Thursday, 8 August 2019

Decline and Fall: In which our hero plods wearily to the finish of the 2019 TGO Challenge

Trailstar Party Time: Philbrick, Dr Fagan and Captain Grimes

“I expect you’ll becoming a school master, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour”.  

(The college porter to the naive Paul Pennyfeather as Paul departed Oxford after wrongly being sent down for running around the quad naked at night, having previously been de-bagged by the Bollinger Club following their annual dinner.) From 'Decline and Fall', by Evelyn Waugh.

Wot? Why not smiling? In Glen Roy

Paul Pennyfeather reflected.  Not for the first time on this TGO Challenge.  Life can throw strange things at you.  Scottish backpackers expect the weather to be wet and cold and miserable.  Anything else is normally a bonus. But the wall-to-wall sunshine and 24 degree centigrade temperatures when carrying a large pack were of questionable benefit.

Still, thought Pennyfeather, “embrace the suck”.

Pennyfeather had heard an American backpacker use that phrase and, having eventually worked out what it meant, had decided it should be his mantra, there being much suck in life which needed to be embraced.  But embracing it was not always easy.  Still, the amiable and encouraging presence of Dr Fagan helped as they trudged along the road towards the Great Glen and a camp site with showers and resupply parcels full of chocolate and stuff.  Grimes and Philbrick had disappeared several hours ago, Grimes mysteriously vanishing into a forestry plantation and Philbrick had halted for a snooze in the sun by a gurgling river.  The team eventually reassembled on the towpath of the Caledonian Canal, if lying hot, dishevelled and thirsty in a hedgerow can be classed as reassembly. 

At the Caledonian Canal

They had heard that Digby Vane-Trumpington, with an injured knee, was in Fort William and would be taking a taxi to the camp site to join them.  Philbrick telephoned him with an order for wine and cheese and other goodies.  He muttered some last words into the phone, and Paul could have sworn that his final instruction was “Oh, and Trumpington, if you value what remains of your kneecaps, don’t be late.”

Vane-Trumpington was waiting at the site.  Prendergast arrived, smiling.  The team showered.  Not together, obviously.  The wine, intended to be drunk two days later, was opened.  And it was good.

The following days turned into a blur.  Despite his wooden leg Grimes frequently raced ahead, prodding cattle away to protect Pennyfeather.  Dr Fagan and Philbrick wandered behind "deep in philosophical discussion”, Pennyfeather suggested to Grimes, who simply smirked in response.  The last of the Cheese and Wine was drunk in the sunshine at an enjoyable spot by the River Spey not far from the Melgarve Bothy.  Over the wine Dr Fagan sought to convince some lovely Canadians, Malcolm and Martha, who had not, incidentally, consumed most of their cheese and wine days earlier but had actually carried the stuff to its intended destination, of the problems with climate science and the evils of wind turbines.  Malcolm sought quietly to rebut the good doctor’s analysis and change the subject.  A week later at Tarfside Pennyfeather met Malcolm and Martha again and learnt that Malcolm was, amongst other things, an adviser to the Canadian Government on climate change.

With Martha and Malcolm at the Cheese and Wine
The wonderfully named Brisbane and Yeticlaws from the US of A: Two thoroughly nice blokes. And no, those aren't day packs that they are carrying.
Glen Banchor: The best day. Simpy the best.

They plodded on.  At Kingussie they marvelled at the US backpackers with their ladies' clutch bag sized rucksacks and strange ‘trail names’.  Things like ‘Yeticlaws’ and ‘Brisbane’.  And they saw one happy Challenger, who must remain nameless, skipping, yes skipping, from the bar of the Silverfjord Hotel towards the bothy in Glen Feshie at four in the afternoon having sunk eight pints of bitter and three glasses of scotch.

Grimes and Pennyfeather then put in, what for Pennyfeather was ‘a big day’, off route, but on the lovely and easy path, up and over the Feshie to the Geldie Ford, Pennyfeather being encouraged and cajoled by the ever energetic and supportive Grimes.  They would have told Fagan and Philbrick of their plans, but these two had been passed hours earlier lying on the grass discussing how the world could be put to rights.  If they are ever put in charge you should be afraid. Very afraid.

