Sunday, 30 December 2018

Islay: walking to Solam and seeing an Eagle

One of the outdoor highlights of my year was a walk I did on Islay back in May with my son/long distance walking companion Billy. We have previously walked up to the island's highest point (Beinn Bheigier), as well as walking to the highest point on England’s south coast (Golden Cap in in West Dorset) among other places.

But our most difficult walk so far was in search of Solam, an abandoned settlement in the hills north of  Ardbeg. It is a walk I have done a number of times and have always found both frustrating and rewarding. I’ve never managed to locate the same places each time and I’ve always got lost at some point.

My first visit was way back in 1984 when my dad, who came  from that part of Islay, led my family over the hills from Callumkill – the farm where my grandparents lived and worked. My memory of that visit is trekking through boggy ground on a hot summer’s day while my dad kept promising “It must be over that next hill”. What we did find eventually, concealed in a hillside, was Tobar  na Dabhaich (well of the hollow). Also known as Saint Michael's Well, my father told me that it was a place where people visited for good luck when they got married, and indeed there were at least two horseshoes above in the rock when we found it, one old and rusted and one seemingly fairly recent with ribbon attached. I believe there were also coins in the water. The well also seems to have been the water supply for a nearby settlement reputed in Islay folklore to have been an abandoned plague village. Some trace of its buildings can apparently be seen near the well... if you can find it.

Me and my sister at the well in 1984 - you can just about make out horseshoes in rock above

In 2005 I tried to find the well again with 'clear' directions from my uncle who lives nearby. Not wanting to repeat my dad’s experience of searching in the company of increasingly tired children, I thought it would be best if I went exploring on my own first. The idea was that having found the well and remembered the route I would then return with the rest of the family later on – it would be so easy! I had the ordinance survey map for the area in my back pocket but unbeknownst to me it fell out as I was climbing over the first gate. The weather turned from sunny to cloudy and I found myself lost in bracken that was as tall as me. I had no map and no phone signal, I failed to find the well or any ruins but I did end up at a lonely Loch Larnan with just me and a couple of swans. The Loch feeds Ardbeg distillery with fresh water via the Ardbeg Burn, a stream which you will need to cross to get to Solam - there is a bridge but if you can't even find that you may not get far. When I stumbled across a dead cow lying across the path I took it as a sign to return home

This year with Billy I had the advantage of GPS with the OS map on my phone. The first part is easy enough anyway - you start at the crossroads where the road into Ardbeg diverges from the main road (you can park car/bike in distillery car park). On the north east corner of this there is a single house with a track to its right which you follow for as far as it goes.

After a field, the track turns left, and ends up at the bottom of a hill with a ruin on top of it You can either follow the track round to the left to skirt the hill or climb over it via the ruin.

We did the latter. This is marked on the map as 'Airigh Nam Beist' (Shelter of the beast) - the name given to a popular bottling of Ardbeg whisky.

From the bottom of this hill you head across to the bridge across the Ardbeg Burn. After this things got very muddy and we soon got lost. The phone ran out of power eventually and of course in the hills the signal was patchy. The Strava map for this part of our walk before the phone gave out shows that we were walking round in circles some of the time. The low ground there is very marshy, it’s difficult – probably impossible – to avoid getting your feet wet. Once again I failed to find the well!

What we did stumble across was remarkable though. Between us we saw three Adders, recognisable by the zigzag pattern on their backs. That was slightly alarming as you would clearly be in trouble up in the hills with a poisonous snake bite. But as we were scouring the hills for the well a Golden Eagle flew out a few metres in front of us. I believe it was nesting in the rocks, we could hear the young ones in the nest. I’ve only ever seen a (presumed) eagle in the distance before, up close there is nothing like it with its a huge wingspan.

We ended up at the ruin of a house at Solam. This is not one of the supposed 'plague village' remains near the well, but there is a sign here telling its story.

The sign telling the story of the 'plague village' - the legend is that the villagers became infected as a result of a gift of a mother of pearl necklace from a shipwrecked sailor. Food was left out for the quarantined villagers until they all died (see here for more discussion about this story - there may be truth in it but very unlikely that this happened in 18th century.

The way back was not so bad. The ruined house is next to the boundary wall for the Callumkill estate, you can see the building marked on the map next to the letter 'm' in Solam on OS Map (extract below). From there there is a fairly direct path back though not as easy as it looks on map - we got our feet wet again but were passed caring by then.

Sometimes the best journeys are those which don’t reach their intended destination but which find something unexpected along the way. I can't leave detailed instructions for this walk. My various misadventures have made me wonder if we are really meant to find everything there- out in the lonely country it’s not hard to believe in fairies or other mysteries! So do go and explore but take care... and maybe wear wellies.

See also-

Islay running posts:

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Record Sleeve Athletics (13): Rodney Franklin

It's been a while since I discovered an athletics-themed album sleeve, but stumbled across another one this week while browsing through a record stall in Shoreditch..

American jazz/funk pianist and composer Rodney Franklin is best known in the UK for his 1980 top ten hit 'The Groove'. His 1984 album Marathon has him running through a rocky landscape, albeit with a somewhat unorthodox stride.

The title track is an electro-funk instrumental

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Oxford Outdoor Swimming

The rivers of Oxford and its surrounding countryside must have nearly as much literary history flowing in them as water, perhaps nowhere more so than at Port Meadow to the north/west of the city. Most famously Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) is said to have begun telling what became the Alice in Wonderland stories on a boat to Port Meadow with Alice Liddell and her sisters in 1862.

Gerard Manley Hopkins bemoaned the 1879 felling of trees overlooking Port Meadow in his early environmentalist poem 'Binsey Poplars': 'All felled, felled, are all felled...Not spared, not one / That dandled a sandalled / Shadow that swam or sank / On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank'. Most recently, Philip Pulman has recently centred his Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage '3 miles up the river Thames from the centre of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges… contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow'.

In fact the hero of the novel lives, in a different version of our universe, at the Trout Inn - an actual pub next to the Thames at Wolvercote dating back to the 17th century. And it was here back in September that we parked in the car park to swim in the river (as it turned out we could also have parked at the Port Meadow Godstow Car Park a few hundred metres away across the bridge on the meadow side of the river).

This is the first year I've embraced outdoor swimming, trying to keep up with Jools who has led me round the country in search of wild water adventures. At Port Meadow we had a quick dip in the river - at its north west corner it is actually the Wolvercote Mill Stream next to the meadow, flowing to rejoin the Thames from which it draws it water (it once powered the paper mill at Wolvercote which supplied paper to the Oxford University Press).

Just across the old Wolvercote toll bridge there is a rope swing on the stream. We actually got in just a bit further along. The stream was shallow in September, but suitable for breast stroke.

We also checked out Oxford's fine heated outdoor pool - Hinksey Pool dates back to the 1930s and began life as the filter beds of the city waterworks. It's about twenty minutes walk from the city centre, where we went afterwards to check out the 'Spellbound: magic, ritual and witchcraft' exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum.