There is grass in my baked beans – I must be camping. It doesn’t matter how carefully you cook things when you are camping there is always grass, the only question is, how much. Camping in the Scottish Highlands has been a passion of mine for many years. I’ve spent holidays there under canvas since I was a teenager in everything from blizzards, deluges of rain, and yes it can happen, searing sun. Like all passions there are occasions when I think –why the hell am I doing this?
They say it is folly to go back, that seeking to recapture lost youth by visiting blue remembered hills will inevitably lead to disappointment as we return to such beauty spots of the memory only to find them concreted over, bedecked with gift shops or discover that time has robbed them of the joy we once found there. It was then, with some trepidation that Mr Jones boarded the sleeper from Preston and arrived for a traditional breakfast fry up at my flat in inverness. It is thirty years since he and I camped at Sheil Bridge in the hill days of our youth and I view with some uncertainty the prospect of returning to a night under canvas in what may be a nylon cocooned hell.
It’s hot, so hot that Mr Jones has resorted to wearing shorts. Shorts are inevitably a kind of fashion suicide so it’s best to embrace fate and make them as ridiculous as you can, after all the British empire was founded by men wearing ludicrous shorts who were forced to conquer whole civilisations in order to ensure that no body laughed at them.
Listen to this blog in full colour sound here http://johndburns.podomatic.com/player/web/2012-08-16T23_05_21-07_00
Mr Jones and I have come to the little campsite at Sheil Bridge, a place we first visited over thirty years ago. Much has changed since our first visit, I’ve lost my hair and both our waists have thickened and also, as is always the case in the Highlands of Scotland, very little has changed. All the hills are still in the same place and Sheil Bridge is still as good a place for hill walking as it always was. The little campsite, only charges £5.75 per person, including showers and all the grass you can eat. There’s a handy wee shop and a hotel with bar and food only a mile away. This is paradise, all the walking you could want within easy reach and everything you could need to sustain body and spirit. Or it would be paradise if it were not for one small but very significant thing.
The problem is the Highland midge, a creature whose legendary ferocity belies its tiny size. In the early morning and as the light fades in the evening, millions of these tiny biting insects take to the air with the sole intention of making life miserable for any human they encounter. Mosquitos have killed more people than any other creature on earth but they are not as annoying as the midge whose bite is far more irritating. The midge relies on psychological warfare to destroy its prey, it irritates you to death. The Highlands has one of the highest rates of suicide, alcoholism and insanity in Europe and I have no doubt that the sole cause is this tiny insect. Fortunately once the sun rises these tiny delinquents are forced to retreat and one can enjoy wandering up into the Hills of the Highlands without several thousand jaws trying to relieve you of your blood supply.
Watching Mr Jones struggling to erect his tent I am reminded of his life long battle with the material world. The laws of physics do not apply in his world, he is exempt from the rules of Mr Newton, he has note. In his presence inanimate objects suddenly come to life and attack him, plates, mugs and bottles are likely to be seen flying past his head. In order to cope with the world Mr Jones has developed a strategy, once he has mastered a particular object he sticks to it. Thus his stove is an ancient model, now obsolete, and he spends days searching for old gas canisters in the dusty back rooms of climbing shops. He has a deep suspicion of technology and has stoically refused to enter the world of the mobile phone, thus he can spend idyllic days undisturbed by the chatter of this digital age. I, on the other hand, am texted half way up Ben Nevis to be reminded, by some faceless company, that I should be reclaiming the payment protection insurance I never took out on the loan I don’t have. Perhaps there is something in Mr Jones’ philosophy.
We spent the evening in the Sheil Bridge hotel expecting a night much as we spent there thirty years ago. Then the bar was packed to capacity with young people singing rock songs and drinking furiously whilst the locals who lined the bar would turn occasionally to glare the visitors who had come to disturb their rural tranquillity. This despite the fact that without the financial support of the summer’s influx many of the hotels in the area would cease to exist. Now things are far more sedate. Gone are the young people, unless of course, they are still there and have simply aged over time. The bar is full of middle aged folk enjoying a quiet meal and the hotel probably makes more money from food than it does from drink. The place emptied around 9.30 when the diners left for bad and only then did the locals emerge like wild animals that had been hiding in the brush.
The following morning, somewhat hung over and midge ridden we gulped down our grassy breakfast and headed for the hills. Although departure could only be achieved after Mr Jones had retrieved his watch from the local garage where it had apparently escaped to overnight. In the end our attempt on the Saddle, a hill that stands above the campsite failed. Due in equal measure to too much beer the night before, a rare hot day Highlands turning the glen into an oven, and the toll time has taken on the legs of Mr Jones and myself.
As we headed back to Inverness for warm baths and soft beds we reflected, had it been folly to return? Perhaps, but had we not created another memory and now at least we can dream of days to come instead of looking back. This is my hill walking resurgence and, before I get too old, I aim to do a few more. If god and Mr Jones are willing we’ll provide food for the Highland midge for years to come.
Blogs featured in the audio blog
Paul Sharrock http://hillcraftguidedwalking.com/
Lesley Carter http://lesleycarter.wordpress.com/
Mountain Coward http://mountaincowardadventures.wordpress.com/