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Monday, 28 December 2020

The Yorkshire Story of the Creation

Yesterday, blogger Yorkshire Pudding complained about a scurrilous postcard purporting to epitomise the character of Yorkshire people. This moves me to set the record straight with this account disclosed by a work colleague some years ago.

The Yorkshire Story of the Creation

Recently, the Bishop of Oxford denounced attacks by creationists on the teaching in schools of the scientific facts about the evolution of life on Earth. He says that the attackers are bringing religion into disrepute by pretending that the theory of evolution is a ‘faith position’ on an equal footing to the biblical story of the creation.

Traditionally, the Anglican Church has relied on Archbishops and Synods to demarcate the boundaries of science and religion, especially the Archbishop of York. The latter is, however, keeping a dignified silence. You may be puzzled by this, but to those of us who know how the county of York was really created there is no puzzle at all. The Archbishop is simply being diplomatic and discreet. He knows exactly how Yorkshire was created.

It came about during a particularly dull February when God himself was overcome by existential ennui. God went missing for six days, but on the seventh day the Archangel Gabriel found him resting contentedly.

“Where have you been, Lord, and what have you been doing?” asked the worried angel.

“I have created a planet called Earth, a place of wonderful contrast and balance,” declared God with a serene smile.

“Contrast and balance?” queried the bemused Gabriel. So God explained.

“That part there in the North of America is very wealthy, and in the South, there, I established great poverty. Over there, I have put a continent of white earthlings, while down there is a continent of black folks…” God described all the continents and peoples to Gabriel, showing him which parts were hot, which were covered in ice, where it was flat and where it was mountainous. Gabriel was almightily impressed. Pointing to a particularly attractive area of England he asked “And what’s that?”

“Ah,” said God. “That is my own county of Yorkshire, the most glorious place on Earth. There I made beautiful lakes, streams, rivers and hills. Its people make great music, fine architecture, ingenious products. I made them at once modest, intelligent, witty and giants of sport. They are forever kind and hard-working, and wonderfully articulate. They are known throughout the earth as diplomats, peace-makers, and captains of industry, finance and commerce.”

Gabriel, gasping in admiration, was nevertheless puzzled. “But what about the balance, Lord? You said that your Earth is a place of contrast and balance!”

“Indeed,” said God, smiling and nodding sagely. He wiped his brow on his sleeve and pulled Gabriel gently to face the West. “Now let me tell you about Lancashire …”

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

EQUAL RIGHTS FOR TOES!

About thirty years ago, a John Phillips pointed out in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine  (1991, vol. 324, no. 7, p.497) that while the fingers all have Latinate names, no such distinction had been given to the toes except for the big toe or hallux. The others were simply numbered.

To remind you, the names of the digits of the hand are:

  • Thumb - digitus pollicis
  • Index Finger - digitus indicis
  • Middle Finger - digitus medius 
  • Ring Finger - digitus annularis
  • Little Finger - digitus minimus

To rectify this, and to preclude anatomical ambiguity in clinical situations, he proposed the toes be given the following names:

  • Big Toe or Hallux - porcellus fori
  • Second Toe - porcellus domi
  • Third Toe - porcellus carnivorus
  • Fourth Toe - porcellus non voratus
  • Fifth Toe - porcellus plorans domum

 Quod conservis callidus.

Saturday, 19 December 2020

Don’t They Know It’s Christmas Time?









If you are not seeing the YouTube video after the 7 photographs of flowers blooming unseasonally in our garden, here is the link: https://youtu.be/xjG_VB-la7o

 

Monday, 14 December 2020

Colourisation

I have been playing with colourisation tools. No, not paints and crayons, but software that colours black and white photographs automatically. It uses “artificial intelligence” and “deep learning” through “electronic neural networks” “trained” on millions of colour photographs. 

“Wow! Fantastic!” one might say, but having once worked on the periphery of a team of artificial intelligence researchers, I remain sceptical. I used to go from “Wow! Fantastic!” to “Is that all it is?” in the space of a forty-five minute seminar. 

