Wednesday 25 April 2018

Springtime on the Moray coast

Spring has arrived in the north of Scotland. After a long and more "normal" winter, the weather is warming as the days lengthen, though there will no doubt be the customary colder spells punctuating the progress towards summer. On two consecutive weekends we headed up to the Moray Firth coast......

Firstly on a day of brilliant warm sunshine, the first properly warm day of the year.  The dark soils of the coastal fields were "smoking" as they absorbed the sun's warmth, giving off their moisture into cool morning air. 

The soundtrack to our walk between Portgordon and Spey Bay was cascading torrents of song from numerous Skylarks. We were treated to really close encounters as the birds took off from close by and climbed into the air, trailing their gorgeous song behind them - "larks ascending" indeed.

On the return leg we kept close to the long pebble beach which forms much of this stretch of coast.  The millions of tons of pebbles are regularly re-arranged by storms and there's usually dumping surf along the whole length of the beach as the waves run up to the steep berm.  This morning things were relatively calm, particularly at a lower state of tide.  Out to sea, great banks of haar drifted in and out, formed by the mix of warming air over a cold sea.

The following weekend we returned to the Moray coast, this time I took a kayak - and since a lively but steady easterly breeze was forecast, a Flat Earth sail.  Heading out from Lossiemouth, the first leg took me out to Halliman Skerries, a reef which is submerged above half tide, marked by a lattice tower.  The sea conditions out in the shallow waters around the skerry were decidedly bouncy with some wind over tide too - there are no photographs from that section!

Turning downwind, I enjoyed a fast run along the shore, maintaining a steady 10 km/h with some faster bursts in a decent breeze.

In no time at all I was approaching Covesea lighthouse, sadly no longer in use as a working light.  On the shore nearby are some of the concrete blocks placed during World War 2 to prevent amphibious invasion on the beaches here.

I made my own amphibious landing some way along the shore in an angle of the beach protected from the swell by a rocky spit.  It was a beautiful day and I was able to sit and relax in the warm sunshine with a flask of tea and some lunch.

There were plenty of folk out enjoying the beach and the spring weather.  The air was crystal clear and the colours seemed to be very vibrant.

Continuing west, I landed again near to the two-legged stack which is a prominent feature on this part of the shore.  I was surprised to see that most of the pebbles have been scoured from the beach around the stack, perhaps moved in the winter storms.

A last look back along the shore to Covesea lighthouse before turning into Clashach cove - a sparkling blue sea fringed with brilliant white surf - the North Sea is often dismissed as grey.......

The creeler "Calypso" has been up on the rocks here since 30th April 2017 when she lost power while lifting pots close to shore - fortunately her owner was able to get off safely.  I was mildly surprised that she hasn't yet been washed off the rocky shelf or completely broken up by big waves.

In Clashach Cove just west of Hopeman there are a number of superb caves cut into the honey coloured sandstone, well worth exploring.  Today, though this image appears calm, there was a fair swell running in and out and I didn't venture into any of them.  All too soon I was turning into the sandy beach inside the harbour to end a great few hours on the water.

It had been really good to have some warm sunshine - and it really feels that Spring has arrived.  Lambs are everywhere and on the 21st April we heard the first Willow Warbler as the summer visitors begin arriving.  We enjoyed an ice cream from the harbour shop to round off a day by the seaside in traditional style....Spring may be here, but as the Hopeman weather forecasting station reminded us - we don't really have a "climate" in Scotland, we have "weather"!

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Alpkit Filoment Down Jacket - Long Term Review

A lightweight down jacket is a versatile piece of kit for the outdoors, providing warmth without bulk. This review is based on wearing an Alpkit Filoment jacket very regularly for over two years. Alpkit are a British company based in Nottinghamshire, England.

 Until recently products were available only by ordering online (with a free return/exchange system). The company regularly wins awards with the latest being voted "Best Online Retailer" by readers of TGO magazine. In 2017 Alpkit opened three shops; one at the factory, one in Hathersage and one in Ambleside.

