Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Soapbox – Struggling To Find …..

Every year, manufacturers of outdoor gear spend a lot of time, energy and resources developing new lines and new technologies, creating lots of shiny new better-than-last-year models to tempt us to part with our hard-earned cash. Partly this is because they want to be seen as cutting edge (and the launch of a new batch of goodies each season helps reinforce this message) but mostly because without the life-blood of new sales, either through added desirability, increased functionality or improved performance, it is assumed that no business has a sustainable future (obviously this is a debatable point, but I’ll leave that for another day).

On the whole, this sort of progress normally brings benefits to the user: lighter materials, more technologically advanced fabrics, increased comfort, enhanced breathability, greater packability, and so forth. Perhaps not every change is always an improvement, and product reviews (whether favourable or unfavourable) can skew the rate at which change occurs, but over time sales and feedback will shape which developments work (and which don’t) and which are popular (and which aren’t) and gradually a range of benefits will accrue.

But sometimes, in the drive for “new improved”, good products can get lost along the way. Not necessarily anything fancy, you understand; nothing wacky or way out or unsustainably specialist. Just ordinary, solid, run-of-the-mill stuff – the type of thing you would never imagine being hard to buy but which turns out to be just that when the time comes to replace it.

Such has been the case lately with a couple of items that to me are pretty standard bits of kit: the wicking T-shirt and the Microgrid top.

The wicking T-shirt is a curious creature. Rather like the bass player in a band, it’s never the star attraction or the focus of attention, and only missed when it’s not there. Its advantages are numerous: you can wear it on it’s own in hot weather or under a fleece/softshell/waterproof if it gets cooler, and the cut means it can be suited a range of body shapes. With either a round neck or a low-profile ¼ zip it means there is no bunching of layers round the neck when worn under something else, and the (predominantly man-made) fibres help shift sweat away to keep you cool when working hard and prevent overcooling when you stop.

A simple ask to find one, then: or so you’d think. But trawl through the hundreds of options served up as contenders and you’ll see it’s anything but. First deduct the ones designed primarily as baselayers (too close fitting, not designed or styled as outerwear). Then anything made of wool (can be itchy, stays wet when sweaty, difficult to wash and dry overnight), anything with a collar or high neck (Polo top, baselayer), anything with long sleeves (too warm in summer) and anything with an “athletic” fit (definitely not a pretty sight!). Next omit those that are simply not robust enough or better suited to lighter use, eg: running. Finally, sift out the budget brands or the ones made of cheaper fabrics or mesh-like materials that will snag badly under your rucksack or on a passing thorn bush on your first outing.

You’ll be surprised at just how few there are left!

The case of the Microgrid top is slightly different: there just don’t seem to be any. I’m not talking about Microfleece here – there are plenty of those to choose from – but good, old-fashioned, genuine Microgrid. The advantages over fleece are simple: they wick sweat away and allow it to evaporate better thanks to the structure of the material, and for an equivalent amount of warmth they are thinner, less bulky, more robust, and far less prone to pilling. I have a couple from Mountain Hardwear that are fantastic – I’ve used them in all sorts of circumstances, often directly under a rucksack, with virtually no sign of pilling or wear at all. After all that they still look good enough for the pub in the evening, and I would happily choose the same or similar again if I could find one.

I am hoping, in both these cases, that the shortage is just a temporary blip: that it’s something of an oversight by manufacturers that will be rectified in future offerings. But I’ve been searching on and off for almost a year now, and my hopes are now fading fast as time passes. In the meantime, I’m coming to terms with the possibility of having to nurse my increasingly shabby collection of each through another spring, summer and autumn.

So, if you’re out on a hill somewhere and see a slightly dishevelled, late 40-ish bloke of a distinctly non-athletic build coercing his kit on to one final effort and cursing the short sightedness of outdoor manufacturers, it could well be me.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Trail Of Woe

Every so often in blogland, you get thinking about something and someone goes and beats you to it. Such was the case recently when this post appeared on Alan Sloman’s blog:

For a week or two now I’ve been mulling over the current state of the printed word and the quality (or otherwise) of the recent crop of outdoor publications. Put bluntly, I’ve been scanning the covers of the major outdoor publications for a few months now in the mood for an impulse purchase, and found nothing worth shelling out my hard earned cash for.

The stats that Alan has provided back up what I imagine we all know deep down: magazine circulation is dropping. And the comments that followed the post show that there are a number of opinions as to why this is the case.

Without doubt, one of the major impacts has be due to the advent and growth of social media sites. So prevalent is this growth that even online forums (not so long ago the new kid on the block) are struggling to maintain a healthy and vibrant community in the face of young upstarts such as Facebook and Twitter, a situation exacerbated in many cases by a lack of proper pro-active moderation that has seen the trolls moving in and claiming squatters’ rights.

Nowadays, it seems more and more outdoor enthusiasts are shunning the traditional magazine in favour of the blog. For the reader, blogs can act as both as a source of reference and information, whilst for the blogger they provide a way of sharing experiences with others. There are an increasing number of such sites, and obviously the quality and content can vary massively across the spectrum. But the huge diversity of interests and approaches, and the speed at which they can be delivered simply cannot be covered in the same way by a magazine.

Critics claim that it’s all a bit self-congratulatory, but that rather misses the point: blogs and bloggers can deal with things in a different way to the more traditional outlets. And however good or bad the quality might be, individually they are all honest endeavours untainted by the need to pander to advertisers or appeal to the populist, and therein lies their strength.