Carried out manually, colourisation is a skilled, time-consuming, labour-intensive process. As well as expertise in tools such as Photoshop and a level of colour-sense I simply do not possess, it can also involve historical research to indicate what colours the photographer actually saw. Experts can spend a month on just one picture. 

So, it would be wonderful to be able to colour photographs automatically. I found these free resources (it may not be a complete list): 

With four of them you upload a black and white photograph to the web site and then download the colourised version. Pixbim is different in that you download and install a trial version on your computer and carry out the colourisation locally.

Are they any good? I tried them out on black and white photographs from earlier blog posts.

Bridlington c1929 - colourised by MyHeritage

Uncle Jimmys Bullnose Morris c1929 - colourised by photomyne

Bridlington 1955 - colourised by MyHeritage

Grandma 1963 - colourised by playback.fm

In general, the different tools gave different results and no one was consistently better than the others. I tried to pick the best result in each case but you might have chosen otherwise as I possess a different distribution of cone cells from most people. My choices might be a bit green, or a bit pink, I dont know, I wouldnt be able to tell. However, there were some truly awful ones, one of which seems to think I was wearing pissy underpants.
 
Colourised by Pixbim

Colourised by Algorithmia

Colourised by photomyne

Colourised by Algorithmia

Of course, we do not know what the colours really were, although I do feel fairly confident that the Bullnose Morris was not brandy coloured, and know for a fact that the Pratts petrol can on the running board was spruce green (#2e4a41), which none of them got right.
 
One test of colour accuracy would be to re-colourise an existing colour image after first reducing it to monochrome. MyHeritage does not seem too bad to me on the Abbey Road cover (I wonder if this was one of the pictures it was trained on), but they all struggled with scenery.   

The Beatles Abbey Road (left) recolourised from monochrome by MyHeritage (right)

Spring Polyanthus 2020 (left) recolourised from monochrome by MyHeritage (right)

Glacial deposits in Glen Roy 2020 (left) recolourised from monochrome by Pixbim (right)

Johnson and Trump (left) recolourised from monochrome by Pixbim (right)

It is pretty impressive that black and white photographs can be coloured automatically at all, even though the colours are by no means accurate and not a patch on the original. 

Colourisation does seem to add something, particularly depth. Perhaps it works better with cine film, as in Peter Jackson‘s painstakingly restored First World War films (They Shall Not Grow Old) in which the moving faces of young soldiers, poignantly grinning amidst the mud of the trenches, become living people like us. 

I am not as sceptical as I was, but find myself thinking that with photographs it is probably better to stick with the original black and white. 

It would be interesting to see your efforts (irrespective of whether you call it colourisation, colourization, colorization or colorisation). 


FURTHER NOTES

I usually preferred MyHeritage, photomyne or playback.fm, but some reviews speak highly of Pixbim, possibly because it allows control over the colours (see below).

The colourised photographs are not always the same size as you started with.

There are other limitations too. MyHeritage permits a limited number of free colourisations (I’m not sure what it is, maybe 10, but me, Mickey Mouse and Billy Liar have all used our quotas) before asking for a minimum £50 subscription to its genealogy services. One should also be aware that the uploaded photographs are retained and may be visible to others, but can be deleted.

Pixbim (the one you download and install) allows you to adjust various processing parameters, such as colour intensity and colour temperature (from reddish to blueish), and provides a brush tool for correcting incorrect colours, whereas with all the others you get what you are given. However, the trial version of Pixbim comes with only a 7-day licence after which it costs £40. Also, unless you buy it, the colourised photographs have “Trial Version” printed all over them, but you can get round this using PrintScreen to capture a smaller version of the coloured image.

I also found mention of two other tools: Colourise SG which now appears to have been withdrawn, and Colorize Photo (www.colorizephoto.com) which assists you in carrying out the colourisation yourself, which I have not tried. 


Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Dear Google User...

I have wondered for some time how long it can be sustainable for internet providers to keep storing ever increasing amounts of data. It all relies on chains of energy-burning electronics which must be enormously expensive in terms of hardware and energy use. It has even been suggested that if each person in Britain sent one fewer email per day it could save over 16,000 tons of carbon a year, equivalent to thousands of flights.