The Filoment jacket is a mainstay in the Alpkit range and has gone through several incarnations.  I purchased my first jacket in 2015 and have used it mainly for walking, general out-and-about wear, as a warm layer around camp between Spring and Autumn and for travelling during colder weather.  I received the hooded 2017 version as a Christmas gift and so have been able to compare the two versions. Available colours are "Rocket" (green), "Nemo" (blue) and Black.

The Filoment is described as "a lightweight and packable micro-rib down jacket" and as "a versatile and lightweight addition to a layering system".  Retailing at £130 including postage, the Filoment is competitively priced when compared with lightweight down jackets of similar specification.  The sizing is reasonably generous, a medium size is a comfortable for me (5 feet 8 inches, 42 inch chest) and has room for a base layer and fleece to be worn underneath.  The medium size weighs approximately 400 grams, of which 140 grams is down fill.

The down itself is 90/10 European duck down rated at 650 fill power and uses a Nikwax Hydrophobic treatment.  Alpkit only use down which conforms to the RDS standard, meaning that birds aren't force fed or live plucked.  The outer is 20 denier polyester ripstop and is DWR treated to help keep moisture at bay. The down is contained in stitched through baffles; I've not experienced any clumping or migration of the down, and there has been no loss of feathers at all. The cuffs and hem are lycra bound (but see below concerning the latest version of the jacket). Design is in UK, manufacture is in China.

The latest version, the Filoment Hoody, has a couple of updates over the original jacket I bought.  Firstly, the hem now features an elasticated and adjustable drawcord.  I feel this is an improvement over the original which had a non-adjustable lycra hem.  The waist can now be cinched in a little to take it above the bum, or dropped down to protect the backside in colder conditions.

The second change is that, as suggested by the name, the jacket now features a hood.  This is large enough to go over a climbing helmet, moves reasonably well and is volume adjustable.  I must confess that I find this update a bit of a mixed blessing.  I rarely use a hood on a mid layer, preferring a hat unless the weather is really hostile - and then I'll be wearing a hardshell jacket with a hood.  The size of the hood doesn't lend itself to fitting comfortably under a cag, which could be a limit on use as a mid layer.  That said, I' probably in the minority concerning hoods!  The perfect solution for me would have been to have the hood detachable as on Alpkit's super-toasty warm Filo jacket.

The third update is that the lining in the front of the jacket is now a scrim type fabric rather than the original plain face.  This feels great and seems to shift body moisture very effectively during moderate exercise.

The cut of the jacket is subtly athletic and features articulated sleeves.  In the 2015 jacket there are smaller ribs at the elbows, but this feature isn't on the 2017 version.  Despite the light weight of the jacket, I've been pleasantly surprised by how resilient it has proved in use.  The only sign of wear at all is that after two years use the lycra hem isn't as elastic as when new, which clearly won't be an issue with the Hoody which has an adjustable elastic drawcord

The Filoment has two handwarmer pockets and a chest pocket, accessible by a vertical zip.  Zips all run smoothly, and while not particularly chunky, are all usable while wearing gloves.

Full care instructions are on the fun care label.  My original Filoment has been washed twice, using Nikwax Down Wash.  After gentle tumble drying the down lofts up again well, but it does take a little time and patience to regain full loft.

Both the original and the Hoody fit comfortably into a 1 litre stuffsac, making them very compact.  This Cordura/nylon silicone treated stuffsac is available from Alpkit for £7.50, and is better quality than the majority of stuffsacs.

The Filoment (and now the Hoody version) have become my "go to" jacket through most of the year.  For cool evenings, general walking, around camps and just about everything else.  Warm enough for most activities and yet not too warm to (for instance) wear when travelling through airports, the bottom line is that the Filoment is a well designed, well made and very versatile lightweight down jacket.  If you feel that you need something warmer again for very cold conditions, Alpkit's Filo may be what you're looking for.

