Monday, 7 January 2008

Weekend of Joy!

Lordy, I'm still tired after the exertion of this weekend!

Bright and early on Saturday morning, Fisher and I packed the pooches in the Land Rover and headed West, young man, to the Lomond and Trossachs and, more specifically, Ben A'an. The weather was fair when we set out, but enjoyed teasing us with typical Scottish whimsy. By the time we arrived at the car park, just beyond Brig o' Turk, we'd already been through sunshine, sleet, rain, hail, and yet more sunshine. Unfortunately, Ben A'an wasn't to be bathed in beautiful winter light. O no. We pulled glumly into a grey, wet car park and gazed at the mist-bound hills.

"What the hell's the point in walking up a mountain if you can't see anything at the top?" I groused to Fisher - but she had that all-familiar, slightly manic, S.A.S 'bring on the paiiiiin' look in her eyes. Knowing further grumbling would meet with no sympathy - and rightly so - I decided to make the best of it all. At least I was wearing my waterproof trousers!

Koios and Phid were already parked and ready to face the fray when we arrived, and seemed cheerful enough with our predicament, so it was a merry group of optimists who started the trek. It was a short walk - only 4kms (2 1/2 miles) - and we were confident 4 fit young women could tackle it with relative ease.

Ha ha. Ha haaaaaaaa ha ha ha!

Y'see, while I'd been expecting a climb, I wasn't quite prepared for 3 1/2 of those kms to be a steep upward trudge, often breaking a path through snow, and mostly sloshing through ankle-deep, muddy water. It was hard going! However, I have to say, I don't think I've ever enjoyed a walk more!

First of all we climbed steadily through woods, snow soft on the ground and a fast-flowing burn singing to us on our right. We crossed the burn over a wooden bridge, pausing only to look around and smell the metaphorical roses. The mist was still hanging grimly around us, but it didn't keep the woods from their beauty. I would have felt like Thoreau if I'd ever read any of him, but as it was, the poem that kept going through my head was by that other* great American, Robert Frost:
The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep ...

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I know there are more verses, but I couldn't remember them at the time and, anyway, I wasn't riding a horse. More's the pity.

The toughest stretch came at the last half mile. We emerged from the woods to see the peak of Ben A'an, towering before us like a black power salute.We're going up that? I gulped to myself. Surely we must be going round the back and circling? There must be a gentle path to the top? Surely! Pleeeeease???

We're Going up THAT??
Not a bit of it. The path to the peak was pretty much straight up, on very treacherous ground. While I didn't wish Janus was with us (she'd have hated it with every fibre of her being) I did wish we had her cool walking poles. They would have come in useful.

Still, as we stood at the foot of the vertical-seeming climb, the mist cleared and we gazed, awe-struck, over the snow-swept valley and to the peaks beyond. Galvanised, we set off with a will, the pooches bounding from rock to rock and dragging at the leads. I would have liked to let them off, but Fisher was too nervous of Bridie's penchent for roaming so they had to stay restrained. While she was right to be cautious, it did mean the dogs got very cold - despite their little barbour jackets - because they couldn't expend the energy they needed. Still, although Baffie whined, gazed at us in distress and looked for all the world like she was having the worst time of her life, they were actually very good.

The Ascent To The Peak started sharply, and got worse. After passing through a few sparse trees, we found ourselves following another rushing burn which we had to cross. The dogs had to be picked up and passed over, and Fisher's vertigo gave her a few pangs - but she ignored them like a trooper and we all set off up the last, steepest and trickiest part. This involved a semi-scramble over wet, slushy rocks. We met some lads coming down and got an eyeful of how tricky it would be coming down, as one of them sat on his backside and contorted himself uncomfortably from one rock to another - but the pain of climbing too occupied my mind to give much of a rat's backside over the descent. Christ, my legs were killing me. I could only manage 10 paces before having to pause, take three deep breaths, then tackle the next ten.

Then, suddenly ... just as I was struggling to summon the energy to put another aching thigh forward, wondering how my legs had suffenly come to weigh so much, I saw the Great Phid turn, blow out her cheeks and say:


And, yes, she actually looked like she'd broken a sweat!

