Friday, December 19, 2014

Outdoorsy caffs......Abandon hope all ye who enter here!

"An unsmiling man appeared' photo-The Mirror

I was interested to read about an eatery in Castleton, in the Peak District which attracts a fair few outdoorsy folk, being described in the national press as a real life Fawlty Towers on account of a curmudgeonly owner and mine host who treats his clientele as an inconvenience to be at best tolerated, and at worst abused! Dolly’s Hidden Tearooms in the village is run by Mike Clarke who according to The Mirror,” tells hikers they are not welcome and hurls abuse at anyone daring to order drinks without food’.  The cafe’s Trip Advisor page reads like a extract from a League of Gentleman script....
”The gentleman who greeted us in his gruff and thick accent looked like a homeless Father Christmas and was in need of a bath and a good scrub’. Another punter opined .”The owner is clearly missing a screw as he informed us he is from Aberdeen, when in fact he is from the local area. In addition, he seemed to take exception that my wife and kids are southerners (small narrow minded idiot) and when my wife asked to use the toilet he handed her a bucket and newspaper. “ 

Well, sounds a character then, but what about the food and drink?  “2 words .... Filthy hovel!! Avoid at all costs! Dirty plates and cups. Flies all around Filthy owner, We tipped our drinks away for fear of catching something bad and left!”..while in the same vein another customer proffered.. “Owner very strange and disturbing, room and tables etc dirty and burnt scones very overpriced. Paid and ran!’

Out of 135 ratings ‘Father Jack’s’ establishment gets 104 ‘Terrible’ ratings but perhaps more bizarrely, 3 ‘ Excellent’ ratings which proves that even grumpy old gits have some friends! So; Dolly’s Hidden Tearooms is not exactly Pete’s Eats but North Wales does have its share of rubbish cafes I’m afraid. One caff in the heart of Snowdonia used to be renowned for its poor service and unfriendly staff although looking at its Trip Advisor page, it appears to have got its act together and generally gets decent ratings these days. The cafe in Capel Curig at the junction which includes a general store and outdoor shop regularly garnered negative comments when the subject of outdoor caffs came up on forums. Punters complaining that asking something outrageous like requesting an extra piece of toast instead of an egg with their full English, sent the staff into panic mode and a ‘We can’t do that-it’s against the rules’ response!  The menu was treated as if it had been carried down the mount and etched on tablets of stone! Thou shalt not deviate from the menu for the menu is the word’!

I never liked the outdoor shop either. In contrast with the friendly nature of Joe Brown’s next door where you could browse and fester out of the rain without being pestered, the book section in the cafe/shop had a “ THIS IS NOT A LIBRARY!’ sign over its books and magazines section. I’m not sure the state of play these days as I never set foot in the place having developed an instinctive dislike of the establishment, but as mentioned above, the cafe at least seems to be getting better reviews these days and I believe the Moel Siabod cafe down the road is very good.

If you need to find out the best caffs in North Wales well the Trip Advisor list offers these places although I must admit that I haven’t been in most of them so I can’t  offer my own opinion on their qualities or otherwise....If in doubt, take a packed lunch and spend the money you saved in the pub!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wild Camping Petition: Why I'm not signing.......yet!

This petition has found itself in my various email and social media in boxes over the last few weeks. It isn’t a new idea – it is at least the second attempt I have seen to lobby parliament to change the laws surrounding access in England and Wales to make ‘wild camping’ legal.
The current situation is this:

  • In Scotland the Land Reform Act (2003) says that you can camp on most unenclosed land if care is taken. There are conditions and recommendations in the Scottish Outdoor Access code but generally speaking you are free to camp anywhere away from towns, gardens and arable land.
  • In England and Wales, although we have the right to roam over ‘access’ land it is illegal to camp without the landowners permission. The exception to this is certain areas of Dartmoor with some fairly strict conditions.

The petition we link to above requests that:

“The law should be made similar to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 covering open land & national parks in England & Wales. Wild camping enthusiasts are not a threat to our national parks & open spaces.”

For most of our courses that involve an over night stay we use land that we pay a fee for, and have a genuine commercial relationship with the landowner. This gives us access to areas and natural resources that we would otherwise be unable to use. It helps make our bushcraft courses more authentic as we can roam around a 90-acre site of mixed mature woodland complete with limestone gorge, fast flowing river and a wide selection of wild food to be harvested. We occasionally head into the mountains to ‘wild camp’ (away from roads and houses, high into the hills) for both courses and personal trips – always practising the ethics of the true outdoorsperson – “arrive late, leave early and leave no trace”. I’ve been wild camping in one form or another since I was eight.