With Captain Grimes

Braemar.  The Fife Arms has become horrific since its revamp.  What’s with a stuffed deer with angel’s wings flying above the bar?  Pennyfeather went to bed early to re-plan his route.  He had to get home earlier than he had wanted because of a sick elderly mother.  Grimes explained that he was also going off route and was heading for the hills.  “I'm not in the soup again old chap,” he assured Pennyfeather, “but needs must, you know how it is”.  Pennyfeather didn’t know.  All he wanted was to get to the east coast quickly and with the minimum of discomfort.  He’d had enough of embracing the suck.

Balmoral passed in a blur.  Well after the coffee and cake at Her Majesty’s place, obviously.  Ballater saw more niceness with lots of Challengers, the re-appearance of the smiling Prendergast, the appearance of a cheerful, excited Mrs Clutterbuck and also of a laid back, esoteric, ageing rock star in his trade mark cashmere sweater.

Pennyfeather eyed the top of Mount Keen from the dullest mountain path north of Skiddaw.  “Been there, done that, can’t be bothered again”, he thought, opting for the beautifully crafted but oh so artificial path over the shoulder, which he had not taken before.  Tarfside showed that the cheerfully inebriated challenger last seen skipping out of Kingussie was safe and well, still skipping, but had signed the pledge.  Well the first part of that statement is true.  Lots of old friends were making bacon butties at St Trinian’s Hostel.  Pennyfeather enjoyed the hugs and comradeship almost as much as the bacon butties.  North Water Bridge campsite was, well, North Water Bridge Campsite.  It has splendid new shower and toilet facilities.  What it really needs each May is a pop-up bar and a bacon buttie and cake shop.  He headed off to the coast at 5.10 in the morning of the Wednesday and walked along the empty beach from Kinnaber Links to the golf course and then up to the Park Hotel in Montrose to sign out before mysteriously disappearing, never to be seen again by his fellow travellers.  In 2019.

An evening in the Mason's at Tarfside


What happened to the ‘real’ Decline and Fall characters?

Prendergast, unable to maintain discipline in the classroom became the Chaplain in Dartmoor Gaol.  The reforming governor, in his efforts to rehabilitate the horrendously violent inmates, had allowed them woodwork tools in the workshop.  They used these to saw off Prendie’s head.

Philbrick, ever shady and politely menacing, had a spell in Dartmoor, but was last seen being driven around Oxford in the back seat of an open-topped Rolls Royce with a heavy fur rug over his knees.

Grimes, in the soup, escaped from Dartmoor Gaol by stealing one of the warders’ horses whilst breaking rocks in a quarry on the moor.  He galloped off into the fog, never to be seen again.  His wooden leg and his clothes were found abandoned on a beach.  His body was never found, but as Pennyfeather smilingly reflected, Grimes was one of life’s immortals.

Dr Fagan gave up being the headmaster of a minor public school in Snowdonia and, being a polymath, established a sanatorium on the south coast.

Pennyfeather, also a prisoner in Dartmoor, having innocently become mixed up in the white slave trade, was taken from Dartmoor to Dr Fagan’s sanatorium, allegedly with appendicitis.  The Doctor faked a death certificate and Pennyfeather disappeared from public view.

Any resemblance of the characters in these blog posts to any person, either living or dead, is entirely intentional entirely coincidental and is merely the outcome of my warped imagination and odd sense of humour.  The post has been written with affection, admiration and thanks for all these characters who helped me across Scotland - again. 

Decline and Fall was Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, being published in 1928.  Waugh was, in my opinion, one of the best authors of the twentieth century.  He created some of the funniest and most wonderful characters in fiction as well as some of the most poignant.  If I had one thousandth of his literary skills I would be a happy man indeed. 

Made it: a lonesome early morning selfie

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Backpacking Moggism

It is gratifying when a person who appears to be a caricature of someone straight out of the 1860s (ie Jacob Rees-Mogg) publicises something that someone straight out of the 1760s (ie Fellbound) has been moaning about for years – the use of ridiculous or imprecise language and the abuse of grammar.  I do not, incidentally, claim to be an expert on grammar.  As a child of the 1960s I was not taught grammar in any formal sense apart from in Latin and Greek lessons.  Thus, I make no claims to grammatical expertise, what with English speakers not being Romans or Ancient Greeks.

But Mogg has a point, in that some stuff we hear or read is, bluntly, absurd.  Having undertaken an extensive and rigorous analysis that took me in excess of twenty minutes I believe that many backpacking writers, bloggers and vloggers (what a horrid word) are guilty and I now set out just some of the words and phrases which, and I’ll put this as delicately as I can, boil my piss:

1. Rocking (or worse “rockin”) as in “what trail shoes are you rocking these days?”, or “I’m rocking the Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack on this year’s TGO Challenge”.  Can’t these people just wear or own things? I am, incidentally, rocking the GG Mariposa on most of my hikes.

