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Doodlecat's Homepage

Picture of Doodle - a 
black cat

Welcome to Doodlecat, where we enjoy the pleasures of life (with a slight bias towards the outdoors). This page is regularly updated with news and views plus information about any additions or changes to the various parts of the site. It acts as Doodlecat’s Blog too, so the odd rant considered opinion may pop up from time to time.

I would love to be able to say that Doodlecat is all my own work, but it isn’t. Much of the outdoors content is courtesy of the splendid people who participate in the annual TGO Challenge (there is a section entirely devoted to this unique event) and many others.

To help in tracking down that elusive morsel on Doodlecat, the search facility under the title bar above is tailored to help you find it, either on this home page (Doodlecat's Blog) all the rest of the site (Main Site) or – if all else fails - the internet!

So have a rummage around the old cat basket and enjoy your time with us!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Doodlecat's Horoscope - Your Stars for 2015

Along with gazing at the stars it is a well-known fact that the way cats sleep in their baskets often foretells the shape of things to come. The Doodlecat can’t help you to find out what your own cat is trying to tell you, but all four legs up in the air at once is a terrible sign, and an indication that your immediate future will involve digging. But fear not. Even if you do not have a cat your future has been foretold. The Doodlecat, feline oracle and soothsayer, has been staring at the heavens to read your fate in the stars - this is what he has seen.

Aries (March 20 – April 20)

What! No awards? Waiting to be discovered is just so 2014. With Jupiter in your house of fame and romance until August 11, take your PR campaign into your own hands. Launch your own YouTube channel. Pose for a glamorous photo shoot wearing nothing but a Buff and a loin cloth; then bomb the outdoors community with your gorgeous shots. The results will astound you, and recognition is assured. Your major love moments come from February 20 to March 17, when Mars and Venus are both in Aries. We’re talking proposals … but beware propositions; a tall bearded man will accost you and offer you sloe gin in return for sex. Refuse.

You will make huge strides on a personal project in May, mostly in an eastward direction. Saturn is on a three-year tour through your house of travel and adventures, so foreign trips are very much on the cards, but avoid Africa. An uncontained outbreak of the Band Aid virus is once again rampant on that unhappy continent. A total lunar eclipse in Aries (April 4th) will herald a run of good luck. If you want to be rich (and what Aries doesn’t?) your Lottery windfall will come on Saturday 9th May. The winning numbers will be 03, 11, 15, 26, 39, 48, but don’t tell everyone or your share of the Jackpot will be pitifully small.

Lucky toothpaste: Macleans Freshmint
Lucky underwear: M&S

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

You have been a light and flighty soul in 2014 but 2015 is a different story. It’s depth you crave now, and relationships that can stand the test of time. On the domestic front Jupiter is snuggled up on your sofa until August, giving you ample opportunities to bond with friends and family. Make sure that you have plenty of drinks and nibbles in the sideboard as chez Taurus will be a hotspot for dinner parties, drop-in guests, and family visitors until the autumn. Book the carpet cleaning company now as latecomers will be wearing peaty boots. Any offer to teach you how to play the oboe should be politely declined.

Romance is in the air as Saturn embarks on a three-year tour through your house of intimacy and seduction. Your love life could get seriously sexy, but tread the line between lust and love carefully. A bearded man will offer you sex in return for sloe gin and whisky. Refuse - despite many friends heading north in early summer, you’ll have lots of opportunity for romance later. On August 11 Jupiter bursts into your house of amour for an entire year! Holy romantic overload! And lucky, lucky Taurus could come into some real money in 2015. Doodlecat’s tip : hook up with an Aries in May.

Lucky garment: The Buff
Lucky foot cream: Gewohl

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

Now is the time to get that Uber app on your phone Gemini, you’re going to need it. Jupiter (yes, old Jove again) restores your social-butterfly status in the first half of 2015, and your evening calendar fills quickly. With your face popping up on every style blogger’s Instagram feed, this is your year for pushing your blogging profile to the fore. An award? Could be! A creative collaboration could also spell money in the bank before August. Think ‘down’ and feather your nest. Avoid Saggitarians, though, or it could be tar & feather!

With energizer Mars in Gemini from May 11 to June 24, you’ll have lots of momentum for the challenge ahead. But from June 14 to September 17, it’s work, work, work – luckily school’s out, so enslave your children and put your feet up. As for romance, 2015 could usher in a serious soulmate and Venus in Gemini from April 11 to May 7 will be a romantic hotspot - but after that beware. On the 8th May a bearded man will offer you slow sex in return for gin. Refuse. Mercury is retrograde in Gemini from May 18 to June 11 and you should refrain from bicycling. That unicycle is a definite no no!

Lucky Shampoo: Timotei
Lucky footwear: Espadrilles

Cancer (June 21 – July 22)

Bountiful Jupiter and taskmaster Saturn are teaming up, and you have more creative energy than you know what to do with, but there is disappointment in store in May when the BBC turn down your idea for a new light entertainment format. I know, you thought you had come up with exactly the right ingredients for a big Saturday night success. Gurning Geordies, physical and mental torture, half remembered legends eating dehydrated tucker. The TGO Challenge seemed such a great idea. Maybe when the threat of Scottish secession recedes the beeb will be more receptive.

Never mind. When Jupiter moves into your third house for a year on August 11, life becomes playful and fun again. With Saturn out of your romance house for the first time since October 2012, you could win the game of love this year. There may be one last challenge from Cupid between June 14 and September 17 as Saturn backtracks into your love zone for the last time. A bearded man will offer you socks and ginseng in return for slothful sex. Refuse.

