The storms up here have been increasing in both intensity and length. I awoke the other day ready (and indeed fully washed) to go to Mallaig to pick up a couple of parcels of supplies my sister had kindly ordered, packaged and sent. However, I awoke to heavy rain, winds that shook the trees and a drop in temperature. As I made the fire and had breakfast I began to wonder if it would be wise to leave the warmth, dryness and safety of my shelter. I sat, listening to branches breaking and watching above me as leaves and debris flew overhead. I had been planning to use the morning to collect a few more logs and fill my water bags (now much easier, thanks to the constant flow of water), but instead I sat writing, hoping that the storm would blow itself out.
Instead it got darker and darker, the wind now reaching speeds that I thought may well bring down whole trees. Then it stopped, instantly and completely. I began to breathe a sigh of relief then realised something felt wrong.
Almost as soon as I had that thought the heavens opened once more, but this time hailstones the size of marbles began to shred through the leaves that remained on the trees, clattering off rocks and forming a thick layer of ice everywhere.
I wondered if it could get any worse. The wind appeared as if I had summoned it. Perhaps it would indeed have to wait another day. It started raining, hard, more hail then all of a sudden I felt a strange sensation, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled and immediately after this the darkness was lit by a blinding flash of lightning with a huge crack of thunder that was almost instantaneous.
This carried on, rain, hail, wind, thunder and lightning for nearly two hours. Then it suddenly disappeared and within minutes the sky above was blue. I didn’t wait, the train wasn’t due for another hour and a half and I knew I could make it to the station (actually just a short platform in the middle of nowhere, thankfully with a newly built wooden shelter) in a little under half an hour, if I pushed myself.
The way there had turned treacherous since I had scouted this new route a couple of days previous; ice was everywhere and the deer trail I was to follow had morphed into a torrent of water, carrying leaves, twigs, acorns and even small rocks.
I passed a tree that had lost a huge branch, the size of it made me glad I hadn’t headed out earlier. That would have been the end of this adventure, and most likely anything else.
I made it to the station in twenty-five minutes, which was a good job as, no sooner had I sat on a bench, the wind and rain once more returned. I sat in the dry and welcoming shelter writing and munching an apple while I waited for the train.
By the time the train was due, the darkness had returned and the rain was now coming straight down (and up as it bounced) as the wind had stopped once more.
As this is a request stop I left my place of refuge the instant I saw the lights of the train. When it had stopped I tried to get on, but the button to open the door wouldn’t work; I then heard someone yelling from the rear of the train – it was the conductor, a woman who looked like she chewed nails for a living, she told me that, as it was a short platform, she couldn’t open all the doors. I thought this a little odd as previously I’d got on or off the train (only two carriages) at all the other doors. I didn’t say anything though and bought my ticket from the door, miserable old battleaxe.
Once the train reached Mallaig the rain had stopped but the wind had made a return. The waves out to sea were massive, and breaking over the road into the town. I picked up my parcels without any problem at all; I had come prepared with passport and birth certificate after all. Then I opened one slightly to get out a couple of batteries (from the fifty I’d been sent) in order to charge my poor power-deprived phone.
This done I visited the Co-op and then the Spar to get a few things I’d determined I’d needed (mainly luxuries, such as chocolate, wine and steak…). I also bought a New Scientist magazine to read, as I’ve read nothing since arriving in the wilds, save for texts, emails and principally my own words.
(At this juncture I should mention how pleasant all the people I talked to in Mallaig were; the Post Office lady, the lad in the Co-op and especially the girl in the Spar, who was rather delicious, with an accent to die for and was also surprisingly flirtatious; perhaps my hairy visage isn’t a woman repeller after all? We chatted for a few minutes, I told her what I was doing, gave her this blog address and generally tried to recall how to converse with others once more.)
Afterwards I returned to the station to sit and munch my way through a scotch pie and a snickers, reading my magazine and worrying about whether I had put too many logs on the fire before I left; I didn’t want to get back to a smoking ruin, principally as the Moleskine I’ve filled was still in the shelter…
I called my sister and we had a good chat; I wanted to know if Thatcher was dead yet…
On the journey back I was impressed to see the driver and conductor were both women, and both rather attractive. A thought crossed my mind that this is how mountain men must have felt; no female company for months on end. No wonder the whorehouses did such good business! I told the conductor I was getting off at Beasdale so the train wouldn’t pass straight through and sat watching the waves on the sea and the rain lashing against the window. It was going to be a tough walk back, especially as the sun was going down (had I been able to see it of course) and the rain clouds made it even darker. I wondered whether I was going to have to resort to torchlight; not a pleasant prospect given the treacherous nature of my path ahead.