2. Dialled.  I have no idea what this word means if used about anything other than a telephone made before about 1980.  People seem to say or write things such as “I have dialled my gear down”.  Look.  Just stop it.  Please.

3. My go to.  As in “my go to shelter/pack/boots/trekking poles/whatever”.  I just have a “usual” or “favourite”.  But then I’m an old fart.

4. Any discussion about the definitions of what constitutes “lightweight”, “ultralight”, “super-ultralight”, what should be included in “base weight” or anything vaguely connected with these concepts.  It’s subjective you wallies!  Would you have a discussion about, say, the height someone should be before they can be described as “tall” or “short”?  No you wouldn’t.  Not unless you were a complete moron.  Or a student of philosophy. Or both.

5. “Comfortability”.  I recently heard an American say that his new backpacking pillow had greatly increased his comfortability. Honestly.  And no, George W Bush has not started backpacking.

That’s backpacking.  Now I’ve started I may as well have a rant about this stuff in the wider world.

1. Forward planning.  What’s that all about?  Can planning be about anything other than what will happen in the future?  Is the word “forward” necessary? Or perhaps people who use this term believe they are dealing with people who think that they might be planning for events that are now in the past?

2. Existential.  No-one, but no-one, except the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, knows what that word means.  It is now used daily by politicians, journalists and commentators eg “an existential threat”.  It’s just “a threat” you idiots.  Adding superfluous words to make you sound clever does not make you clever.  Nor does it impress people who are clever.

3. “Reaching out”.  As in “we are reaching out to our customers”.  Well I will tell you what I reach out for.  The sick bucket whenever I hear or read this fatuous phrase.

4. “Can I get a….?”.  As used in Starbucks, Costa and all the large commercial coffee houses.  “Can I get a flat white?”  The correct response from the server should be “I’m sorry, no.  Health and Safety rules would not allow you behind the counter, but I’ll happily make one for you and put it in the eco-friendly mug made out of yak skin that you have thoughtfully brought with you.  Long live the polar bears.”

5. “This does not represent who I am or the values I hold”.  Another sick bucket inducing phrase.  It is used by people (politicians, business men and women, footballers, Hollywood stars and their ilk) caught with their trousers down, making racist abuse, recorded making injudicious comments to friends, using the office computers for porn, or making a Nazi salute.  In my case I need to explain that my dog Moss is somewhat deaf these days and he responds to hand signals.  My signal for stop and wait does, indeed, look rather like a Nazi salute. Well that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

Actually matey, what you did does indeed represent who you are.  Be honest about it.  We’re all human.  We all err.  We have all said and done things that we should not have done.  The important thing is to be honest about our actions, not just to ourselves but also to any others affected, to know what is right and wrong and to try to improve our behaviours in the future.

Now go on.  You know you want to. If you are as curmudgeonly as me please leave a comment giving further examples of idiocy.  And do not write “starting a sentence with the word ‘and’, you clot”.  This was very acceptable in 1780.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Decline and Fall: The TGO Challenge 2019

(With unashamed plagiarism of the great Evelyn Waugh's first novel)

Four men of revolting appearance were approaching from the glen. They were low of brow, crafty of eye and crooked of limb. They advanced with the loping tread of wolves, peering about them furtively as they came, as though in constant terror of ambush; they slavered at their mouths, which hung loosely over their receding chins, while each shouldered on his ape like back a burden of curious and unaccountable shape. On seeing the ultralight American backpacking vloggers they halted and hedged back, those behind squinting and mouthing over their companions' shoulders.

“They’re surely going to die, those fellows”, the band of four muttered, “for no-one can survive in the Scottish bogs without a decent set of nine inch gold Eastons. Or at least seven inch Groundhogs”.

“Nor without a good, sturdy gabardine mackintosh”, whispered Philbrick, doffing his recently purchased Black Watch tartan ‘I love Scotland’ cap to the hikers from the world’s only remaining superpower.