Lucky soap: Camay
Lucky fruit: Kumquat

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

You’ll be the name on everyone’s lips in 2015 – and that doesn’t mean your name is Max Factor. You’re hosting magnanimous Jupiter in your sign until August 11, a once-a-decade gift from the stars that puts you and your talents in the spotlight. You’ll need to work more independently this year, so don’t bother going in to work. Develop plans and projects from your settee while Jupiter is retrograde until April 8; then, and only then, phone the office. The financial gains will come after August 11 when Jupiter moves on to Virgo and your first Giro arrives.

Love is the area of life that will require the most work this year. Cosmic coach Saturn is spending year one (of three) in your fifth house of romance, bringing some reality checks and some maturity. You could settle into a serious relationship. The trouble is, Leo, you like the ups and downs. A bearded man will offer you simple companionship, but you’ll want a new way to get your kicks and demand sex and gin. Be warned, Venus will be retrograde in Leo from July 31 until September 6, and he will spurn your advances.

Lucky carpet: Axminster
Lucky pet: Gerbil

Virgo (August 23 — September 22)

Aaaaaand Relax! Time to stop the world and get off. Both Jupiter and Saturn are to blame for this celestial sabbatical. Saturn has parked in your domestic fourth house for three years, and with Jupiter cruising through your dreamy, un-grounded 12th house until August 11, you’re feeling uncharacteristically nomadic. If there were ever a year to backpack across Scotland, this would be it. The Hanwag Competition closes on Jan 17th. Enter it now!

But really, Virgo, your New Year doesn’t start until August 11. On that day, lucky, larger-than-life Jupiter bursts into Virgo until September 2016. Your focus is back, and you’re ready to tackle a fresh chapter of life. Your gift for speaking to animals will, however, be revealed as a fraud.  A bearded man will offer you sloe gin and sex. Accept only the gin, which taken in sufficient quantity and combined with a solar eclipse in Virgo on September 13 will make you an unstoppable force of nature.

Lucky cocktail: Screwdriver
Lucky screwthread: Whitworth

Libra (September 23 — October 22)

It’s all about who you know in 2015, Libra, and by the time the year is half through, you will have added a lot of people to your friend list. The question is: Are they the right people? On April 4, a lunar eclipse in Libra helps you step forward and shine as a star. Got an idea for a video project? Bring it to life before August 11 — you might even crowdfund it. This is a great year for Libran media types to self-publish on the web. An award is a strong possibility.

As for amour, a Mars-Venus pairing makes you extra attractive from February 20 to March 17. Your cosmic ruler, Venus, is retrograde from July 25 to September 6, which could bring a lull. A bearded man will knock at your door and offer to dance the Hokey Cokey with you. Beware. This is a ruse to persuade you to hold hands with him and on no account allow him to put his left leg in. Offer him sloe gin and he will go away. Fortunately, Venus will visit your sign from November 8 until December 4, helping you get romance back on track. Strike while the iron is still sizzling!

Lucky firework: Roman Candle
Lucky projection: Mercator

Scorpio (October 23 — November 21)

Saturn has left your sign. Now is the time to have that unsightly growth removed and indeed all aspects of plastic surgery are well starred. Perfection has always seemed something that eluded you - not this year. Time to pick your nose!

Your concerns for the environment will take second place to your need to indulge yourself with a large and powerful motor car. From June 14 until September 17, Saturn has one last visit Scorpio. You could hit an old environmental speed bump, but this time you’ll cast guilt aside and race past it. Poop poop! Jupiter, also planet of luck and expansion, will spend much of 2015 in your 10th house of success and ambition. To make progress just put your best foot forward, followed by the other one – and repeat.

Verbs and nouns are well starred but adjectives should be avoided on Twitter and Facebook, where all descriptors are strictly 'verboten' in case of another misunderstanding involving the police. In love, pace yourself and set bigger goals with your partner. Single? The solar eclipse on March 20 could bring a mysterious bearded man with an intriguing proposition. Stick with him, and with Venus in Scorpio from December 4-30, you’ll wrap the year on a romantic high.

Lucky bird: Cockatiel
Lucky soup: Cock a Leekie

Sagittarius (November 22 — December 21)

With Jupiter the jet-setting planet cruising through your ninth house of adventure perhaps it's time to break the mould and try a new savoury snack, or maybe a new fragrance. Dare to be different (no, not that different - if you discover those secret messages in a Wainwright guide, act on them at your peril). A gift you bought an elderly relative in December is set to haunt you – have your excuses ready.

You could make a mint from a publishing project or entrepreneurial venture as Jupiter moves on to your 10th house of career for a year on August 11. Crowdfunding is well starred. While love could take a backseat to your ambitions, it doesn’t have to. At an awards bash you have a chance meeting with a style blogger. One or maybe both of you will feel a lot better afterwards.

girl spanking man

Plan an outdoorsy getaway with your sweetie before the autumn. With Mars and Venus in your romance house from February 20 to March 17, you’ll catch an early dose of spring fever — and a second hit of that mojo during the lunar eclipse on September 27, when a bearded man with bad knees will call begging for gin. Go with the flow!

Lucky plant: Wormwood
Lucky devil: Beelzebub

Capricorn (December 22- January 19)

2015 sees lucky Jupiter in your powerful eighth house, you’ll feel power coursing through body and mind, but take care. Your ruling planet, Saturn, is slipping into a three-year sabbatical in your 12th house, calling for privacy and healing. Colonic irrigation is especially well starred, although you should be careful to choose the most sympathetic looking therapist to control the water pressure. Whilst on the subject of health and beauty, now is definitely not the time to get that tattoo, especially as your local tattoo artist will be under the influence of mischievous Mercury. You have been warned!

Jupiter’s tour of your seductive eighth house lasts until August 11. A bearded man will come into your life with promises of strong drink and soft sex. I may have muddled my adjectives there, but in any case refuse his advances. Jupiter swings into your jet-setting ninth house for a year on August 11, making you a citizen of the world. Yes, international travel is very much on the agenda, along with orange jump suits, water sports and invitations to show and tell. Enjoy!