As soon as I got off the train I got my waterproofs on and started legging it back to camp, picking up my staff from where I’d stashed it (I already get enough curious looks from the neon-Gore-Tex clad crowd, without carrying my stick on the train)!
The burn through the Glen was swollen and fast and deep. Crossing it proved rather tricky, but I made it, then made it to the top of the climb, avoiding sliding back downhill. By this point it was getting rather dim and the tree cover made it even harder to see; my eyes quickly became accustomed to it though and I trudged on, knowing my camp was only another ten minutes walk away.
As I meandered down the small valley to where I’d head back upwards before reaching what I currently call home, my mind returned to the question of whether my fire would have burnt down the shelter. I was fairly sure it wouldn’t have done, I’m quite good with fire and I was hoping it would still be smouldering away, saving me from having to relight it.
Because I was thinking about this I didn’t notice the deer until I was fifty yards away. She had her head down and was merrily chewing away at the grass. I realised the wind was in my face and the sound it was making in the treetops had masked my approach.
My first thought was to question why I hadn’t put fresh batteries in my camera and hung it around my neck, tucked inside my jacket as I usually do. My next thought was to wonder whether I should strap my knife to my staff with the paracord from my pocket and have roast venison for dinner. Oh! ‘Tis my delight…!
I resisted this temptation and decided to see how close I could get, mindful of my pack snagging on branches. Five yards later she still hadn’t noticed me, carrying on her grass eating way. She was now forty five yards away; an easy bowshot and I was sure I could hit her with a spear at this range too. I carried on. Forty yards, thirty five. When I was within twenty yards I stopped; perhaps she was a geriatric deer, blind, deaf and with no sense of smell. I whistled. She looked up, ears flicking but she failed to see me, my clothes and irregular shape with the pack ensuring I blended into the background. She went back to grazing.
This was becoming quite humourous, when I was within ten yards of her I stopped again. I whistled once more. Again she looked straight at me, no fear or recognition of the fact I was human at all. I couldn’t help myself and waved with my free arm, letting out a cheery ‘hello!’
I’ve never seen a deer move so fast. In a blink of an eye she’d wheeled about and took off up the slope that had been behind her, to my left, a slope that was at least forty five degrees steep. Her leaps quickly took her out of sight, covering eight feet or more in a single bound.
I smiled to myself, she wasn’t geriatric after all. I suppose I’ve got so used to walking silently that I’ve become rather good at it. I decided that the following day I’d follow her tracks, see where she stopped running to check she wasn’t being followed and where she called sanctuary. This would be a good test of my tracking skills and also useful for any future hunting photo taking…
It was now rather dark so I speeded up and left the valley of the deer, as it will henceforth be known, for the climb before I’d drop back down into my own valley. I paused before I descended the steep gully into the corrie, remembering that I had little fuel left for the fire and found a fifteen foot oak that was long dead, all the bark and outer layers of the trunk had rotted away.
I have become quite good at assessing potential firewood and I knew I’d be able to lever this free without having to cut it down. Sure enough, after a little pushing and pulling, it came free, a thick bulb of root mass at one end (this burns slowly, well and very hot). Instead of hoisting it to my shoulder as I would usually, as I was already encumbered with my pack, I dragged it to the edge of the thirty or forty foot cliff and threw it off, careful that it fell cleanly, not catching on anything, especially me! Then I clambered down the gully, slippery with the rainfail and collected detritus, before once more dragging the log back to my shelter; not too far, but I did have to stop twice to free the log, in the end giving in and picking it up with both hands, cradling it to me along with my staff. A heavy load, and I was glad when I reached my little home.
I was even more pleased when I entered and found I’d easily be able to resuscitate the fire. I quickly descended the gorge to the east in order to let my sister know I’d made it back alive, then climbed back up to cut up the log into more manageable pieces.
For this I had a treat in store – one of the things I’d been sent was a twenty-four inch bow saw and it made the job exponentially easier and quicker than the ten inch folding saw I’d been using up to then. This done I rearranged the smouldering logs and within twenty seconds had a roaring blaze going and the billy can on for a cup of tea.
