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Giving up work meant that I was running out of excuses for not mopping up the remaining awkward islands (Wight, Man, Eigg, Canna). A funeral at the end of March gave me the spur to take a break from Marhofn duties and spend a few days rally-driving around the south of England. Overall I found it a fairly dispiriting mudfest, and I see why some people choose to make much longer walks out of these hills, as the shortest route from road to summit rarely offered a satisfying walk. As in 32C, it seemed that there was always something to spoil a walk even if it was good in parts.
Wills Neck had an excuse, as I'd just been to a funeral, it was dismally damp and dull and getting dark, and I still needed to find somewhere to spend the night. Selworthy Beacon was ok, and so was Dunkery Beacon, but that was a repeat of the only hill I can remember climbing with my parents (in 1981) so it was a somewhat doleful stroll. Periton Hill offered a frustrating tree-thrash to tarnish an otherwise pleasant approach, whereas Staple Hill turned out to be better than expected, probably because the trig was exactly where it was meant to be.
I have fond memories of Dorset from a family holiday there in 1969, and of trips to the Isle of Wight from Southampton in the early 1970s when I was working for the OS, but this time its charms largely eluded me. There was nothing wrong with Pilsdon Pen except the fact that it doesn't count any more. It would make a fine venue for a game of trig cricket. Its replacement, Lewesdon Hill, was lovely in the parts that weren't a mudbath. Hardown Hill needs a good dose of gorse-rot and heather-blight on its summit. I'm sure Swyre Head would have been improved by a sea view, while Nine Barrow Down had the biggest expanse of unavoidable cow-mud that I can remember since Fiarach in 1997, though there was a good path beyond it. No complaints about the pub in Corfe Castle though. After that things went downhill with a dreich, depressing and expensive few hours on the Isle of Wight. Tennyson Down in 1969 was my second-ever hill so a revisit was required, but the blue skies and waves I remembered were invisible, though the sea was eerily audible. Brighstone Down, like Sgor Gaibhre in 3C, is misspelled in RHB, so it's a hill I've known about for a long time, but I didn't know that its highest point is occupied by head-high gorse. I was aware that St Boniface Down posed a problem, but I didn't realise that the fenced-off area was so large or so depressing. Still, the damp mist meant that there was no-one to see me climb the awkward gate and wander over the man-made moraines.
A bleak B&B in a bleak Portsmouth suburb is not the most inspiring way to start a tour of Sussex and Kent summits, but at least I got an early start for my second eight-in-a-day (after 32C). Butser Hill might have been ok if I'd been able to see it, but at least the compass came in handy. Black Down was pleasant enough in a damply atmospheric, woody, pathy kind of way, but what a daft place to put a trig point. Chanctonbury Ring offered the nearest thing to hillwalking since Dunkery Beacon; a relaxing and enjoyable stroll along a mostly good path, with a feeling of space and height absent from all the intervening hills, and a summit mound much improved by a recent visit from the gorse-mower flame-thrower man.
And so to Crowborough, again, where I managed to get wetter than on any other hill during the week. In 1992 I had inadvertently parked on what subsequently became the summit, so I thought I had better go back and park on it deliberately. Seeing the wheelie bins gave me the same little thrill normally reserved for trig points. Then it was back over the main road to revisit the trig, climb the reservoirs and soak in the summit views. I know this sounds perverse, but for some reason I enjoyed the time I spent wandering around the reservoir compound in the rain. In this hidden enclave in the middle of an ordinary town, I felt some strange affinity with all the other baggers who had been there in the intervening 18 years. Climbing the four metres up the grassy banks of the twin reservoirs felt more like climbing a hill than parking by the wheelie bins, so I had a go at persuading the ethics committee that one of the reservoirs should count as the summit. After weeks of deliberation, the DoBH team concluded that grassy reservoirs are more like buildings than hills so they don't count. Pity, but I can see why. However, instead of an annoying anomaly, I now regard Crowborough as a summit to be treasured. It's one to separate the bagger from the mere hillwalker. You might be able to claim you're just out for a walk if you happen to find yourself on top of, say, Billinge or Bardon or Bishop Wilton, but once you've summited Crowborough then it's time to drop any self-deception and let guilt turn to pleasure (unless you're one of those unfortunates who can't appreciate absurdity).
Pleasure was not much in evidence on the long drive from Crowborough to Cheriton Hill, apart from the pleasure gained from working through my CDs in alphabetical order of album title (still only up to F after three years). The best survival tactic was to not question what I was doing but just get on with it, and by concentrating on the task in hand I narrowly managed to avoid France. On Cheriton Hill a rare circular (ish) walk ensured a traverse over wherever the summit might be, and I was impressed that the gardens of the two houses nearest the trig point had a green woodpecker (wild) and a green peacock (tame), as alluded to in last year's six-word summary. The best feature of the dismal Detling Hill was undoubtedly its fine parking facilities, then it was on and on and on to the two Botleys, via a monsoon in Sevenoaks and a few diversions, just when it's getting dark and you don't need them. Once again I managed to get a summit to myself on a rainy night, but I bottled out of the Botley tower fence and had to be content with a foothold halfway up the gate and a plod round the 20cm-high perimeter ridge, yet even that was rubbish, as the circuit was blocked and I had to return the same way.