Lucky man: Malcolm McDowell
Lucky vegetable: Kohl Rabi

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

Independent - spirited Aquarius, maybe you never thought of yourself as “a relationship person” before, but 2015 could totally change your mind. After August 11, Jupiter moves into your playing-for-keeps eighth house for a year, amplifying your desire for a mind-body-soul connection. A bearded man smelling of strong drink will arrive at your door, and you won’t want to lose him! Ply him with sloe gin and lock him in the cupboard under the stairs until he agrees to consummate your relationship. Do I hear wedding bells? Maybe it’s just an ice cream van, but don’t give up hope!

From mid-August on, money could come in new ways. Discretion is the watchword here. When a close friend confesses a guilty secret, don’t tell the whole world – just threaten to. Blackmail is an ugly word, but exceptionally well starred for 2015. From the night of the new moon on February 18th mysterious strangers will start coming to your door. Beware - they are cunning, lying, untrustworthy, nepotistic, dishonest, and greedy. They want to be your MP. On no account get drawn into conversation, or worse, argument. Tell them that you will vote for them and they will go away.

Lucky porcelain: Capodimonte
Lucky instrument: Clavichord

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Pisces, I can see your halo. Perseverance is a fine Piscean quality. With Jupiter in your house of selfless service until August, your efforts to improve your family’s lives will continue unabated, despite their determined opposition.

2015 is going to be a busy year for finance — the nephew of the deposed finance minister of Burkina-Faso will send you a strangely persuasive email asking for access to your bank account to house his surplus millions. The money offered is too much to ignore. It’s your call!

Saturn is also firing up your ambition engines, as he begins a three-year tour through your house of professional accomplishments. Sign up for Wordpress and take a SEO workshop and by December you could win a prestigious award to add to your Linked In profile. Jupiter moves on to your relationship house for a year on August 11, helping you break free from confining or unhealthy partnerships. Stock up on sloe gin. A bearded man with prison pallor and a drink habit will be found living in your garden shed. Hold hands and take a leap together. The September 13 eclipse could even bring a proposal!

Lucky tea: Darjeeling
Lucky cake: Madeira

The Doodlecat lying on a settee asleep

Well, that's it for now. The Doodlecat is prostrate on his settee, exhausted by his prognostications. Have a great New Year everyone - and if any of this comes true ... don't say he didn't warn you!


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

TGO Challenge 2015 - Last Chance Saloon

So, you have harboured an ambition to enter the TGO Challenge. Maybe you bought the magazine, perhaps you even filled in the form? But you didn't post it, did you, and now it's too late!

... or is it?

Hanwag, one of the the event's sponsors, is giving everyone a last chance to gain a place (plus a partner if you wish) and get some top quality footwear to protect your tootsies - see below for the details.

magazine page with competition details

You can enter the competition by CLICKING HERE.

Or maybe you have entered, only to find that you were unsuccessful in the draw, and are now languishing on the standby list, waiting for one of the chosen ones to succumb to a surfeit of Christmas pudding and withdraw. Well, whilst you're waiting, why not have a go at getting a place PLUS a new pair of boots. Last year I figured that only a select few will want to win two weeks backpacking in the scottish highlands (as opposed to the thousands who might enter a draw for a Caribbean cruise) so I entered - and won a place!

You have an excellent chance, but entries must be in by 17th January.

Go on - go for it!


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Classic Pyrenéean Day Walk

Whilst thinking about my previous post on the Pyreneés, I recalled my first walk with David in these mountains back in 2006. At the time we were enjoying a family holiday near St Girons in a fab house with a pool and all the usual little luxuries. Thus we judged it safe to leave our wives and David's son, Robert, to their own devices for a day whilst we set off for a day up in the mountains.

I will say now that this was possibly unwise as, unbeknownst to us, while we were slogging our way up to the Port de Venasque, Miss W had commandeered my BMW 330 and she & Debbie spent the day careering up and down mountain passes, eventually joining a TVR owner's club rally at a hilltop bar.

Oh my tyres and gearbox!

We spent the day blissfully unaware of the activities of our other halves, and drove up via Bagneres de Luchon to the parking area at the then derelict Hospice de France (it has since been renovated, and there is a little auberge/refuge type place there now).

This circular walk from The Hospice de France is one of those that often pops up in guide books, and as such will no doubt be pretty popular in the summer season. However, it is not a casual tourist's wander from the car park; this is a proper mountain walk and it will assuredly occupy a full day. The views into Spain are spectacular, not least for being hidden until the last moment, when you pop your head over the Port de Venasque to see the glacier topped Maladeta massif, reaching 3,404m at Aneto, the highest peak in the Pyrenees.

Map of our route
The Route - click to enlarge

 As you can see from the map, the ascent to the little refuge and the lakes of the Boums du Port is steep, but eased by the zig-zags, so taken steadily it really isn't as demanding as the ascent figure implies.

Ah, yes, the all important stats! The distance is a tad difficult to judge accurately, what with all the zig-zags, but I'll go along with the general consensus that it's about 13.5km. Our guide book put the total ascent at 1,120m, but with the benefit of digital mapping I reckon it at nearer 1,400m. Even so, by Pyrenéean standards, this is a relatively undemanding walk, within the capability of any reasonably fit walker.

One thing that struck me was the grassy pasture on the spanish side of the border, which offers some fabulous spots for a wild camp. Should you decide to climb up to the Port, and then take in the ascent of the Pic de Sauvegarde, just to the west, this would make a great place to spend the night. I would advise getting water from the refuge on the way up, though, as apart from a few small pools it seemed pretty dry on the spanish side.