It looks as if Google are beginning to do something. Like me, you may have received this email:

Dear Google User,

We are writing to let you know that we recently announced new storage policies for Google Accounts using Gmail, Google Drive (including Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Drawings, Forms, and Jamboard files) and/or Google Photos that bring us in line with industry practices. Since you have previously used one or more of these products in your Google Account storage, we wanted to tell you about the new policies well before they go into effect on June 1, 2021. Below is a summary of the new policies. Please reference our Help Center article for a complete list of what's changing...

The email provides links to policies and a help centre article. 

In essence, it goes on to say that if after the 1st June, 2023, you have not used these services for 24 months, or if you have exceeded your storage quota, they might delete your content. Other outfits such as Flickr have already started deleting things. I like the bit about it being “in line with industry practices” as if they have some kind of standards. There is the suspicion it is all about cutting the costs of non-profitable activities.

In other words, we can’t assume our stuff is going to remain in perpetuity. I guess, eventually, this may also apply to Blogger, Wordpress and other blogging platforms. At present, we can read blogs written twenty years ago or more, but it might not always be the case. All those interesting, witty and wonderful posts and comments we have all made could simply disappear.

Saturday, 5 December 2020

Come Lasses and Lads to Bangor

Musescore: Come Lasses and Lads to Bangor
MuseScore 3.5

Coronavirus has put paid to our WEA folk ensemble class. We won’t be starting again before spring at the earliest. I say it myself but we are pretty good. That is not because of any contribution I make sitting at the back banging out chords on guitar, but because of our accomplished fiddle, flute, banjo, mandolin, accordion, concertina and bass players, and Mrs. D. who takes her bassoon.  

Before the pandemic, we played concerts and ceilidhs, and carol services at Christmas, usually for charities. The leader got us good gigs. We twice played the ceilidh at the Underneath the Stars festival. We can therefore claim to have been on the same bill as Kate Rusby, The Proclaimers and Billy Bragg. Actually, we were on at the same time as the Proclaimers but people still walked 500 yards to fall down at our door.

Will we have ceilidhs again? All that clapping together, hand-to-hand chaining and swinging your different partners means that what one person has, everyone has by the end of the night. Then there is the puffing and panting, and laughing and shouting in loud voices, so the members of the band get it as well. Then, the wind players blow it back all over the dancers and non-dancers alike to ensure that no one escapes at all. If I was a coronavirus I would love ceilidhs.

So gigs and practice are off. Since March we have been meeting through Zoom. The problem with that is that the sound from different participants does not synchronise, and there are also volume discrepancies and other issues, so we cannot play all together. 

Zoom meetings are therefore divided into sections. We have a ‘Tune of the Week’ where someone introduces a new piece and plays it, and then we all play it again with everyone muted except the person whose tune it is. We have a ‘YouTube Clip of the Week’ which someone selects and introduces. We have a section where someone plays a new tune several times and the rest of us have to try to pick it up without any clues, even as to which key it is in, which is quite difficult. We have guest players: Northumbrian pipes and the hurdy-gurdy being amongst the most unusual things we’ve had. And we discuss everything.

A few weeks ago, I was ‘Tune of the Week’. Out came the nineteen-thirties News Chronicle Song Book (the topic of a recent post) and it fell open at the seventeenth century English air Come Lasses and Lads. So that it was. I played it through a few times to make sure I could, but then, overnight in my head, it transformed itself into Day Trip to Bangor, the one-hit wonder for Fiddler’s Dram in 1979. The two tunes are rather similar in places.  

We share music scores through MuseScore (pictured above), an amazing piece of software, especially as it is free. It does almost everything you could want, including scores for multiple instruments, chords, transpositions, different key and time signatures, and so on. It will also play them. But it is quite complex (because music is complex) and takes time to learn (although it is not the most difficult software I have used – 3D imaging is a level above.)

I put Come Lasses and Lads note-by-note into MuseScore (the free version does not yet do sheet music capture). I plucked out a bass line from the piano chord accompaniment and added and arranged Day Trip to Bangor by ear. Here to give everyone a severe dose of the rum-tee-tum-tees – the musical equivalent of coronavirus – is Come Lasses and Lads to Bangor, played by MuseScore, voiced for guitar and bassoon, with default piano chord accompaniment. 

