The summit of the Munro Carn a’ Chlamain lies some seven miles north east of Blair Atholl. Depending on your route of ascent you can be looking at a five to seven mile trip just to get to the foot of the hill, and a round trip going on twenty miles. That’s a big day out at the best of times, but in November with it’s short days it can be a challenge to fit it in in daylight, however I have recently taken delivery of a new mountain bike and I had been itching to get out and put it to the test, so this seemed the ideal opportunity. When planning a walk I don’t like to rely heavily (if at all) on guide books, preferring to work out my route on the map, then adapting it when I see the ground. For that reason I wasn’t entirely sure how far up Glen Tilt I could take the bike before having to ditch it. In fact I managed to cycle all the way to the bottom of the hill with no problems. It wasn’t until later I found I could probably have cycled all the way to the top as well…
Just before 9am I was on the platform at Blair Atholl, and five minutes later was at the signal box which overlooks the level crossing. One of the perks of being a signalman that there’s a network of boxes across the country where you can call in and get help or advice from other signallers. In this case I wanted to leave some gear which I had for on the train, books and a bag for the bike. Normally I would stash them somewhere but this is more secure. I was now ready for the hills. Next stop- Glen Tilt.
I often find that the start of the walk can be the most difficult, orientating yourself to the ground can be tricky, and at the end of the village is a junction, with two roads running parallel to each other. I wanted the road to Old Bridge Of Tilt, and I relaxed once I had confirmed I was on it. The tree lined road runs alongside the River Tilt, crossing it over an old Wade bridge, then climbing uphill to a small house which sits at the entrance to the path to Forest Lodge. If you are coming by car there is a good sized car park here. Having no need of it I tightened the straps on my rucksack, tucked my map away and began pedalling up the glen.
One advantage of cycling (apart from being able to cover more miles) is that it’s relatively quiet, and as I whizzed along unaccompanied by the usual scuff of boots and clack of poles I surprised a few of the residents. Deer and pheasants shot off into the trees which line the banks of the river. The disadvantages of a bike? It’s hard to hold a camera…
I arrived at a small wooden bridge on the opposite side of the river from the cottage at Balaneasie. The first thing I noticed was that the bridge marked on my paper map wasn’t there. I have more up to date mapping on my Garmin Oregon 550 GPS, and it shows (or doesn’t depending on how you look at it) no bridge. So, since 2004 the bridge has been destroyed. Lucky for me I wasn’t requiring to use it, apart from being a waypoint to tick off as I navigated.
The bridge where I stood was also of interest to me, but for a different reason. A plaque next to it states that it was built in 1991 by members of 102 Field Squadron Royal Engineers (V) from Paisley. This squadron was part of 71 Engineer Regiment (V), a Territorial Army unit. I too was a member of 71 Engr’s, as part of 124 Field Squadron based at Coatdyke, and I wondered if I knew any of the guys who worked on this bridge. Around about that time our regiment (and indeed many other TA and Regular Royal Engineer units) carried out MACC (Military Aid to the Civilian Community). A jetty at Hillend Reservoir and a bridge at Plains Country Park were some of the local ones I remember working on, while further afield we carried out work near Oban and in Skye. It’s always nice to find these things still in use long after the job has finished.
I’ve often found bikes lying in the long grass, unlocked and unattended while their owner is off bagging a hill somewhere. I’m a bit less trusting, so I carried the bike uphill and locked it to a tree. It’s olive drab colour helped minimise its visibility. Similarly I stashed the bikes tools in a camouflage bag nearby, as it’s highly unlikely I’ll need a spanner or spare tubing up on the hills! So far I’d been on the bike for 90 minutes and had spent about 20 stowing the bike away. Time to start climbing.
There was a faint path which headed up in the direction I wanted to go. Most walkers plotting lines of approach to a summit on a map will pick roughly similar routes, so I wasn’t surprised to find a path here, but this was where I noticed another difference in my maps. My paper map showed a bare hillside up to the summit, the GPS map showed a double dotted line, a vehicle track leading almost to the very top. I soon came to a junction where the footpath disappeared, replaced by the aforementioned track. By and large this follows the line of the ridge north east for about two miles, before turning north west to pass within around 50m of the summit. A large cairn acts as a reminder to turn up to the top. There are a few sections of the old footpath left, and I took them to provide a bit of variety if anything else.
The views had gone by the time I reached the top, lost in a relentless lump of cloud. For a few seconds I caught sight of the Allt Craoinidh sparkling below, and then it was gone. Had I walked in and been watching the clock I’d probably head back the way I’d came. Had I known the path was like this all the way up perhaps I’d have brought the bike all the way to the top! Not one for straight there and back routes I decided to make a horseshoe of it, and headed down towards Aonach na Cloiche Mòire. The ground here is wet and boggy, with the added attraction of peat hags to contend with. There is a faint quad bike path across this bog, which swings around onto the 887m summit of Bràigh nan Creagan Breac.
This couldn’t be more of a contrast to the first hill. Virtually pathless, I crossed a weird lichen and moss covered landscape, where you could be fooled into believing no one had set foot before, were it not for the cairns marking each minor summit.
The other sign that this hill has few visitors is its wildlife. Carn a’ Chlamain had been almost devoid of wildlife, hosting as far as I could tell, one grouse, one hare and one kestrel. Thin pickings indeed. Bràigh nan Creagan Breac by comparison was teeming with life. I attempted to approach a herd of deer, partially hidden by the mist, only for my presence to be revealed by clattering grouse. Mountain hares in their winter garb, conspicuously white on a greeny-brown background scattered, pausing at a safe distance to eye me up. One, braver than the rest was kind enough to stay and pose for a while before disappearing in the murk.
Carefull navigation is required from the next top, Bràigh Clais Daimh, so I got the compass out to find a large bubble in it. Why is always high up on a cold winters day that these things decide to make themselves known? I dropped down before a final pull up to the top of Sròn a’ Chrò. The cloud was still thick and I spent much of the time descending while pace counting on a compass bearing. My calculated pace was a bit off, not easy to judge on such steep and rough terrain, but it was a worthwhile exercise, taking my mind off my knee which had begun to throb.
I arrived back at the bike to find it undisturbed. So far my journey had taken around 6 hours, and with the next train not due for a couple of hours I decided to take it easy. I got the stove out, made up a meal and a hot drink and watched as a shepherd and his team of dogs drove a flock of bouncing sheep down the glen. I packed my gear away as golden light began to play across the upper slopes of Bràigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain, and set off back towards Blair Atholl, the return journey a mere 45 minutes, even with my sore knee.
Gear recovered from the signalbox, I settled down to wait for the train. The long walk in had been reduced by the bike to a very manageable day, and for once I’d be home long before midnight. I was intrigued by Glen Tilt and I fancy a return trip here with the bike, as it opens up quite a few possibilities, including an overnighter in a bothy. Who knows, perhaps even cycling to the top of a Munro. That’s something I never considered before, and I’ll have to have a go sooner rather than later. My knees aren’t getting any younger. Just my spirit.