I'll say no more, and let a few snapshots do the talking!

the lakes known as Boums du Port
The Boums du Port

David at Port de Venasque
David at the Port de Venasque
David at Boums du Port
David at Boums du Port
The Port de Venasque
The Port de Venasque

view south into Spain
Looking south into Spain

 The views on the Spanish side are quite stunning, and amply reward the effort of getting up there!

ponies grazing below the Port du Venasque
Ponies grazing - foals sleeping below the Port de Venasque

View from Port de la Picade looking west

We headed east from the Port de Venasque, over a saddle that is called Port de la Picade. This is a fine viewpoint, and on this clear day we could see mountain after mountain stretching off into the far distance. Being a weekday in the first week of  September, the french holidays were over and the schoolkids all preparing for the "Rentrée". We had the place entirely to ourselves, so we paused to sit in the sun and take it all in.

 view from Port de la Picade looking west
Port de la Picade looking east

The route back into France goes over the dragon's back of the Pas d'Escallette

From the Pas d'Escallette the route takes you down along the Crête de Crabides  before steadily settling in to the very long descent back to the Hospice de France. The cool woodland was very welcome at the end! All the way down the views of the Vallée de la Frèche far below are quite outstanding - if only I had taken a photo or two - but by this stage of the day my thoughts were focussed on getting back to the swimming pool and a couple of well earned beers.

Autumn crocus near Hospice de France
For more information on walking in the Pyrenées, It's worth having a look at   Andy Howell's pages . He's done a fair bit around here, and has a lot of information about public transport and so-on as well as some classic route recommendations.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

An Autumn Walk in the Pyrenées

The Pyrenées are, quite rightly, very popular, especially the areas within the Parc National. For the independent backpacker this has a downside. Wild camping is prohibited in the national park (although there are of course many discreet places where no-one would really know) and the refuges are invariably crowded and noisy. I wouldn't knock what the refuges have to offer. Here you will find good hot food, beers and mostly good company, but the dormitories are a nightmare; a hot, stuffy snore and fartfest seemingly populated by nocturnal incontinents who tramp endlessly to the latrines.

Lion d'Or hotel
The Lion d'Or
Following trips to the Picos de Europa and the Mercantour last year, brother-in-law, David & I had already decided that refuges are great places for food & drink and (in extremis) shelter, but on the whole we would prefer to camp away from the main building and have a bit of peace & quiet.

But this decision means a change of kit - not just a sleeping bag now, but a tent too - and a stove perhaps for the morning brew.

Most french refuges close at the end of September, and essentially this marks the end of the summer season in the mountains, and the beginning of an interlude before the first snowfall and the advent of the luridly clad skiing crowd. People are still around, but not that many, and certainly not in mid-week. What a perfect time to enjoy the honey pot areas.

In the first week or two of October the weather is usually fine, without the beating sun and afternoon storms of high summer. The passes are all snow-free and the mountains are largely people-free too. And so it was that on 30th September we picked up our hire car from Biarritz airport and headed off to Cauterets for three days backpacking in the Hautes Pyrenées.

We stayed at the excellent Lion d'Or hotel in Rue Richelieu, an archetypal french family hotel. If you choose this hotel, try for a room on the third floor as, odd as it may seem, this is the most convenient for parking and carrying your bags in. The town is built on steep hillsides, and there is a small car park on the Avenue du Dr Domer opposite the back door of the hotel which is on the third floor, connected to the road by a little bridge. Also opposite this discreet back door is the start of the walk, behind the impressive building that houses the Thermes César. And that is where, after a great evening meal in the town and a good night's sleep, our first day began.

1st October - Cauterets to Refuge Wallon. 14.5k 1,300m total ascent

La Raillère from the Chemin des Pères
La Raillère from the Chemin des Pères
A wonderful fresh, sunny morning to set off! Behind the Thermes César is a small yellow sign indicating the GR10. It's a steep zig-zag path that climbs up to cross a small road past an abandoned bath house until it meets the Chemin des Pères. We headed south through pleasant woodland with dappled sunlight, punctuated with occasional views of Cauterets and then the valley below and ahead.

After 50 minutes or so of easy walking we cut down again to cross a bridge below the waterfall of Cascade de Lutour and headed down to La Raillère. Here the big tourist joints were closed until the week-end, but a bar was open so we enjoyed a couple of cold beers in the warm sunshine before heading up to Pont d'Espagne via the Chemin des Cascades, which climbs through mixed woodland alongside the Gave du Mercadau. It's steep going up the rocky path, and there isn't much breeze under the trees to cool the perspiring walker, but the view points over the the crashing waterfalls give plenty of opportunities for "photo stops" ... and a bit of a breather too! Before too long we hauled ourselves up to the Pont d'Espagne, where the bar/restaurant was being prepared for its winter slumber. The huge car park below could be glimpsed as we approached, satisfactorily deserted with just a few cars scattered here and there. With the first haul uphill over, we now had an interlude of easy going to look forward to before the final push up to the refuge.

David on the Chemin des Cascades

We paused briefly before setting off across the broad Plateau du Clot. We chose to walk on the north side of the Gave du Marcadau, passing the refuge du Clot, which was still open for refreshments. Despite the temptation, we felt that stopping for more beers might be unwise, and opted for a brew stop and a proper english cuppa further up the valley. This wide, open area seems to be a popular spot for day trippers, and we noticed a few groups ambling along the track on the opposite side of the stream - for a while anyway. Soon we were entirely alone once more. The high mountains beckoned, and we crossed the Pont du Cayan at the end of this pleasant plateau to head up to the Refuge Wallon to camp.

Path just after the Pont d'Estalou
Path just after the Pont d'Estalouque - 3km to go!

camping near Refuge Wallon
First camp near Refuge Wallon

Save for a small group camping a few hundred yards away, we had the place to ourselves, with the spookily deserted refuge the only man-made intrusion in a wild mountain landscape. We were now well placed for our planned day two, slipping over the border into Spain before camping under the glaciers that still cling to the northern corries of Vignemale.