Of course, at the Zoom meeting Mrs. D. and I had to play it ourselves. Let’s just say we got away with it. 

A couple of additional thoughts:

I don’t believe I heard the term “ceilidh” until around 1980. Before that they were “country dances” or “barn dances”. My mother used to go “old-time dancing” in a church hall. At school, we danced these dances from six to sixteen, which stood me in such good stead that when I later joined a social group which organised several “ceilidhs” a year, the future Mrs. D. was so impressed by my Gay Gordons that she married me. 

You might also ask whether the bassoon is really a folk instrument. Perhaps it is slightly unusual, but eighteenth and nineteenth century village bands often included a serpent which sounds at a similar pitch (think Thomas Hardy). And what did they have in Fiddler’s Dram? Drowned out by the rather strident voice of the lead singer was a bassoon. 


Tuesday, 1 December 2020

New Month Old Post: Ray Gosling’s Goole

(First posted 15th October 2017. The YouTube videos linked below are quite long. I don’t expect many will want to watch them through.)

Gosling's Travels 1975: Goole
Gosling’s Travels: Goole (1975, 26 minutes)

In 1975, the radio and television broadcaster, Ray Gosling, made a film about Goole: a place I used to know well. The inhabitants were appalled. They had been looking forward to a film about a pleasant little town on the banks of the Ouse, with friendly folk in homely homes, about canals and railways, brave mariners who sailed the North Sea, the strange salt and pepper pot water towers, and the proud rise of a town from nothing to one of the country’s busiest ports in less than a hundred years: the story of the port in green fields.

But Ray Gosling was never going to stick to that. He homed in on the eccentric linguist who sought out foreign sailors to practise his Russian, businessmen who looked shifty and evasive, dockers who appeared scheming and workshy, the mysterious world of pigeon keepers, and, most embarrassing of all, the star turn, some young ladies who also liked to consort with foreign seamen, although not to practise their language skills. Goole: working-town low life in ragged abundance.

Watching again on YouTube, I see the problem. Right from the start, he goes for the jugular:
I’m walking the streets of a flat little town in Yorkshire that most of you will never have heard of: Goole. And those who do know where it is, between Doncaster and Hull, have nicknamed it Sleepy Hollow, because nothing has ever happened here that’s made the headlines in a newspaper. The place has no history worth putting into history books, and they don’t really manufacture anything. 
You might say: “What did you expect?” It was what Ray Gosling did. He was different from other broadcasters. He was cheeky and a bit common, working-class with an East Midlands accent, a university dropout, C-stream and proud of it. He made films about the little things of life, to him more important than the big things: caravans, allotments, sheds, the seedy, the left behind, the small-scale concerns of ordinary people. He was one of them. He wrote about them, ran things and campaigned for them.

The film is pure genius. He had seen the times they were a-changin’  long before Bob Dylan. He had tried to help the lively working-class community of St. Ann’s in Nottingham when the local council wanted to flatten and redevelop the whole district, but the community was lost in the end. He could see that Goole’s canal trains of coal-loaded compartments known as ‘Tom Puddings’, hydraulically hoisted into the air and tipped into the holds of ships, were nearing their end. Goole was a working museum that could not last, no more than the well-meaning vicar and police chief in the film, gullible anachronisms innocently trying to set up a wholesome mariners’ club not run by mariners. It was never going to supplant the Dock Tavern.

Ray Gosling Autobiographies
He had read On the Road and seen Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One (a film banned in Britain) and understood the implications. He saw change in the hearts of young people rejecting their fuddy-duddy parents’ expectations. His autobiographies, Sum Total and Personal Copy are fascinating memoirs of the fifties and sixties. “We were the first generation to be able to busk with our lives” he reflected in 2006 in one of his last films, Ray Gosling OAP. And as he sat waiting for his cluttered Mapperley house to be forcibly sold due to bankruptcy, unable to move around the heaped accumulations of a lifetime’s work: piles of files, mountains of books, scattered nick-nacks; he said:
All my life, I’ve known we are what we collect, what we pick up, so my room with all the detail I’ve kept is what made my work, it was important, to me. The silly nick-nacks are not just nick-nacks, and they’re not silly.
That is truly uplifting to hoarders like me: the glorious antithesis of decluttering.