(Adapted from Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh)

Paul Pennyfeather reflected. It was supposed to have been wall-to-wall sunshine for at least the first week.  He called up the stairs of the Lochaillort Hotel to his delightful group of walking companions. “It’s peeing down chaps. Overtrousers time”.
Paul Pennyfeather at Locahaillort: A mild mannered, naive chap, and generally modesty personified, despite his somewhat narcissistic tendencies. And damned handsome to boot.
They sat in the bar and waited 20 minutes in the hope that the rain would ease. A semi-darkened hotel bar at 9.00 am is a cold and unwelcoming place. It was hopeless trying to get the team together for a group photograph. Eventually, Dr Fagan decided that they would leave.

“Typical of Grimes, he’s never ready when I say”, said the Doctor. Philbrick grunted in assent.

“Steady on Doctor”, said Pennyfeather, “he’ll be along soon. He’s waiting for Prendy”.

“Prendy’s hopeless at early starts. He knew what time we were supposed to be leaving. So did Grimes. Come on, they’ll just have to catch up. In any case, Prendy might be a decent sort, but he’s not in our team. He’s not Grimes’ responsibility”.
Sir Solomon Philbrick, a man with a mysterious past and Doctor Fagan.
According to Evelyn Waugh, who thankfully can not be sued as he is dead, Philbrick may have been the former owner of a London pub and safe cracker; or a wealthy ship owner and slayer of a Portuguese Count; or a Cambridge educated novelist. None are likely to be true. Waugh describes Doctor Fagan as the Headmaster of a third rate private boarding school in Wales, allegedly with three PHDs and an expert in many things. Only the latter is true.

Ravaged by time and a misspent youth, Captain Grimes suffers from appallingly high levels of fitness, despite Waugh's belief that he had a wooden leg. Note that Pennyfeather would fall over without leaning on those trekking poles having just managed to keep pace with him for almost a whole killer metre.

The three set off along the side of the road, soon caught up by Grimes and Prendergast. Pennyfeather was in front at this point dodging on to the rough verge every few seconds in the face of frequent, fast moving traffic; Dr Fagan and Philbrick never varied their distance from the kerb, but stared into the whites of the eyes of the drivers of the passing vehicles. The pure menace inherent in their look forced most cars to give them a wider berth. Grimes simply shouted obscenities at any unabashed motorists. Prendergast just smiled at all and sundry.

Prendergast: A rare photo this, in that he is not smiling. But he is still oozing pleasantness from every pore.
Police Constable Isla McTavish’s Volvo sped round a bend, almost wiping out the five Challengers, and skidded to a halt. She wound the window down. “Walk on the verge”, she commanded. “No”, replied Dr Fagan. PC McTavish sped off. Her match had just met her.

They reached the ridge heading for Glas-charn, at what the Ordnance Survey suggested was just 633 metres above seal level. In his exertions Pennyfeather thought this was clearly nonsense. It was quite evidently at least the height of a lofty Munro. The bog closed in. Then the clag came down, the temperature came down, the rain came down and finally sleet and hail came down. A line of old fence posts pointed the way to the summit, but via many a bog and several fierce ascents and descents. Grimes stomped ahead; Prendergast smiled throughout, matching Grimes step for step, being kind and supportive and generally coming dangerously close to stealing the sobriquet of ‘the veryveryniceman’ from Pennyfeather.

Heading up Glas-charn: Clag, bog and water. But not a drop to drink.
Pennyfeather, meanwhile, was tired. Extremely tired. That dog walking along the Shropshire Union canal towpath had, perhaps, not been quite adequate preparation for the event. He could not easily keep up with Grimes and Prendy, but to his surprise the Doctor and Philbrick were left far behind. And was he thirsty? Yes he was. He reflected that those who say there is no need to carry much water when walking in Scotland are perhaps just repeating an old canard. If enough people say something, believe something, it does not make it true.

“I’m sure we’ll start to bond as a team as the days go on”, he said to Grimes.

“Hmmm”, was Grimes’ ominous reply.

“I wonder why they’re so slow”, mused Pennyfeather, adding “anyone would think they are hatching some dastardly plot”. Grimes looked at him, pity masking his ravaged features. “You’re a good egg, Paul, but you are rather naïve”, was his reply.