Much galvanised, I was able to haul my hefty carcass up the remaining 100m. There was one rocky bit that involved a proper scramble, using hands and everything, which I enjoyed very much - and then we were on the final stretch. The snow was thick on the ground and we waded through drifts up to the knees, giggling and floundering like children. Phid managed to fall over several times, which looked like fun so I did it too. I was having a whale of a time!

At long, long last, we topped the final rise and there it was, lying out before us in all its splendour: Lochs Achtray and Katrine nestled beneath the peaks of our own Ben A'an and, opposite, Ben Venue. Sitting beneath the rocky tip were two fifty-something walkers, who were friendly and slightly patronising, in that rather endearing way older men have when they see a group of younger women. They were eager to chat, and one of them pointed out all the landmarks - something which irritated Koios no end, 'cos she doesn't like to be told stuff by old men! (Especially, to be fair, if she knows it already). But he was kind enough to offer to take our photo with my crappy camera, for which I paid a fortune and which I hate with every fibre of my being because it's utterly, utterly bollocks. None of the pictures have come out well. The light wasn't good, it's true, but even so! Anyway, we perched on the edge of the peak and looked proud. Well - 3 of us did. Phid decided to look like someone was kneeling on her ovaries - but that's Phid for you.
We took our time at the top, enjoying the view and catching our breath. I was the only one who wanted to reach the peak proper, which involved a little scramble up some boulders, and then a few wobbly moments as I realised the wind was pretty blustery up there! I then discovered I could get down with a short hop, and that if I'd tackled the peak from the other side it would have been a piece of piss. Huh.

The downward journey was much less effort, but slightly more hair-raising, as the rocks were incredibly slippery and Baffie seemed determined to pull me over at every availably opportunity. Poor Koi wasn't wearing waterproof trousers or decent gloves, so her hands were going numb and she was soaked to the skin - but did she let it spoil her mood? She did not. Ever the cheery old goat, is Koios.

Apart from the treachery of the terrain, it was relatively easy on the way down and we reached the car park 3 hours after we left, feeling proud of ourselves and like we'd truly earned the treats that were to come. However, now that I've described my feelings over Ben A'an, I'd like to quote a few comments from walkers' guides, regarding this very trek. Ahem:

"This is the perfect walk for families, and even the youngest children will be able to handle the hike." -, who then go on to add:

"You can't go very fast through [the] final stretch to the top, but it is not terribly difficult. Our 5 year old daughter made it, and was pretty cheerful about it, though she did have to be carried when the path crossed over a mountain stream."

Oh, oh, she had to be carried over a mountain stream did she? She was pretty cheerful about it, was she? Well, lemme tell you, Britain Express - if I ever meet that 5 year old incarnation of a mountain goat, I will fling her from the peak of whatever mountain she's pretty happy about climbing.

More quotes to shatter my fragile ego:

"This small peak is a little gem which offers rewarding and magnificent views far out of proportion to the effort required to reach its summit." -

"The hill itself provides an easy walk, suitable for families with young children or anyone else. Winding up through the forest, following a stream for much of the way, the walking is easy and not too steep." - Scotclimb

Ok, so all of these reviews are based on a summer climb where you don't have to break a path, or slip and slide through slush - but even so! I'm now deeply depressed about my fitness levels and know without a doubt that, if I want to tackle the Cuillin Ridge this summer, I have to get myself in much better shape. How depressing.

BUT! What needs depression after such a fabulous weekend? The joy had only just begun. After stripping off our soaking waterproofs, giving the dogs a rub down (and letting them be fed bits of shortbread by the men we'd met on the peak, who were having a bite to eat in the car park), and eating a swift packed lunch, we jumped in the cars and headed to Glasgow. Our heads, once filled with images of battling up peaks, were now packed with images of soft beds, roaring fires and magnificent plates of gourmet food.

Yes folks, we were off to Hotel du Vin - site of the finest meal of my life (see previous post). We arrived, dressed in our skanky walking gear and soaked to the skin, only to find that one of the rooms would be 20 minutes before it was ready. We were early for check in, so we didn't mind the wait - especially as you can scarf a few free drams in elegant silver quaichs as you wait beside a roaring fire. All most lovely.