Ray Gosling OAP (2006, 59 minutes)

Hopefully, the links to his films on YouTube will remain active, but they might get blocked for copyright reasons. There is also an archive of his work at Nottingham Trent University.

I'll leave the last word to Ray himself, part of an article in the TV Times in 1975:

... I don’t think facts always tell the truth. And I’m not a promotion man for God, Queen and the Ruling Class in Britain Beautiful – but we do search for the good in a place. And try to film what people naturally do. Try to avoid dwelling on obvious eccentrics, though that’s difficult. We are such an individual fruit and nutcase lot. I’m not hawking any pet philosophy or seeking hidden meanings. The films are simply place-tasters.

I don’t know what you’re going to make of Goole. People live nearby refer to it as Sleepy Hollow, because nothing ever happens in Goole. That’s why I went. It’s one of the most forgotten places of England. Britain’s most inland port, 50 miles from the sea. Just as Bath doesn’t make enough of its spa water, Goole doesn’t make enough of its dirty canal water. Still it is the 11th port of the land. Behind the parish church, you can see hanging from the jib of a crane, Britain’s balance of payments. Steel: in and out. Russian timber imported. We got turfed-off a Russian boat, camera and all – nicely, but firmly. And Goole exports: coals for every purpose.

The great local row was in the pigeon club. Should the birds be flown, next season, from north to south? Opinion divided. I like Goole, I do hope I’ve done it justice.

There was a nice man we wanted to film there; Albert Gunn, dental mechanic, pigeon racer and performer in the amateur Kiss Me Kate at the Grammar School – but Albert was ill, so we couldn’t.

That’s the problem I find filming as against writing. With pictures we have to prove it. Our folks have got to perform in front of the camera.

Friday, 20 November 2020

The Planets

Andrew Cohen with Brian Cox
The Planets (5*)

This is a book packed with incredible, fascinating detail which Mrs. D. has thoroughly enjoyed being told about, especially when watching television, reading a book of her own or settling down to go to sleep.

My knowledge of the solar system had changed little since the nineteen-sixties. It was based on the moon landings, a 1957 set of Brooke Bond tea cards, the nineteen-sixties encyclopaedia Knowledge which came out in weekly parts, and my dad’s Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia from the nineteen-twenties. These two tea cards just about sum it up.

I mentioned this at home, and for my birthday there appeared a brand new copy of The Planets by Andrew Cohen with Brian Cox, published in 2019 to accompany the television series of the same name. Professor Cox presented the series: it gave him an excuse to pose in all sorts of weird and wonderful locations, such as the Wadi Rum in Jordan, and pretend he was on the surface of other worlds. He is credited with just one of the six sections of the book. The others are by Andrew Cohen, the executive producer of the series.

It is very readable and accessible. Perhaps only once or twice did I feel bogged down in too much information, but that may have been because I was rushing to get to the next astonishing section. Let me pick just a few of the snippets Mrs. D. so much appreciated hearing about, to try on your loved ones in deciding whether or not to get the book yourself.  

Olympus Mons

1) There are some extraordinary mountains elsewhere in the Solar System. Olympus Mons on Mars, a volcano of 21,000 metres, is around two and a half times the height of Mount Everest. It looks a bit like, well, yes, it does. 

Artist’s impression of the Curiosity sky crane

2) Staying on Mars, the Curiosity landing vehicle has provided us with many high quality images of the surface. It was so heavy (998kg or around a ton) that to have dropped it on to the surface in the usual way could have damaged it beyond repair. It was therefore lowered gently at a rate of one metre per second from a “sky crane” hovering twenty metres above the surface. The sky crane then flew off so as not to fall on the landing vehicle. How on earth did they think of that, and how did they get it to work?