So why am I not signing this petition? It would mean that our wild camping activities would go from being ‘illegal but tolerated’ to ‘legal’ – how could anybody be against such ideas? The problem is the difference between an ideal world where everybody values and respects our limited outdoor spaces, and the world we seem to live in. Ten years or more of exploring, working and living in the outdoors has shown me that there are a significant number of outdoor users who only seem to want to litter, steal and destroy.

I could take you to a dozen or so sites within an hours walk of a roadside parking place that were once rather nice camping spots but are now homes for broken glass, burnt fence posts and discarded BBQs. Several are actually quite good places to pick up tent spares – when a tent only costs £15 from Tesco or Go Outdoors you may as well leave it behind rather than carry it back down the hill, right?

The current situation, with tolerated trespass, is not ideal but it is better than some of the alternatives. I believe that education is the key but we need to tread carefully

You may expect the situation to be better in Scotland where wild camping and full access to our wild areas has been enshrined in law for many years. Well, I’m sorry to say that it is quite the opposite. The areas around Loch Lomond (particularly the eastern shore, although the western shore is now not much better) are pretty much trashed. Fire scars, mounds of litter and broken glass, discarded BBQs (both the disposable and the more substantial type) and human waste can be found every few hundred metres or so, particularly close to parking areas.

Mobile homes and campervans set up for weeks and even months, stretching awnings out over the cycle paths and setting up semi-permanent garden areas outside. This disrespect for the natural world has led to by-laws being established to help police this problem, with subsequent revisions to allow for the Land Reform Act in 2003. The most common cause cited is the proximity of Glasgow and the densely-populated central belt; Loch Lomond is a relatively short drive away for most of the population of Scotland so it is inevitable that some folk will choose to sit back with a beer or twenty, a roaring campfire and watch the sun set over a lake that is now contaminated with chemical toilet waste.

The next morning it will just be easier to leave it all behind and head back down the A82… This problem isn’t unique to Loch Lomond – you can find similar examples across the country, even far away from parking access where a thoughtless backpacker may gradually lighten their rucksack by leaving food containers and toilet paper behind. Certain spots are hotspots for wild campers, and one small pile of rubbish quickly becomes a vast sea of litter in the most popular areas. This isn’t just because of over-use of an area, it is because people seem to have no problem with leaving things behind rather than carrying them out.

The creator of the Legalise Wild Camping petition wants to allow wider access in England and Wales so that the general public can learn to respect our green places. By making wild camping legal it would encourage more people to go and do it, confident that they are acting wholly within the law…

I applaud the spirit of this petition, and I really do hope that it works out in the way that most who have signed it want to. However I can’t lend my support to it – as I suspect that what will actually happen is that those who currently abuse our landscape and wild places will continue to do it, confident that they are now ‘legal’. More people will head into the hills and learn how to enjoy them responsibly, but they will still be the quiet, unobserved majority. The destructive and disrespectful minority will become more confident and brazen and we will see more of the littering, waste and damage that we already see.

In the U.K. our wild spaces are limited, particularly south of the Scottish border. They should be protected, and the use has to be managed carefully ensuring that no one group of users is excluded, but that the needs of all groups are recognised. This isn’t just the job of law makers, landowners and public bodies – we all need to look after our natural resources. The current situation, with tolerated trespass, is not ideal but it is better than some of the alternatives. I believe that education is the key (hey, there is a reason I chose to do this as a career!) but we need to tread carefully.

When outdoor education centres are closing around the country and funding for outdoor activities in schools is virtually non-existent the chances of passing on a respect and love for the outdoors to the next generations seems slim. There is a solution out there, and plenty of us are working towards it but I fear that if wild camping were legalised in England and Wales in the next year or two we would see a repeat of the Loch Lomond problem in Wales, the Lake District and the Peak District.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Why have we abandoned the Berwyns to the bikers?

Rip it up! Moel Ferna yesterday

Moel Ferna at just over 2000’ is the most easterly peak on the Berwyn range. An isolated outlier which nevertheless, is a fine little peak with commanding views all around. Sadly, like so many parts of the Berwyn range, the mountain sees more motor bike scramblers than walkers. The range’s isolation and unpopularity compared to the Snowdonia National Park just down the road, has been something of a curse with regard to attracting off road enthusiasts. 