Our room, once we got in, was much larger than the one we'd had previously, with a little annex down some steps where there was a desk, should we have chosen to do some work (!?!), and the bathroom.

Ah, the bathroom. It was large, with a vast, deep bath that filled in about 10 seconds flat. I allowed myself the luxury of a long soak, easing away the stiffness in my muscles while Fisher pottered about doing ... whatever the hell it is she does when pottering. Oh yer - she unpacks my dress for me, hangs it up, and makes sure I've got everything I need. Sigh. She's fab. (Oddly, when she said she'd done it I thought "but I did it! It was the first thing I did when I got in!" I was so sure I'd done it - but I must have just thought about doing it, imagined me doing it and, in my tired state, my brain turned it into a false memory. Very peculiar.)

After my bath, I lay on the big, soft bed and switched on the telly. And what should I discover but that the BBC was showing Man United v Aston Villa in the FA Cup! I swear I nearly cried, I was so happy! Instead I proceeded to fall into a doze, only woken by Phid at 6pm, saying she'd see us in the bar in 10 minutes. Fisher was almost ready to head down, looking lovely in her black and white print skirt and black top, and there was I, half asleep and groggy as buggery. Fisher made me a cup of coffee, which I swigged like magic potion, and I got myself into my dress and make-up, telling Fisher not to wait. After all, I reasoned, we weren't eating until 8pm, so there was plenty of time.

When I arrived downstairs, in the dark, cosy bar, my three pals were in elegant repose, sipping cocktails and chatting. Koi looked funky in a black woollen beret over perfectly curled hair, a black dress with wide belt, fishnets and red suede high heels. Phid had on her new Karen Millen dress, with pink & grey (?) cross-hatching over a black base. Everyone looked gorgeous, so I was pleased to be wearing my favourite blue and white print dress, with Nine West pinky-red high heels and the same colour cardie.

I joined everyone in a wee cocktail - a mint julep, in honour of my Southern US connections - and had to be physically restrained by Fisher from speaking in a broad Virginia accent for the rest of the night. Bless their cotton socks - Koi and Phid offered to pay for all the booze, and then ordered a bottle of girly pink champagne. It was Laurent Perrier, but I can't remember whether it was Alexandra or Cuvée Rosé Brut. I'm not usually a massive fan of rosé - but this was delicious, and such a novelty. Yummy.

After an hour and half's chat, we were brought menus and droooooled over the choices. Fisher and I let Koi and Phid choose first, seeing as we'd already been there once, and we were determined to all have different things. Koi went for a starter of artichoke and mushroom velouté - or 'siphon' as they called it - followed by squab pigeon. Phid decided on the house speciality, which I'd had before, of soft boiled egg and truffle soldiers, followed by duck shepherd's pie. Fisher had a crayfish salad to start, then turbot and pork belly for main, so I decided on the pathivier of partridge followed by anglais chicken with crispy skin. Koi and Phid were in charge of wine, and they wisely asked the advice of the sommelier because we wanted something new and different. In the end they were recommended a pinot noir, which wasn't exactly a new grape, but the sommelier assured Koi that, if we wanted something unusual, this was the one.

About 15 minutes later we were shown through to our table and brought an amuse bouche. Fisher, Phid and I got a little pumpkin velouté, which was devine, while Koi - because she was having velouté as a starter - got, er, something else. I can't quite remember what it was, but it involved a green mousse and much deliciousness.

Our starters arrived - and so did the wine, which, coincidentally, proved to be the Morgan pinot I'd ordered by the glass last time! Nothing new, then, but I couldn't have given a hoot because it was so delicious. Round, rich, plummy ... just like me! Ha ha ha ...

Aaanyhoo ...