Jupiter

3) The planetary orbits have not always been as they are now. It is thought that as the Solar System was forming, four and a half billion years ago, Jupiter moved closer to the sun and then back out again (known as the grand tack hypothesis), taking with it thousands upon thousands of blocks of rocks and ice to form the asteroid belt. This reduced the amount of material available for the inner planets to form, which is why Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are much smaller than Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Artist's impression of the surface of Titan

4) The time-scales are unimaginable. Over the next five billion years, the Sun will grow hotter and expand to engulf Mercury and Venus, although the lifeless, burnt-out Earth may just escape this fate. At the same time, the outer planets will begin to warm. Worlds such as Titan, a moon of Saturn where lakes and rivers of methane run through mountains of ice, will thaw to have oceans of liquid water full of complex organic chemicals, just the kind of place where life might originate all over again.  

Pluto

5) Pluto, which was only discovered in 1930 and appears in the Brooke Bond tea cards as the ninth planet, is no longer classified as a planet …

[note: at this point Mrs. D. snatched the book from Tasker’s grasp and beat him about the head with it].


The NASA images are in the public domain.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Penelope Lively: Moon Tiger


Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger (5***)

Yet another Booker Prize winner not read at the time: from 1987 in this case, sought out after reading Treasures of Time and A House Unlocked which we inherited from my mother-in-law. Moon Tiger is highly regarded, and rightly so. I was not disappointed.

It begins with an elderly woman dying in a hospital bed. Not the most appealing topic I can think of, and not a particularly likeable woman. She had once been a highly intelligent, attractive and successful popular historian who looked down on those not so gifted, such as her sister-in-law and even her own daughter. Yet, without much perseverance, you are drawn in and begin to warm to the character.

As she lies there, mind wandering, she begins to write a history of the world, no “nit-picking  stuff” but “… the whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute – from the mud to the stars”. It is really her own history: the lifelong competition with her brother, her relationships with her daughter, the father of her daughter and the lover she found and lost as a war correspondent in Cairo, and the phases of her life before, during and after.

All are present in her thoughts at the same time. Episodes from different periods come out of sequence, told from different points of view – hers, her brother’s, her daughter’s – sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third. The analogy is the moon tiger, “… a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of grey ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness.” Like memory, it becomes a messy spiral of ash in the saucer. 

As in her other books, Lively is re-working her recurring themes and concerns: the interpretation and reinterpretation of memory, how different people’s memories of the same events can differ, how the past relates to the present, and personal history. It results in a complex structure despite which the narrative moves adroitly forward, a considerable feat for an author to pull off, perhaps even more accomplished than A. S. Byatt’s Possession, the 1990 winner which I also admire.  

 
It reminds me of T. S. Eliot:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Fort William

Ben Nevis from Corpach
Ben Nevis across Loch Linnhe from Corpach

I was a bit apprehensive when Mrs. D. and I set off for Fort William last week. It is thirty years since I was last there and when your age begins to begin with a seven you wonder what you can no longer do. Was I still up to walking in the Scottish Highlands? Did I have the stamina? Would my legs and back last out? How would I cope with the long drive? 

I used to go there a lot. The first time was in 1964 with my parents when I took this shaky photograph of the Ballachulish ferry with my Brownie Starmite camera. The ferry avoided a nineteen-mile detour round by Kinlochleven which could take over an hour in holiday traffic. It was replaced by a road bridge in 1975, but the old ramps are still serviceable as the modern picture shows. 

Ballachulish Ferry 1964

Ballchulish Bridge

I went again on camping and walking trips with friends in the seventies and eighties. We pitched our tents countless times at Glencoe and Fort William, and passed through on our way to Skye. 

We always walked the big stuff. We climbed Ben Nevis straight up the four thousand feet from Glen Nevis: up the steep grassy slope into the Coire Eoghainn corrie where we heard a cuckoo, then up the boulders of the right shoulder and on through the snow to the top. Much more fun than the relentless ‘pony trek’.