4x4 off-roaders cut through the passes and follow ancient tracks. Churning up the peaty soil until it’s impassable. By this stage they will have simply bypassed these sections until the adjoining section is equally trashed. And so it goes on. However, by far the worst eco-vandals hereabouts are the motor bike scramblers who appear to use the Berwyns with impunity, despite their activity being illegal under environmental protection legislation. Much of the Berwyns is a Special Protection Area classified in accordance with the European Union's Birds Directive. It is also designated a national nature reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest and forms part of the Berwyn and South Clwyd Mountains Special Area of Conservation.

Caution..4x4's and motor bikes at work!

Despite this the relevant authorities including North Wales Police, appear to have given up the fight against the scramblers and off-roaders and much of the delicate surface soil and substrata has been reduced to a deeply rutted mire.

I was up there yesterday as it’s a local high point and convenient for a quick 10k round dash on a short winter’s day. As always, there wasn’t a soul to be seen on the way up and after taking a few shots from the summit, I heard the unmistakable sound of scramblers approaching. Sure enough, about half a dozen arrived soon after. I tried to phone the police to report them- although from past experience, the police are not bothered and won’t respond in a hurry- but I had no mobile signal up there. 

The problem is of course, money! With public spending being reduced to 1930’s levels, problems like this will simply get worse year on year. With no public agency able to carry out an anti bikers strategy in the Berwyns-and the neighbouring Llantysilio range is just as bad- then more and more motor bike scramblers will exploit their freedom from prosecution and come to the area and rip the fragile tracks and moorland to shreds. A moorland which is home to protected bird species such as Hen Harriers, Merlins and Peregrine Falcons.

It’s a sad reflection on the outdoor world in general in that whilst we get agitated about Jeremy Clarkson or the Land Rover company leaving their temporary mark on a popular mountain, we are prepared to ignore the trashing of a quiet and unfrequented mountain range which relatively few people travel to. Seeing the destruction wrought by scramblers yesterday was a sobering experience but the most depressing thing about it is that nobody cares. Out of sight-out of mind as far as the authorities and the outdoor public are concerned.
Looking west from the summit of Moel Ferna 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mountain Rescue Teams: Time to drop the word 'Mountain' ?

I was looking at the Ogwen Mountain Rescue website yesterday. I drop in occasionally to see what the latest call out travesty is. Amongst the genuine and worthy rescue missions undertaken by the team, it seems that increasingly, a lot of  these call outs could be classified as ‘Non mountain related’. Essentially, in a lot of cases it’s simply helping numpties get back to the A5. How did it come to this and why? Were the Mountain rescue services established to find someone lost in the Gwydr Forest or assist a 4x4 stuck in mud whilst off roading?

I’ve blogged before as an ex MRT member about how I just haven’t got the patience or tolerance these days to be involved in a service which has drifted so far from its original goals. The Mountain Rescue Service in the UK is overseen by the police. It’s the police who make the final decision as to which service gets called out. Increasingly the MR team members are essentially used as unpaid police dogsbodies in searches for missing persons. The teams are also used by the police to carry out actions which a lot of people believe should be the responsibility of the police themselves. 

Have a look at this call out for Ogwen MR Team which involved 14 people on the 27th November....

Four friends were driving their 4x4 from Snowdon towards Betws y Coed, and reached Siabod Café. They spotted a bridge and track on the right and decided to go off-road. They went up a steep gravel track, then followed a grassy track until they got stuck in the mud. After 3 hours it started to get dark and they called for help. Their knowledge of their location was poor, but using local area knowledge the Team was able to approximate their location. This was backed up when one of the group had enough signal to reply to the SARLOC message sent to them (the one with better signal had no credit on his phone, so could not follow the link). A team member who knows the forest tracks was dispatched to recover the group. It was decided that it was not worth the risk to team member or team vehicles to try and pull theirs out. A NWP officer met them at the road to provide a debrief and advice on where they could go to get their vehicle recovered....Ogwen MRT

Given how off roaders are the bane of real mountain activists lives and how their actions command so much anger and displeasure in the outdoor community, I’m sure a lot of people will be asking why a mountain service which was essentially created to help climbers and walkers has evolved into an organization which helps those who would trash the mountain environment?

My main beef with how the Mountain Rescue Service is structured these days is that it no longer has  mountain rescue as its core activity. It’s become a voluntary search and recovery organization which gets the state off the hook with regard to funding a professional service.  My own personal belief is that MR teams should be professional and funded by the state but still a free service. The type of ‘rescue’ described above, should be within the remit of the police who perhaps could have a division which specializes in search and recovery outside of a mountain environment.

At the moment, the whole service is a bit of a dog’s dinner with MR team members being exploited and used as unpaid policemen and women in areas where really they should not be being used. That’s a personal view of course but I wonder how many people involved in mountain rescue share at least some of these misgivings?