The deserted refuge
The refuge - completely deserted

2nd October - Refuge Wallon to Oullettes du Vignemale. 9.1 k (as planned - actually 10.1k ) 1,026m total ascent

Now, looking at the figures above, you would say that this would be an easy day, easier than day one, but it isn't. The paths get steeper and considerably more rocky. Non-stop I guess this would be 5 to 6 hours, but add some faffing about, a decent lunch break lounging in the sunshine, numerous photo opportunities, a bit of unexpected cloud and I guarantee you'll  have a full day. But a very rewarding one, topped by stunning views across to Vignemale and a stunning camp site - even if we didn't actually see it until the next day!

Looking north down the Gave d'Arratille
Looking north down the Gave d'Arratille

We inadvertently added that extra 1k noted above, and a good 100m of ascent by inattention  (we were looking at the scenery rather than where we were going). Our first error was going just a hundred yards or so up a false trail , easily spotted and remedied, but then, approaching the Lac d'Arratille I realised that we had strayed off to the east - not too much but enough to lose the path. No worries, said I, producing my latest toy, a Satmap Active10 unit with a 1:25000 IGN map card, with our route programmed in. I switched it on. Having been in "hibernation" mode, it locked on to the satellite signals almost immediately and displayed our location on the map.

Phil climbing up the wrong path
Phil strides confidently in the wrong direction
"That can't be right", I cried as I stared around us trying to make sense of the indicated position - half way up a mountain.

David produced his gps and we compared notes. After about a minute of half believing me he established that my Satmap was, indeed quite wrong. Dave turned around and pointed to a stretch of water about four hundred yards away.

"Would that be the lake we're looking for?" he asked.

Well of course it was! A glance at the map and everything slotted neatly into place - but what of my Satmap?  I'd only just bought it from a trusted friend. Could it be that my old pal, Andrew Walker, had sold me a dud? Surely not.

And indeed he had not. A quick perusal of the "settings" menu showed that I had the device working on the British OS grid, which, projected to southern France, accounted for the error. Do-oh. However, with that minor glitch corrected, the Satmap was to prove very useful later on.

The Lac d'Arratille is a beautiful spot, popular with keen anglers who drive up the the Pont d'Espagne in the small hours and hike up here for a day's fishing - and today the half dozen hardy souls with rod & line were being amply rewarded for their efforts by fine weather and biting fish.

the Lac d'Arratille
Our lunch spot at the Lac d'Arratille

The rest of the day was fairly straightforward - apart from being diverted by some old GR10 red and white paint splashes that veered to the west. This time however we were on the alert for false trails, and swiftly moved back on to the scree path that leads up to the deep green Lac du Col d'Arratille and thence over the col into Spain. The pictures below are quite small, but you can click on them to see them full size, as with all the pics on this blog (I say this 'cos I was asked why I kept putting such little pictures in my posts!).

Lac du Col
At the Lac du Col
David above Lac d'Arratille
David above Lac d'Arratille
A frog found at 2,400 metres
A frog found at 2,400 metres

The path across the scree slopes eastward to the Col des Mulets for re-entry into France looks exposed on the map, but is in fact mostly well dug into the slope and there is no feeling of insecurity as you plod on to the steep ascent to the col. Here a well earned rest was taken and we enjoyed the view back. However, now the sun had gone and clouds were drifting up from the east. High above a couple of eagles, or perhaps Lammergeiers, soared in and out of the shreds of vapour. It was time to commence our descent to the camping area below the Oulletttes de Vignemale before the visibility deteriorated too much.

The scree path viewed from the Col des Mulets
The scree path viewed from the Col des Mulets

This is not a pleasant descent. It is rocky, unstable and very tiring, and needs to be taken with care and a degree of circumspection. Added to which the cloud base was now descending as fast as we were, which added a certain sense of urgency. Then more cloud started to roll up the valley to meet the stuff above, so we were very pleased to reach the lower slopes and still be able to see our surroundings reasonably well.

David on the steep rocky descent from the col
David on the steep rocky descent from the col

We cut directly across to the plain that is the outwash from the Vignemale glaciers, and, now in dense mist, headed down the valley. Just as I was about to call a halt (and we were pretty tired by now) I fancied that I saw lights in the distance. It could only be the Refuge des Oulettes - evidently occupied! I encouraged David, who I think was ready to put up his tent, to follow me to the refuge which eventually loomed up through the darkening fog. A splash across the stream outside, and we were inside. It was a meeting of the youth section of the Club Alpin - all very welcoming chaps, it has to be said, but sadly, in the absence of the "gardien" there was no catering that evening and, even worse, no beers!!


They kindly offered a couple of berths in the dorm, but having decided to avoid the snoring and general insomnia of refuge life, we opted to return to our intended camp site on the bivouac area on the outwash plain. The slight problem now was that the cloud, mist, fog - call it what you will - was so thick that we literally could not see more than three yards ahead.

Saved by the Satmap! Switched it on, activated the map to 'direction of travel', and we walked directly to our chosen camp site without any problem at all - no tedious map compass and pacing, just follow the blue dot and pointer on the display. It really is an outstanding piece of kit.

And we slept well that night - apart from the odd explosion. At least that's what it sounded like, Throughout the night at least four large chunks must have fallen off the glaciers with a loud crack, bang and a rumble of falling rocks. Enough to make me peer out of the tent at one point, to see the mist gone and a clear sky with stars and moonlight picking out the high peaks that surrounded us. Just magical.

3rd October - Oullettes du Vignemale to Cauterets. 14.9k. 805m total ascent (but a lovely 2,025m descent!)

  I awoke early enough to catch the first rays of the morning sun catching the the towering peaks of Vignemale in blood red light against an egg shell blue sky. What a view to have when you're enjoying a morning cuppa!