Climbing Ben Nevis 1974
Nearing the top of Ben Nevis from the south via Coire Eoghainn, 1974

We back-packed and wild-camped our way across Rannoch Moor which, unlike now, was practically empty of any other walkers. We traversed the ridge of Aonach Eagach in Glencoe, the scariest walk I have ever done, stupidly going around some of the pinnacles instead of scrambling over them. Even scarier than the Cuillin ridges above Glen Brittle in Skye.

Cuillin ridges above Glen Brittle, 1976
Paths along the Cuillin ridges above Glen Brittle, Isle of Skye, 1976

We tried nothing like that this time, not that we would have done anyway, but poor visibility and a wind-chill equivalent of -7°C (19°F) on the peaks around Ben Nevis gave a good excuse. We could see the mountains in the murk but rarely the tops. However, there are lots of low-level walks around Fort William I would never have considered in earlier years. 

There is a stunning walk of around four miles there and back from the end of Glen Nevis to the Steall waterfall. When I trekked the 13 miles from Corrour in the opposite direction in the nineteen-eighties there was hardly anyone around, but on this day there were lots, some coaxing five year-old children over the steep and rocky terrain, everyone soaked, but everyone with smiles on their faces. 
 
From Steall looking East
Looking East from Steall in Glen Nevis

From Steall looking West
Looking West from Steall in Glen Nevis

Steall Waterfall
The Steall Waterfall

For more solitude we went to Loch Arkaig to the west of Loch Lochy in the Great Glen. The track along the north shore is one of the routes to the remote and sparsely populated Knoydart peninsula, reachable only by boat along the coast or a sixteen-mile hike across rough country. The story of how the population was cleared by the landowner in the eighteen-fifties and left to survive out in the open is cruel beyond belief. We walked a couple of miles along a forestry road on the south shore before retracing our steps thoroughly soaked. Even my underpants were wet. Trying to survive out in the open in weather like that does not bear thinking about, even with the protection of modern outdoor clothing. 
 
Forestry track, south shore of Loch Arkaig.
Forestry track along the shore of Loch Arkaig
 
Eas Chia-Aig Waterfall
Eas Chia-Aig Waterfall near Loch Arkaig

Yet another day saw us in Glen Roy. What an incredible place that is. Twelve thousand years ago it was a glacial lake, marked out by three successive shore lines (the “parallel roads”) along the sides of the valley – the lowest is the oldest and the highest the most recent. Analysis of the sedimental layers show that the lake system existed for 515 years, and when the ice-dam finally burst it released five cubic kilometres of water in a spectacular “jƶkulhlaup” that carved out the River Spean gorge. The entire glen is full of glacial features. 
 
Glen Roy
Glen Roy - the "parallel roads"

Glen Roy
Glacial deposits in Glen Roy

Glen Roy
Glen Roy
 
Despite sunny periods to begin with in Glen Roy, the weather soon turned for the worse, and again we had to retreat. In fact, we got soaked every day. We originally booked the cottage for early June but rearranged it for the end of October because of lockdown. For the whole week we got out promptly each morning, returned to the cottage to dry out and have something to eat, and then went either for a touristy drive to somewhere like Oban or Glenfinnan, or did our local walk. 
 
The cottage was at Banavie at the end of the Caledonian Canal between the sea lock which opens into the sea loch at Corpach and the flight of eight locks known as Neptune’s Staircase, which made a handy three-mile circular walk, usefully past a bottle bank. All in all, we had a good week despite the wetness, with so many bursts of intense happiness I thought I was beginning to turn into Gerard Manley Hopkins. And yes, given drier weather, I might still be up to something a bit more challenging. Not Ben Nevis, though.

Neptune's Staircase
Banavie: Neptune's Staircase

Caledonian Canal at Corpach
Looking towards the sea lock on the Caledonian Canal at Corpach

Jacobite Express and Neptune's Staircase
Another view of Neptune's Staircase at Banavie:
Heritage 4-6-0 ‘Black Five’ 44871 running tender-first crosses the Caledonian Canal
returning to Fort William from Mallaig with the Jacobite Express excursion train
on the 30th October 2020

Lastly, for any bovine photographers out there, this is what you have to cope with on some of the quieter roads. Remember to fold your mirrors in. 

Cows on road to Strontian