Conflict of interest statement:

I own a number of Alpkit products, and have found all to be great kit.  Other than being a satisfied customer, I have no connection to Alpkit - my original Filoment was bought at full retail price and the Hoody was a family Christmas gift.

Sunday 8 April 2018

A speleological, ornithological, meteorological kind of day (part 2)

Continuing on past the sunny beach where the Stonehaven paddlers were taking lunch, we passed behind a stack and back out towards the open sea through a tall and narrow geo.  We reflcted that things would be very different in here during an easterly gale with a big swell!

A little way north of the geo we entered Old Hall Bay beneath the striking remains of Dunottar Castle.

One of the most dramatically sited of Scottish castles, Dunottar sits atop a headland joined to the coast by a narrow neck of land and is protected on three sides by tall cliffs. It's one of the most photographed of castles, but not from the angle which sea kayakers can see it.  Most of the ruins seen today are from the 15th and 16th centuries, but there's been a fortification here for much longer.

The "Dun" prefix to the place name indicates that this is a very old fortified site; and there was a Pictish fort on this headland from at least the late 400's AD when St Ninian was known to have converted the Pictish rulers to Christianity and established a monastery.  Sacked by the Vikings in AD 900 and rebuilt, Dunottar was attacked again in AD 934 by Aethelstan of Wessex.  Through the 11th, 12th and 13th century Dunnotar changed hands between the English and the Scots at least three times, including being taken by Edward I ("Longshanks") in 1296, and retaken the following year by William Wallace.  This turbulent history is a mark of the strategic importance of Dunottar and its position dominating the north east coast.

Things were a lot more peaceful on the shore where Allan and I took our luncheon - and there was even some warm sunshine - a rare commodity over the past winter!

The pebble shore in Old Hall Bay is, like most others on this stretch of coast, a mix of rock types.  Some will have been washed out in the floods which formed the conglomerate cliffs and some may have been brought down to the sea by the current river systems of the Don and the Dee fourther north.  Richly coloured when washed by the ebbing tide, there was real beauty here.

We'd come as far north as we intended, and after lunch began our leisurely journey back to Catterline.  Back past the geo and around Maiden Kaim, we found another beach on which to land for a short break.

Against a blue sky the lichens on the rock pinnacles behind the shoore were stunningly bright.  A sudden flurry of activity among the birds caused us to look around in time to see a Peregrine Falcon arrowing across the cliffs in a hunting flight.

We met up with some of the paddlers we'd seen on the beach earlier - and it turned out that Allan and I knew two of them, a pleasant meeting.  As we chatted the weather closed in and a fairly heavy rain shower passed over.  With little wind, it was no inconvenience and seemed likely not to last too long.  The full length of the Fowlsheugh cliffs came into view as we rounded Trelung Ness, already beginning to take on a streak of white from the seabird guano.

And there are plenty of seabirds to add to the guano streaks!  The sky above us was simply full of birds, mostly Razorbills and Kittiwakes with Guillemots, Fulmars and Puffins also evident - all coming and going to the cliff faces as they establish their nesting sites.  It pays to wear a hat hereabouts....and not to look upwards too often!

The scale of the cliff is apparent in this image as Allan paddled around a protuding section; it will soon be a real high-rise city of birds.

Below Crawton a small burn launches itself over the cliff edge and forms an attarctive waterfall (unless a strong eastery is blowing, when no water reaches the sea - it's simply blown back over the RSPB car park).  Allan decided to try rinsing his boat before he got off the water!

All too soon we were passing the "wave" rock formation near the entrance to Catterline harbour, just as the sun re-emerged and we finished our speleological, ornithological, meteorological kind of afternoon paddle.

The trip from Catterline to Dunottar and return is a little over 16km, but more distance can be taken if you explore all the cliffs and geos.  Parking is very limited at Catterline and used by Montrose Diving club on Tuesdays and Sundays through the summer.  A one way trip can be done starting or finishing at either Stonehaven or Inverbervie which is a similar distance to the return trip described here. 