View of glaciers from Phil's tent
A brew with a view! Looking out of the tent over breakfast

Today's route was a straightforward descent down the Vallee de Gaube on the GR10 to the Pont d'Espagne and back to Cauterets. Once again the scenery was superb in the bright autumn sunshine, and glance back up the valley showed us once again just how magnificent the country we had passed through is.

View down valley to the Lac de Gaube
Heading down to the Lac de Gaube

The Lac de Gaube boasts a small hotel and bar, but sadly this too had closed at the end of September, so we found a comfortable spot to sit down and enjoy our final lunch, polishing off the remaining saucisson, mountain cheese, bread and apples.

Lac de Gaube
Lac de Gaube

Then one last route decision. Did we keep the views by staying high and following the level track to the ski lift above the Pont d' Espagne, and then walk down the ski run, or follow the path down through the woods. As the ski run looked pretty steep and our knees were feeling the descent, we opted for the shady path, and very pleasant it was too, although rather eroded in places by the thousands of tourist feet that make the climb up to the lake from the Pont d'Espagne car parks.

Autumn Crocuses by the Lac de Gaube
Autumn Crocus by the Lac de Gaube - we saw these flowers on every day of our walk.

Then, having done the Chemin des Cascades on day one, we simply ambled down the quiet road to La Raillère and back to the bar, where beers were consumed and we relaxed after a thoroughly enjoyable promenade.

Phil and Dave atbar in La Railliere

From La Raillère we took a recommended pedestrian route that goes past the deserted spa building and then crosses the main road onto a quiet lane that leads to a bridge which, when crossed, puts you on the Rue de La Raillère and an easy stroll back to the centre of Cauterets, and, in our case, another comfortable stay at the Lion d'Or, which left Saturday morning free for a bit of shopping before heading back to Biarritz for the flight home.

Fancy this? Practical Information.

This was easily one of our best, if not the best, getaway excursion to the continent that we have had so far, and if you think you'd like to give it a try, I can thoroughly recommend it as an introduction to the Pyrenees. Do be aware, though, that snow can persist on the high passes through May, and sometimes into June, so in early summer it may be advisable to check conditions. That caveat aside, here is a little practical information on travel and costs.

We flew out with Ryanair from London Stansted to Biarritz and pre-booked a hire car for our stay, and our travel costs were as follows:

Long term car park              £  43.98
Flights inc 2 hold bags          £235.96
Hire car                             £106.34
Autoroute tolls                   £  15.74
Fuel                                  £  27.66
Car insurance excess cover  £  14.94
TOTAL                               £444.62

So the basic travel cost works out to £222 each, which really isn't too bad.

Accommodation costs depend on what you intend to do. It is from around £55 pp per night in a decent hotel, or there are some pretty good campsites in the area, like this one. Evening meals in Cauterets are pretty reasonable too.

If you cook by gas, canisters being banned on aircraft, one of the problems that you will have on arrival is finding a shop that stocks canisters, and in particular the screw-in type. No worries here. Although The Inter Sport shop and a couple of others were closed for holidays, and the remaining outdoor shops only seemed to sell clothing and ski gear, the lady at the tourist information office directed us to a little hardware store, Catena, 21, Rue Richlieu (almost opposite our hotel) where most types and sizes of canister are available - including the very small ones that we wanted for our couple of nights out.

The only question for David and me now is, where next? We've now had jaunts in the Picos de Europa, the Mercantour and a couple in the Pyrenees. It's a tough call, but I think we could be back in the Pyrenees next year!

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Friday, July 18, 2014

A Ridgeway Ramble

sign Ridgeway by Smeathes Ridge
Cut-out metal sign at Smeathe's Ridge
I rather dislike long distance walks in the summer, and I’ve never been especially keen on the national trails of the southerly parts of Great Britain. The plain fact is that they lack solitude. Every few miles it seems there is a road, and a car park, with its attendant rubbish, cans and about 200 yards of dog poo extending in either direction along the trail. That and the fact that many southern landowners seem to resent anyone straying inches from the strait and narrow, so they closely hem in all public paths and byways with a range of barbed wire barriers that could outdo the Western Front in 1916.

However, between the glorious days of spring and the cool days of autumn there is a hiatus in my personal walking calendar. The Alps, Picos and the Pyrenees are heaving with hikers, and the refuges become places to avoid – especially the fly blown latrines. Scotland and Scandinavia are plagued with midges, and often sweltering too. And so I tend to a period of summer sloth; just a six or seven miler on a Sunday, and couple of mornings doing our charity dog walking (not too onerous now poor old Alfie the help-dawg has a gammy leg).

Alan by information sign and map
Alan points out the route
So I approached Alan Sloman’s suggestion that we broke our summer interlude with three days walking part of the Ridgeway with a degree of circumspection. “It’s easy walking, and there’s a pub at each overnight” he said in a cajoling voice, “and we can park a car at each end to make it a nice linear walk rather than a contrived circular with horrid bits. Did I mention the pubs? There are pubs, you know, with beer and stuff – even a lunchtime one – plus a tea shop!”

I succumbed, although the bit about the pubs and the tea shop turned out to be overly optimistic.

On Tuesday 8th July I arrived at the car park on the Ridgeway at Bury Down, just south of Chilton. Al’s car was already there. I saw several official looking notices saying “No overnight parking”, so parked the old beemer by some bushes at a discreet distance from the road. As it transpired, this was not discreet enough – but more of that later. Soon we were whizzing off to our start point at The Sanctuary car park on the A4, just SE of Avebury, with its ancient stone circle and avenue.  This car park too is festooned with “no overnight parking” notices. These though are of a more half-hearted computer printout variety, badly laminated and stuck to the fences like wind-blown litter. I really don’t get it. It’s not as though these places are going to be chocca at 3am is it? Are walkers expected to leave their cars on the unlit verges of the A4 instead? I had always entertained the idea that a car park is a place dedicated to the parking of cars. Clearly this is a ridiculous notion, and I am ashamed for having clung to it for the past six decades.

map of day one
First day - the route shown is where we went on the Ridgeway, the tent symbol is where we dropped down to camp.