It had been many years since I'd been on the M25, and I'm in no hurry to return, but it wasn't the traffic jam that I'd half expected, so I managed to get all the way to the Tring ring road by 11pm. It was too late to look for a B&B and the hotels were extortionate, so I drove all the way round Wendover Woods failing to find a suitable spot to park up and doss down for the night and trying to figure out what to do. It took me a while to come up with the obvious answer, which was to dump the car by one of the barriers that stop people like me driving into the woods at night, and do the hill in the dark.
This turned an ordinary walk into an atmospheric and memorable one, and I enjoyed poking around the various paths by torchlight in a spell of non-rain, looking for the summit marker stone and other potential highpoints.
Freed from the need to hang around in the south, I simply carried on driving north until I got near Lincolnshire, then dozed for a couple of hours in a lay-by outside Newark-on-Trent. And so my final Marilyn south of the border turned out to be the third-lowest on the mainland, the mighty Normanby Top (The Wolds), at about 8:30 on a damp grey Tuesday morning in March. The masts looming over the flat muddy fields, the ragged hedges and the half-hidden trig point all seemed to encapsulate the feel of most of the summits of the previous few days, and offered a suitably anti-climactic ending to the quest. I know I could have done it differently, in better weather by better routes and in better company, but I was in bagging mode and did what needed to be done, just like all those people who drive a long way up to the Highlands and climb the summits they need whatever the conditions. It had been 12 years since I'd last been to the south of England, and I didn't know when I'd be back. I just hope that the surveyors steer clear of Littleton Down for several years yet.
A few days after driving back to Scotland I was getting hill therapy from a stunning day on Beinn a'Chochuill, Beinn Eunaich and Meall Copagach (3C), and my faith in hillwalking and bagging was duly restored. The Isle of Man in April was a thoroughly enjoyable romp, helped by sunny days and a sunny companion (Eric Young), then a week in Lairg in May offered just enough good weather to make mopping up the required ten hills a pleasure. Ben Griam Mor and Beg were as good as expected, finishing with a surreal hour in the tiny bar of the Garvault Hotel watching Chelsea beat Wigan 8-0 on a portable TV, in the company of a keen angler and Chelsea supporter from the Czech Republic who lived in Kinbrace, while Eric enticed Iain Brown up a hill I didn't need. An even better day justified the long drive north-west for An Socach (good) and Ben Dreavie (very good), while Iain managed to do Farrmheall and then get a lift back to Loch More for the return to base. A day with Dave Tyson, on his way south from Poolewe, for Meall Liath Choire and Cnoc Damh cleaned up region 15, leaving the Ullapool week in June free to repeat great hills climbed many years previously. And so the excellent Beinn Stumanadh became my final Marilyn in the far north. In the absence of a nearby pub to celebrate, I had little choice but to carry on up the Hump of Cnoc Craggie while the other two went up Ben Hiel.
With the Wall approaching I needed to do a bit of tidying up, so on the way south a diversion through Nairn and Forres allowed me to dismiss the Wangie bogey. Assisted by a Get-a-map print-out and some careful pace-counting, finding the trig was so easy, even without compass or GPS, that I wondered how I had made such an Arnside Knott of it previously.
Reaching T-8 by mid May left me plenty of time for reeling in the remaining feasible five, yet somehow I managed to mess it up. Once the largely tedious World Cup was over, I got round to booking a log cabin on Eigg for a night, but that had to be cancelled at the last minute, then I kept waiting and waiting for some settled weather in the west. I didn't mind too much doing Butser and Botley in mist and murk, but I was pretty keen to see An Sgurr. A good forecast finally arrived in late August, but this was just three days before I was due in Shropshire for a nephew's wedding. I didn't want any more rushing, but that's how it ended up. The 11am summer sailing from Arisaig to Eigg allows five hours ashore, but it was 15 minutes less by the time we'd finished detouring around the Atlantic trying to glimpse black things that may have been porpoises, as though we were on a pleasure cruise. CalMac don't mess about like that, I thought. So I raced off the boat past the busking piper towards An Sgurr. The direct approach looked tricky so I had to follow the usual route, pausing for about five seconds to take pictures. I was surprised to find 20 young people hanging around and hogging the summit, but at least it gave me a few minutes to rest and enjoy the view.