The top of Glas-charn: The forced attempt at a smile speaks volumes

The day couldn’t end soon enough for Paul. He and Grimes pitched up at a spot by a new hydro scheme that was far better than its stony appearance warranted. Philbrick and Fagan arrived 30 or 40 minutes later. Fortunately, looks cannot kill. But remember. If the Doctor ever tells you where to stop for the night then stop there for the night. Or, if you do not, wait until he’s had a large scotch and is tucked up in his sleeping bag with a cuppa soup inside him before begging forgiveness.
First night camp spot
Despite team orders from the Doctor and Philbrick, Pennyfeather couldn't bring himself to sniff his own socks but he did hang them in his tent to dry out
It got better over the coming days. Much better. The weather that is. And the terrain. Not that Pennyfeather became less tired. The forty five minute stop for bacon butties at Glenfinnan Station after just an hour’s walking the following day was welcome and deserved after the privations of the first day; the second stop, for thirty minutes for coffee and cake at Glenfinnan Visitors’ Centre did not, he felt, really seem to have been truly earned.
Dr Fagan and Philbrick believe that the keys to a happy and successful TGO Challenge are regular rest breaks and sniffing your own socks at frequent intervals. By the look on Philbrick's face this sniff suggests that he's in for a rough afternoon.
Gleann Fionnlighe was rather splendid. Prendergast left the team for higher things; Grimes pointed out that the weather hardly warranted the decision of his three companions to follow the Foul Weather Alternative. He was right, of course, but wisdom and the previous day's exertions got the better of them. Grimes harrumphed and headed upwards at the speed of sound; the others trudged the glen and over the col to the Glensulaig Bothy at the speed of snails. Pennyfeather found Grimes camped and unpacked by the time he arrived. To his credit Grimes then did what he is a master at. He shovelled shit. Piles of it. The cattle variety. He cleared it from the best camping spots reserved for the Doctor and Philbrick who arrived somewhat later. And it was finally good.

The Glensulaig Bothy: A splendid spot to camp and hardly a cow pat in sight

To be continued......probably. I have a holiday to attend and a house to move.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

TGO Challenge Food Supplies: Some shocking nerdiness

Sorting my TGOC Supplies

I did something very nerdy yesterday.  Whilst I was sorting the food I plan to take on the forthcoming TGO Challenge I checked on the calorific content of a typical day’s supplies.  I have never done this before and was quite shocked by what I found.  I knew that on longer backpacking trips such as the TGOC I would usually lose a bit of weight (perhaps no bad thing in my case), and so was consuming less than I was burning off, but was surprised at just how large my calorie deficit must be over several long days of carrying a pack. In the past I have been conscious that I do not drink enough water when backpacking and dehydration impacts adversely on my performance.  I suspected that insufficient food intake was doing so as well, but not by the amounts yesterday’s nerdy exercise demonstrated. What is more galling is that I already feel that the food I carry makes a hefty addition to the weight on my shoulders, and thus to up my calories significantly would mean a serious weight penalty.

The table below shows a very typical day’s food for me on the Challenge.


Oats So Simple (2 sachets)

Sugar and Nido in oats

Nature Valley Cereal Bar

Brews *2 with Nido


Tortilla wraps *2

Primula Cheese


Trail Mix (c25gr fruit pastilles, c40gr M and Ms)

Cereal Bar

Milky Way (Fun Size) *2

Snickers (Medium)


Brews *2

Cup a Soup

Dehydrated Meal (various makes 600-800 calories)

Pudding eg instant custard or Milky Way


Grand Total

Thus, that rough and ready calculation suggests a daily intake of about 2600 calories. My Fitbit tracker tells me that this past week’s exercise (mainly dog walking) has seen me consume between 3600 and 5700 calories per day.  On the  Pre-Walk Daunder backpack in the Lake District in the Lake District recently I burnt about 6500 calories per day. I will have to re-examine my list and see what I can an add without having to lug too much more up various hills.

Of course the above is an underestimate of calories consumed on the Challenge. The occasional cafe or store will be passed on a day's walk. I will spend some nights in towns or villages in B and Bs and on those days a cooked breakfast, dinner out, and a couple of pints of Guinness will up things considerably, but possibly at not the best times of day to provide energy when on the hill or along the glens.

Finally, on another, but related, topic, I have been devastated to discover that Sainsbury’s appear to have stopped selling their Pour and Store food bags.  It was the innovative gusset at the base of these bags that helped me develop my much derided culinary technique of plastic bag cooking to a standard worthy of Master Chef. I will now have to visit the Lakeland store in Windermere to find a suitable alternative product. It is that or resort to having to wash my pot after breakfast.

Argghhh. I'm down to my last four bags 

Well that’s enough nerdiness from me for now. I have some re-supply parcels to make up.