Nevertheless, pettifogging rules aside, this turned out to be a very pleasant summer walk, teeming with wild flowers, butterflies, birds and strewn with ancient forts, tumuli and tombs. Plus the views that unfold heading east just get better and better. There are a few viewless bits between hedges and trees, but not enough to spoil the walk.

After the car shuttling we finally set off around 11.30 for the leisurely stroll to our first overnight camp at Ogbourne St George. The adjacent fields on Overton Down still have a scattering of Sarsen Stones, as used in the ancient monuments. It seems that 3,500 years ago the pre-agricultural  landscape was very different -  strewn with these mysterious boulders. They are known locally and shown on the map as “grey wethers” (a wether being a young ram) and they really do look a little like sheep grazing in the long grass.

View west from Avebury Down
View west from Avebury Down

We ambled on, and in blustery winds with sunshine and showers scudding past, eventually passing through the ramparts of Barbury Castle, an iron age hill fort. It has a long history of military use, through Roman and Saxon times right up until the 1940s, when anti-aircraft guns were placed there to protect the nearby airfield. Quite important as it was here that many of the Horsa gliders were assembled for D Day, and no-one was risking the Germans getting wind of what was going on. Subsequently the airfield became a hospital base for casualties, and a military hospital remained on the site until 1996. Today the site is owned by the London Science Museum and used as a storage facility for the largest objects – hovercraft, de-activated (I hope) nuclear missiles, old computers and so on.

On the way to Barbury Castle we met a young woman with camera, tripod and clipboard, making careful notes.

“Probably a naturalist,” I remarked.

 “Oooh, do you think she’s going to take her clothes off?” said the ever optimistic Al.

Al on Smeathe's Ridge
Al on Smeathe's Ridge
We stopped for a chat and discovered that she was engaged in a survey to assess the visual impact of covering the airfield in 160,000 solar panels. This being a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty I would have thought that it would be a pretty major intrusion. Nevertheless, she explained,  Swindon Borough Council has approved the scheme on the basis that the airfield is a ‘brownfield site’. I am sure that the fact that the council, via a wholly owned subsidiary, are joint partners in the project had no bearing whatsoever.

So why the survey work? Such has been the outcry against this cosy bit of decision making that HM Planning Inspectorate is conducting an inquiry in September. In the meantime, much to the dismay of the council and the solar energy industry, the government has moved to cap subsidies for solar farms, so it is likely that even if they do get the scheme past the inquiry, the project will be uneconomic anyway.

Al had promised a café at the farm just after Barbury Castle, and I was looking forward to a cuppa and a butty. Sadly we were faced with a weed infested roofless ruin. We later learned that the tenant had abandoned the place deep in rent arrears, and that it was subsequently vandalised and set on fire. I quietly hoped that the pubs of Ogbourne St George had withstood the economic downturn rather more successfully.

And then it was a glorious descent along Smeathes Ridge into Ogbourne. We saw a Red Kite here – rare in my part of the country, but as I was to discover, very common now along the Ridgeway. All the way dark clouds loomed over our little patch of sunshine and we could see mini monsoon showers skim along the edge of the ridge. Only a few drops touched us though until we entered the village, where it fairly fell out of the sky.

Fortunately we were passing the Parklands hotel. Although it was barely tea-time we tried the door – it opened. It opened into a little reception area and beyond that a bar with a real ale tap on display. A sign over a bell push invited us to ring for service, so we did, and a very nice young lady and then the owner served us much needed hydrating fluids over the next hour or two until the rain subsided. We decided to book a table and toddled off to find our camp site at Foxlynch, a horsey sort of place and indeed we shared the field with a couple of ponies and a few chickens. But the facilities were clean, everything worked and it was nice to have a garden bench to relax on.

 The chickens decided that Al’s trailstar would make a great love shack, and within minutes of him pitching it a hen scuttled in, quickly followed by a large red cockerel. Much squawking followed, mainly from Al, as he evicted the would-be lovers.

chicken entering Al's tent
Heading for the love shack

Our Camp at Foxlynch
Our Camp at Foxlynch
Rocky the Rooster

En route to the campsite we passed a decent looking pub called “The Inn With The Well”, but having already booked our dinner we reluctantly gave it a miss and returned to the hotel, where we watched Germany thrash Brazil 7-1. The goals went in so fast that it was difficult to know whether you were watching a replay of the last one or a fresh ball hitting the net.  And so to a good night’s sleep.

Day Two

map for day two
Route for day two

Al sitting on bench with view
Never pass a bench without sitting on it
The next morning started with a bit of a trudge along an overgrown byway to regain the ridge (NE from the tent symbol on the map) but once aloft the going was easy once more, if a bit hemmed in by hedges at first. But once past Whitefield Hill, the views opened up once more and before long Liddington Castle (another iron age fort) came into view. We paused here to enjoy a bit of a sit down in the steadily improving weather, and as Al remarked, we wouldn’t want to arrive too early at the Shepherd’s Rest for lunch and a couple of refreshing pints. At this point we were overtaken by a couple of teenage lads who we had seen pitch at Foxlynch last night. They were in good spirits and going “as far as they got”. They weren’t bothered whether they wild camped either, as they were carrying all the food they needed for their six days on the trail. They waved a cheery farewell as we settled to the serious business of a slight snooze.

Timing is everything and before I had really settled in to a proper snooze it was time to set off across the M4 to Foxhill and the Shepherd’s Rest.