The direct route north-east to Sgorr an Fharaidh looked an unappealing mix of vertical cliff, deep heather and forest, so it was back down the path and then a march along the tarmac. I would have tried to hitch, had a single vehicle passed, but it's a quiet road. Heading uphill again, the time I had in hand soon leaked away amongst the tussocks and the pauses for breath. At the summit I judged I was still on course to catch the boat, but it meant missing the trig on Dunan Thalasgair, 1km to the north and 4m lower. However, I hadn't fully realised the difficulties of getting down west from the Roraima-like plateau. This is one place where OS crag symbols are understated. I jogged along the cliff edge, peering over every minute or so, while also keeping an eye open for the minibus back to the pier, which I knew was due soon. I could easily see the road at Cleadale but reaching it seemed impossible.
The cliff-edge path petered out into tussock and heather as I hurried along. I could see the angle of cliff ease off further south, but the slopes below were coated in gorse and bushes that looked impenetrable. I passed a small wooden post and looked down a fierce gully, but thought I'd rather miss the boat than come to grief there, so carried on south. But then I saw the minibus setting off, so I struggled back up to the post and clawed my way down the gully using hands and backside, half-stumbling, half-sliding. I managed to plunge down safely and was about 50 metres above the road by the time the bus went past. I waved and waved, but on it went. No bus meant no boat, unless I could do 5km in about 30 minutes. Not a disaster, it just meant missing either Canna or the wedding. Yet, wonder of eiggy wonders, the bus turned off the road down a rough track, presumably to pick up a pre-booked passenger. It had to come back the same way, which gave me an extra two minutes to pick my way through the bracken and the line of washing in someone's garden and pop out on the road, in as bedraggled a state as I'd been in since a day on Brandy Hill and Middleton Hill in 2006.
No bus stop of course, but I figured the bus would have to stop if I stood in the road and aimed my walking pole at the driver. So instead of a bed in a shed I had a beer on the seawall outside the cafe while waiting for the Shearwater to return. Two of the 40-odd other day-trippers had also been up An Sgurr but not Sgorr an Fharaidh, so the lucky non-bagging pair had enjoyed a relaxed stroll instead of flogging themselves to death in the merciless heat.
I did make it to Canna the next day and I did make it to Shropshire the day after, but it was not exactly easy going. Eric had assured me that on Wednesdays the CalMac ferry left ample time for a stroll up Carn a'Ghaill. Not, however, if the ferry leaves Mallaig 40 minutes late. Apparently it was waiting for a train (since when did we have an integrated transport system?). And not if it makes up that 40 minutes by cutting the time docked at Canna from 120 to 80 minutes. So it was another race against time but without the vertical gully, and I made it back on board with five minutes to spare. I resented having to rush again, but I was sort of pleased that the ferry was leaving on time, as I was thinking I might have time for another hill in the evening. I was less pleased when, ten minutes out from Canna, the tannoy announced that we were turning around to go back and pick up a passenger who had missed the boat. Grrrr. I wouldn't have minded so much if the silly sod had actually been up the hill, but no he'd just been strolling along the front, admiring his navel.
I'd been moving so quickly that I hadn't really noticed just how still and dank and midgy it had become, until I parked near Glen Mama farm (between Arisaig and Lochailort) and got out of the car. It was just after 6pm and it was horrible. I could have just got back in and driven home, but I thought it would save me a long drive another time, and a lot of diesel, if I just got on with it now. So it was mainly for the good of the planet that once again I was in rush mode as I headed along the Gleann Mama path to Loch Mama through dense clouds of tiny insects. It was still and it was hot and I just couldn't walk quickly enough to escape the little bleeders. At 574m, Beinn nan Cabar is not exactly a roadside quickie, but I reckoned that once I was past the loch and heading up the hill itself then the stickyness and midgyness would diminish. I was wrong again, but at least I didn't have a boat to catch. Mamma mia, it was hard work.
Potentially good hill I felt, though by the time I finally made it to the summit I couldn't see it too clearly through the rivers of sweat, the approaching dusk and of course the clouds of midges that had followed me all the way.
And so it was that, at about 20:10 on 1 September 2010, I reached 1550. Not one of my most enjoyable ascents perhaps, but satisfying in a kind of dig-deep-keep-going-you-can-do-it sort of way. I had recently read Nando Parrado's book 'Miracle in the Andes' about living in a crashed plane for ten weeks with nothing to eat except a chocolate peanut and the dead bodies of his friends and family, followed by a ten-day trek across the mountains and icefields of the high Andes, wearing rugby boots, eating only rotting human flesh and surviving the freezing nights in a sleeping bag made from plane seat covers, so I wasn't going to let a few billion midges stop me. The descent was relatively easy, apart from the boulders and the tussocks and the wildlife and the missed path and the river crossing in the dark. Then it was a simple three-hour drive home. After the first hour the car was so midge-free that I was able to shut the windows.
So that gave me four new hills in two days and left me four months to pick up the remaining one, Ben Aigan near Rothes. I didn't quite manage it, what with leaving it until December and then finding that Perthshire was buried under snow for the whole month. Ah well, it gave me one more to look forward to in 2011. And I'm not in any rush.
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