be dumped on arable land somewhere near where we live ... But that's "business as usual", of course.
Physical and spiritual well-being can apparently be put on hold for some time, though. I'm trying to keep spirits up by doing some road cycling, pottering about in the garden (although Lidy is a far better gardener than I will ever be) and reading on the internet about the progress (albeit painfully slow) being made in opening up the Scottish hills.
Oh, yes - of late some areas over here have been opened up again - at least officially. Go there and you'll still find the ubiquitous red-and-white tape (somebody must be making a fortune in selling that stuff) and plastic-ised signs forbidding anybody to enter. So Lidy and I have booked a short trip to London in a few weeks' time: we might be able to get some walking done in Kew Gardens.
Here in Lancaster we're right next to infected farms, eg at Halton, just outside the city. Also, south Lakeland, through which I travel Mon-Fri by train, is severely affected. All footpaths are closed, together with the Lancaster Canal Towpath and part of the Lune Valley cycletrack / footpath - an old railway track. Even some urban public footpaths have closure notices, which is infuriating. One 50-yard path near our home is closed as it goes along the edge of a field, but there are never any animals in it. There appears to have been no real thought as to which paths could reopen, just a blanket ban.
I can live without hillwalking for a while as I have other interests, eg cycling. And we moved house five months ago, so there are plenty of house projects to do. We're focusing on activities other than hills and countryside. Our regular May Day weekend's camping meet at Sedbergh is off. Normally I would get a walk done on the surrounding fells. Instead, and unusually, our reaction is to do city tours - maybe Durham and Newcastle instead. We had a day in Chester in March with a walk on the city walls.
We have an annual charity fundraising roadwalk - the 40-mile Keswick-Barrow walk - and I'm on the organising committee. This passes close to infected areas in south Lakeland. We're OK on the tarmac lanes, but various car parks, including farmers' fields, may not be available. We've already put the event back two months, hoping the situation will be clearer by July: we'll need to make a go/ no-go decision by late May. We have about 850 walkers and 100 teams plus lots of local community support to organise. Troubled times indeed; this walk is in its 35th year and wasn't affected by the 1967-68 outbreak.
The latest news is that the cross-bay walk can no longer be done. This is a walk across the quicksands of Morecambe Bay and wading through the River Kent with the Queen's guide, who has known the intricacies of the ever-changing route for decades. The walk has been closed because the coastlines on both sides are closed. This has caused my daughter's school PTA a lot of stress as they were banking on doing the cross-bay as a sponsored walk, and as a major PTA fund-raiser this year.
Weekend 28-29 April update: Sat: cycled from Arnside to Dalton-in-Furness on lanes entirely avoiding the A590. I crossed many disinfectant mats in the south Lakes farmland, rigidly following the rules and keeping to the tarmac. But a couple of lanes were closed, altering my route. Sun: an hour's sprint up the River Lune cyclepath to see how far it is open. Answer: from the city to Crook o'Lune - a big improvement on Easter weekend - things are looking up! At Crook o'Lune there is a fine view of the valley and Ingleborough (as painted by Turner) - we remember the days when we used to be able to climb this hill!
Summer holidays? We're off overseas.
At the age of 61 I have gradually been reducing my winter hillwalking which I have replaced with cycling. On 11 April, well after publication of the Comeback Code, two of us set off from Glasgow to Irvine on the long-established cycle track. Imagine my horror when, north of Lochwinnoch, we met a cow wandering along the track! Giving the potential disease-carrier a very wide berth, we proceeded to Lochwinnoch where we were called over by a Muirshiel Park Ranger who wanted to know where we had come from. Naturally we pressed upon him our concern that we had been put in such danger by the loose cow which gave him something else to think about. His job appeared to be preventing anyone coming from the main road into the car park that services the loch. It defied belief that the day before the Easter break this very popular venue was closed. The adjacent public park was mobbed with children. On parts of the cycle track further south there were remnants of Keep Out tapes lying about. There were no Welcome Back signs so it was impossible to say whether these had been discarded officially or whether local kids had taken the law into their own hands.
(Ed. - Willy has also noted a link between FMD and the performance of Celtic FC: they won the European Cup in 1967 and had a pretty good domestic season in 2001. So maybe we should be blaming the Pope for the disease.)
There are pleasures in urban walking. More people to speak to. "When I was commanding an RAF base in Persia in 1944," said a man on Craighouse Hill in a leafy part of Edinburgh who wanted to talk about Biblical arch-aeology. More architecture to ogle. Fewer midges. So I've been walking more in the evenings. And I had a Saturday in East Kilbride, trying to avoid dull carriageways. There was one wonderfully comic sequence, the end of a football match between two teams of eight-year-olds. It went to penalties, and neither side could score. You don't get that on Argyll's Bowling Green.
The hill-running community took an early stance in all this to advocate a responsible approach by runners and race organisers. This involved recommending cancellation of all races and all training on farmland and uplands. We were keen not to antagonise Scottish landowners with whom we have always had a good relationship and on whom we depend for our races to go ahead each year.
The special thing about hill running is that it focuses folk from all over the UK into one part of the country at a time (more so than does skiing or hillwalking). So if there is any risk of people spreading the disease ... (mind you, I have never seen anything in writing proving that non-agricultural folk have spread FMD).
More recently, things have relaxed rather and some races are going ahead under "risk assessments". The Scottish Executive has asked each sport's governing body to insist on these, but there is no central audit. In other words, the Exec is passing the buck on making any decision, and those sports with the most to lose financially (eg skiing) have done what they liked.
To cut a long story short, we would look stupid were there to be an outbreak in an area where there had recently been a race, so it's best to err on the side of caution. That said, many races will no doubt be getting underway soon so long as folk promise to wash their kit thoroughly before and after.
TAC 50 Index