Green Shield beetle on M4 bridge
Green Shield beetle on M4 bridge
Disaster! The pub had been transmogrified into an indian restaurant! We had heard rumours in Ogbourne, but the horrific reality was almost too much for Al, especially as we had a hill to climb now.  “Maybe they’ll have a bar”, he said. “Yes, I replied, but only with bottled Cobra I’ll be bound”. And so with heavy hearts and packs we set off and found a pleasant lunch spot by Lammy Down with a view down to Ashbourne House in the far distance. We ate and dozed in the warm sunshine to the rhythmic clanging of a nearby farm hand engaged in hitting a metal spike with a large hammer, to no obvious purpose.

From here on the walk and the views get better and better still. Where the path became rather unpleasantly rutted, a chap with a Ridgeway T shirt popped out of the trees and directed us along a pleasant woodland path to Wayland’s Smithy, a Neolithic Long Barrow or burial chamber. A strange and atmospheric place, set amongst ancient whispering beeches seemingly from another world and time, which I suppose it is. Two bunches of long dead flowers lay in the dark chill of the central chamber, placed there by whom? We agreed that this place had a very special feeling as we left to the murmuring of the wind in the old trees.

Wayland's Smithy long barrow
Wayland's Smithy

And then we were back on the trail again, well made and maintained now all the way to the fort and prehistoric white horse at Uffington. Here we came across a large youth group led by PGL leaders. They seemed to be inner city kids, a tad out of their comfort zone, but enthusiastic and ‘up for it’. Their camp was in a field just below the fort and as we passed it en route to Britchcombe Farm we saw them being organised into teams for some sort of bonding exercises by their team leaders. A bit of instruction on tent pitching would have been more useful, judging by the rows of tents that lurched drunkenly in the light breeze.

view from Uffington Castle
View from the iron age fort, Uffington Castle

Uffington White Horse
Uffington White Horse (back end and tail)

Knapweed with butterfly
Flora and fauna - Knapweed with Marbled White butterfly

Britchcombe Farm offered a delightful pitch for the night – a bit of a long way from the pub in Uffington, but it was worth the walk. I can thoroughly recommend the Fox and Hounds for good beer and decent unpretentious food. A village pub that hasn’t pretensions to being a restaurant, but does the job just as well, if not better than many that do.

Camp at Britchcombe Farm
Camp at Britchcombe Farm

Day Three

It’s a stiffish climb up the footpath back to the Ridgeway, but we accomplished it easily enough in the cool sunny morning. By the time we reached the top the sky was cloudless and the sun beat down – time to slap on the factor 30!
Final day - stunning views north

The views north from here onwards to the A34 are stunning, stretching towards an infinite horizon under a cloudless blue sky. We were overtaken by a chap who was walking from Lyme Regis all the way to Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast. He had bivvied the night before at Liddington hill fort. He had a wedding to attend in Norfolk, and had decided to walk there. The only trouble was the date of the wedding meant that he was having to do 18 mile days. We chatted for a while and he told us about some great long distance walking in Turkey, a place we’d never previously considered.

Chalkland meadow
Chalkland meadow with hundreds of wild flowers

As he was (necessarily) walking at a fair pace we said our farewells and sat down for lunch. After a few minutes we heard the strains of “Clementine” being sung lustily with revised lyrics:

Are we there yet, are we there yet
Are we there yet, are we there?
Are we there yet, are we there yet
Are we there yet, are we there?

The songsters came into view; the two teenage lads we had met the previous day. They had made a lateish start after camping in a wood and were heading for Goring (or “as far as we get”). I rather liked their attitude to this walking lark – head from here to there and leave the bit in between unplanned, to pan out as it may.

Now we were heading for the end of our walk, but one last treat was in store. We had seen several Red Kites, but as we approached the crossing point on the B4494 south of Wantage, we saw half a dozen hovering in the updraught and occasionally swooping low over the fields before soaring aloft again. So spectacular was the display that a businesswoman with an open top Mercedes had pulled over into the makeshift car park to watch. “I really should be back at work,”  she said, “but you don’t see something like this every day.”

Indeed you don’t.
Red Kite in flight
Red Kite in flight

And then it was just a stroll back to the car park – we could tell we were getting close by the increasing number of dog walkers bringing their animals along to crap on the path. Some picked up, presumably to adorn the trees and hedgerows with yet more of  their pooches poops neatly encapsulated in little plastic bags. Why do dog owners do this?.

My car was safe and sound and we were soon whizzing along to Al’s car. As we had finished all our water we called in to a pub in Marlborough for a couple of cold shandies, and I phoned home.

“Ah, it’s you,” came the frosty tones of Miss W. “Did you get the messages that I left on Alan’s phone?” (my own phone generally lives in the car).
“No, what messages?”
“The messages about the police calling here at three o’ clock this morning making enquires about an abandoned black BMW in a remote rural car park. They woke the neighbours up too”

Oooo –er. I sensed that I might be in a bit of trouble here. It transpired that the police had had a report about my car and the local police had been over to have a shufty. When it was still there the next night they made enquiries. Quite why the enquires were followed up at 3 am I’m not sure, just as I am uncertain as to what the appearance of Miss W at the door armed with a fly swat (the only weapon she could find) made on her visitors. I was absolutely sure, however, that the fly swat might well be employed vigorously on my return.

I grovelled.

No overnight parking signAnd here’s a tip, courtesy of the Thames Valley Police. If you are leaving your car somewhere for a day or two, ring 101 and let the local police know. All those “no overnight parking in this car park” do tend to put you off, but I doubt whether the council has bothered to have them authorised by the Secretary of State for Transport, so in most cases they will be unenforceable.  Certainly no mention was made by the police, and there was no parking ticket on my car.

The only fixed penalty that I suffered was when I got home. :-(

All in all this was an unexpectedly enjoyable walk. The weather helped enormously (it would be rather unpleasant in sheeting rain I reckon) and the views, history, flora and fauna all contributed to a very relaxing three days.  You could easily thrash along this trail, but my advice would be to potter around the monuments, drop off into the odd village pub when the fancy takes you and generally enjoy a rare bit of peace in the often overpopulated south of England.

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