The whole coast here is exposed to the North Sea and can get considerable swell and clapotis.  Very calm conditions are recommended if you want to explore the many caves.  Once the birds are nesting (usually late April to July), you should keep well out from the cliffs to avoid disturbance.

Monday 2 April 2018

A speleological, ornithological, meteorological kind of day (part 1)

Opportunities to paddle the North Sea coast of Aberdeenshire have been fleeting for the last few months as the winter has seen a pattern of easterly and northerly airstreams which create big swells on this east facing coast.  A few days of westerly wind had allowed the swell to drop, offering Allan and I the chance to paddle up the coast from Catterline towards Stonehaven.

Heading north in bright sunshine we soon came to the first of many interesting rock formations - the Garran, which has an arch right through into a bay beyond.

Paddling back out against a stiff breeze funneling in was hard work!

The coast here is a conglomerate rock with rounded pebbles and boulders set in a reddish matrix, a legacy of when this part of Scotland was an arid landscape washed by periodic and devastating floods.  In some places the different flood events can be clearly seen in the cliffs.  The rock is reasonably soft and forms caves, some very large and surprisingly long.......

...and some narrow slots which penetrate the cliffs, often with the boom and roar of surf somewhere in the gloom at the back - there are cave monsters here!

The highest stretch of cliffs are managed by the RSPB as Fowlsheugh reserve, known for the staggering numbers of breeding seabirds.  The birds are just arriving back from a year at sea, beginning to pair up and squabbling over nesting sites.  There's lots of coming and going and plenty of noise.  Once the birds have begun to lay their eggs we keep well out from the cliffs to avoid disturbance and reduce the opportunities for predators to snatch an unguarded egg or chick.

Not all the birds are back yet, but already the cacophony, noise and movement assault the senses.  Out on the water great rafts of Razorbills, Fulmars and Kittiwakes congregate, while their partners on the cliffs squabble over nest sites - the round holes where boulders have fallen out are particularly favoured.  Fowlsheugh is the largest mainland seabird colony in the north east of Scotland, these 60 metre high cliffs form the breeding ground for upwards of 130,000 pairs of birds - mainly Razorbills and Kittiwakes but there are also large numbers of Guillemots and Fulmars and small numbers of Puffins.

At the northern end of the main cliff face there's yet another speleological opportunity, and if this particular one doesn't take your fancy......

....there's plenty more just around the corner!  This slanting cave opens up into a long chamber at right angles within the cliff.

One cave we didn't visit is this one tucked at the back of a long geo.  It has a fine waterfall positioned right over the highest point of the arched mouth and a beach of red pebbles within.  It's a favoured spot for Atlantic Grey Seals to haul out undisturbed and we could see around a hundred animals on the beach, many of them the pups born in November.  Their somewhat otherwordly wailing calls were echoing out of the cave along the walls of the geo; in it's own way this is as good a wildlife spectacle as the seabirds - only not so many folk are lucky enough to have the the opportunity of seeing and hearing it.

Another headland with another cave - this one is actually a tunnel right through the headland.......

...emerging into a bay on the other side of the headland.  The exit appears blocked by rocky walls, but a sharp right turn in a narrow channel leads to open water.  As with all the caves on this coast, safe paddling is limited by the swell.  I've paddled here many times in conditions which didn't even permit going near the entrances.  Although most don't have inward sloping roofs, swell is still greatly amplified in all of them.

One of the options for a lunch stop had been one of the beaches at Tremuda Bay, but it seemed we were far from the only sea kayakers to be enjoying the fine conditions!  A group from Stonehaven Canoe Club were doing a trip and also conducting a beach clean-up.  They'd done a great job of it too, there was no plastic rubbish at all on the two beaches we landed at.

With hardly room to land another boat on the rocky beach, we decided to push on to another lunch spot a little way up the coast.....