As I sat down to unpack the luxuries I had purchased (and oats and tea – two essentials!) I nearly took my eye out on one of the arrows I’d been preparing; it’s currently drying under the eaves of the shelter, quite close to being above the fire, but it had obviously worked itself loose in the storm earlier. After this the head torch was on for the night.
Luxuries unpacked, sorted and stored I made my dinner – my now usual (well the third time I’ve done it anyway) post-civilisation treat; fried steak in a French baguette, done over a hot fire in a large knob of butter – about ten seconds each side. I always tear out the middle of the loaf and set that aside for mopping up the pan (cholesterol and fat overload; up here fat is good!).
One I had demolished this I finished my pint of tea, packed, tamped and lit the first pipe of the day and poured myself half a peanut butter jar of Valpolicella (I’d chosen this knowing it has a slight smoky side to it – since everything I consume, from porridge through to water, has a smoky flavour anyway, I thought it would fit nicely. It did.). I then broke off eight squares of Bourneville (16% of my calorie intake apparently – although I’d hazard a guess that percentage would actually be a lot less of my actual present total), and set about delighting in wine, chocolate and St. Bruno, whilst I got out my two parcels to unwrap.
Earlier, when I had extracted the batteries to charge my phone, I had simply tore into the parcel. Now I carefully cut into it, keeping the labels and little notes my sister had included; to add to my memory box (yup, I’m a bit of a girl).
In this first parcel, besides the fifty AA batteries were a new fire steel to replace the one I’d lost, candles (I’ve made some lanterns for these, using empty milk containers and wine bottles; resourceful, eh?), three pairs of long, pure silk socks (did you know sixteen layers of pure silk will stop a bullet?), some leather for making a new sling (and one or two other things too, since my sister had risked her reputation and had been rewarded with a good sized piece of leather for her troubles – ta!) and a bundle of pipecleaners. Up to now I’ve had to use some pipecleaners I made myself, out of snare wire and bandage material (once again, resourceful!) but now I can clean my pipe (who needs a name, suggestions please) properly. Whether or not I’ll ever do so in the company of any other pipe smokers is debatable, as they are multi-hued and patterned… still, they work well and for that I can put up with their garish nature (ha ha!).
I was very pleased with the contents of the parcel, and the bow saw and set about making up the lanterns before I remembered there were still some other items in the parcel that had contained the saw. In here were also a new 16GB memory card for my camera (I’ve taken several thousand photos already and a few videos too, so this was very welcome), a planisphere and a printed out copy of the Futhark, the runes’ names and meanings (this is for the novel I have been working on, I won’t spoil the surprise…).
As I started looking at the planisphere, I realised the rain had stopped and, looking upwards noticed the sky was ablaze with stars. As there was no moon these were extraordinarily bright and I immediately set about experimenting with the planisphere. Before I’d finished my wine and pipe I had located Jupiter and learnt the names of two new stars and locations of three constellations I didn’t previously know. And all from where I was sat by my fire. This was rather exciting; I’ve always wanted to learn more about the stars and constellations and being up here, with no light pollution at all, I am in the perfect position to do so. (All the while singing ‘Somewhere out there’ from An American Tail…).
After I finished my pipe and wine the clouds once more rolled in so I sat and scribbled in my journal until bed time, once more battling the huge moths that are still around and at one point removing a slug that was nearly seven inches long from where it was trying to climb up my leg.
I was in bed early, as I often am in order to be up early the following day. It is always a pleasure to climb into my cosy nest; I’ve got the process of arranging it down to a ‘T’ now and I’m so warm and comfortable I quickly drift to sleep.
The above has been written for a couple of purposes. It shows what I’ve done on one day but, primarily, it illustrates another point I want to make.
For this blog piece I have taken whole sections verbatim from my journal, altering other portions to add a little more detail or remove personal musings, ideas and thoughts that I’m not ready or willing to share with the world.
Now, this amounts to about thirteen pages of my Moleskine. Think of this; I’ve now been out here for some time, it is more than fifty nights since I last slept in a bed. You do the maths – I have written so many words there is enough here (even without the fiction I am also writing) for a novel. Lavishly illustrated with my photos… Watch this space!