I'm not sure how interesting it would be to go through every dish, so I'll do a quick run down:

Starters: amazing! Everyone's was simply spectacular. My pathivier was melt-in-the mouth delicious, lined with fois gras and just one of the best things I've ever tasted. Koi's artichoke velouté was light, fluffy, slightly cheesy - and had mushrooms saturated in juices nestling at the bottom, which - seriously - nearly made her orgasm on the spot. Phid's soft boiled egg was as splendid as last time, while Fisher's crayfish salad was lovely, but the dullest of the lot because, no matter what you do, a salad is still a salad.

Mains: Definitely the cream of the crop, for me, was the duck shepherd's pie, which came with foamed potato on top and flaked duck beneath, stewed with the nicest mouthful of all (according to Phid) - duck kidney. It was rich and wonderful. My chicken was wonderfully moist and juicy but - and this is something that rankles increasingly - I got no crispy skin! I told the waiter afterwards, who said it should have come as a separate accompaniment. Fisher remembers that the waiter dropped something on his way to the table, so I think it was that, and he just hoped I wouldn't notice. Hmph. Fat chance. Anyway, it was delicious - but not what it should have been. Fisher's turbot was beautifully cooked, but she was a little disappointed with the fish itself. The pork belly was gorgeous, though - salty, flavoursome and a terrific accompaniment. Koi's squab pigeon was both beautifully presented, in little towers, and melt-on-the-tongue tender.

Then came dessert. I decided to have cheese instead, like last time, and while I missed the girl who put all the cheeses in order of how they should be eaten, it didn't stop the cheese being of splendid quality. Unfortunately, I can't really remember what the desserts were. I think there was a macaroon thing, a chocolate and ginger thing, and something else - but hopefully one of the others will remember better than me and put it in their blog.

It was such a wonderfully relaxed, chatty meal - slightly boozy, but not too much - that it was a real shame to bring it to an end. We had coffee at the table while we waited for the whisky room to clear, and then went through to relax in squashy chairs and have a digestif. I didn't fancy a whisky, so had a pastis instead. Koi had a maraschino, while Fisher and Phid went for whiskies. I know Fisher revisited Tomintoul (16 year old) but I can't remember what Phid had. Tallisker?

At long last, as the clock bade farewell to midnight, I felt the effects of the walk, food and drink overwhelm me in a sleepy wave. The dogs needed to be taken out for a last constitutional, and the thought of those crisp, white sheets and enormous pillows beckoned me like a siren call. The end of the night was nigh - and what a fantastic night it had been.

But the weekend didn't end there. Oh no.

Next morning, I had an irritating headache, which had been niggling the night before and was now a full-blown pounder, probably aided and abetted by booze - although I didn't feel hungover. Once again I was unable to enjoy a proper breakfast, having only a slice of toast and some coffee - but Koios wolfed a mustard-coloured bowl of kedgeree, and Phid had a boiled egg, while Fisher just stuffed her face with mini pastries.

After we'd packed and checked out, we headed to the Kelvingrove for a proper nosey, unaccompanied by 4 year old, like last time. It's a terrific museum: very eclectic, with a whole bunch of stuffed animals which pop up here and there, seemingly at random. I particularly enjoyed the small Egyptian room, but couldn't have given two turds about the Kylie exhibition. Who cares what a semi-talented pop star and some-time mediocre actress wears on stage? Well - quite a few people, it seems - but I'm not one of them.

After the museum we tried to find the Cheese Bar - only to discover it's turned into an uninspiring little Italian bistro called Pizzazz. We weren't in the mood for pizza or pasta, so went instead to a small café which did pannini and other such mundanities. It was a major come-down from the night before, to see Koi nibbling on a bagel with cream cheese and bacon, and all seemed like ashes in our mouths - but it was sustenance.

And so the weekend came to a close. We had to be back in Fife for usual Sunday chores, while Koi and Phid had boyfriends to fling themselves upon, as well as work to prepare for - so we bade each other fond farewells and set off, driving in tandem until Keith the Land Rover headed to the Kincardine Bridge, while Phid's little Fiat barrelled its merry way to Edinburgh. We waved manically, Koi waved the little toy chaffinch she'd acquired from the Kelvingrove, and we parted.

And that was that. The end of one my favourite weekends ever.



What's next?
*Not that I'm implying there are only 2!