Of course all of this has left the magazine in a bit of a dilemma: what to do now the Internet has made outdoor journalists of us all? (I exaggerate, but you get the idea!). Well, one of the obvious things would be to concentrate on the sorts of things most of us can’t: longer trips, large group comparative product tests, new materials, fabrics and technologies, and maybe add in a bit of news and campaigning so as to galvanize the walking community against those who would seek to desecrate what we love. What seems to have happened, though, is the dumbing-down of content and a race to look more like the competition that readers have noticed and commented on.

But there is another reason, I think, why magazine circulation is on the wane, that has nothing to do with competition from blogs or Facebook, advertising revenues or circulation numbers, gear reviews, laddish content or otherwise. It’s not even that they haven’t yet worked out what they can offer in the Internet age. No, it’s none of those, it’s that they’ve become a little bit …… well …. er …. dull.

It’s not that there is a lack of ambition exactly, but that they are all a bit too happy to play it safe. Nothing controversial (to keep the advertisers on side) and relying on the same old trips in the same old destinations: The Lakes, Snowdonia, Glen Coe. All good destinations, no doubt, but over exposure has blunted their attraction.

As anyone can see from this blog, I am happy to walk anywhere: fell or mountain, dale or riverside, winter or summer, home or abroad. I’m also happy to read about campaigns, new technologies, gear reviews, news and events. I even enjoy the photography too. So, between Trail, Country Walking and TGO, you’d think there’d be something that was bound to appeal in one or the other over the space of three or four months, wouldn’t you? But no, it was not to be.

In truth, I’ve read or subscribed to all of them over the space of fifteen years or so, enjoyed much and learnt a lot. I’m currently subscribing to Trek & Mountain, and find it’s worldwide scope, diversity of content and chunkier articles more to my taste – at least we get a good view of what “abroad” looks like! But, eventually, that may run its course, too.

Whatever the future for the outdoor press, I think they need to focus on what they can offer that other media can’t, and be a little bit bolder, a bit more challenging, prepared to take a few more risks and be a bit different – you know, get the adrenaline going a bit.

Because the danger is we just end up with the printed equivalent of muzak, and that would be a crying shame.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A Grassington Weekend – Day 2

Buckden Pike From Kettlewell – 12.25 miles

Sunday 3rd March 2013

Map: OS Explorer OL30 Yorkshire Dales Northern & Central Areas

Kettlewell – Top Mere Road – Starbotton Road – Starbotton Peat Ground – Tor Mere Top – Memorial Cross – Buckden Pike – Cow Close – Buckden Rake – Buckden – Dales Way (S) – Kettlewell

A very different sort of day greeted us this morning: overcast and cooler, with yesterday’s sunshine a mere memory. And, as if to reinforce the asymmetry, we had a very different sort of walk planned, too.

For those not overly familiar with the area, Buckden Pike might be something of an unknown quantity. But at 702m it ranks as 7th highest in the Yorkshire Dales (higher, in fact, than Pen-y-Ghent, one of the classic Yorkshire 3 Peaks) although it is a rather more pudding-shaped summit than the designation “Pike” might infer.

We left Kettlewell by Top Mere Road, a clear, walled track that ascends steadily to the north. Though the rise is steady the gradient is substantial, and soon views have opened out over Wharfedale and the village. As we climbed, we saw two Stoats chasing each other across the path – but whether fighting or frolicking we were unable to determine. Away to our right sat the bulk of Great Whernside, fringed with a smattering of late, lingering snow.

Eventually the gradient eased, the path levelled out and we left the track for more open moorland. On reaching Starbotton Road, the track took a long swing to the northeast whilst our route turned sharp left. We lost the path amid a jumble of hillocks and tussocky grass, and ended up striking a line across the bog. That it was wet underfoot came as no surprise – after all, there was a clue in the name: Starbotton Peat Ground. But we could see the wall that we needed to handrail towards the summit and, after a short, wet plodge, we were back on track again.

We kept the wall to our left as we turned northwards once more. Remnants of recent drifts lay at the base, and we found that keeping to the edge provided the easiest going, neither too slippery nor too boggy.

Before long we passed a memorial cross, dedicated to the memory of five Polish airmen whose Wellington bomber crashed here in January 1942 with just one survivor.

Even less-well-known peaks like Buckden Pike can be busy, and today was no exception despite the conditions. The last stretch between the memorial and the summit had been (officially) diverted to the west side of the wall to prevent further erosion of the original path, and soon we were on the summit – a flattish expanse marked by a trig point and a cairn – hunkered down against the strengthening wind and tucking into our lunch. Even on a dull day the views are worthwhile, with many of the area’s highest peaks visible from here.

The route down to Buckden is far more direct. The initial steep descent was made trickier by further snowdrifts, but soon we were making way across the fell side towards Buckden Rake.

On a previous version of this walk we took a longer route from here – to Cray, along the fell side and down to Hubberholme before heading home – adding a couple more miles to the distance. But today we turned directly for Buckden where we took a short tea break before picking up the Dales Way southwards for the return to Kettlewell.

It’s a pleasant stroll in comparison to the more strenuous morning’s walking and an easy way to notch up a few miles. There was plenty of bird life to be seen along the riverbank (possibly an indication spring is on its way, and that the sap is rising) in particular a large group of Oystercatchers – birds we normally associate with groups of 2 or 3 individuals together.

It was around 5.00pm when we got back to the near-empty car park, almost everyone else having already left. As we loaded our mucky gear into the boot, we reflected on a good walk, a great day out and a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, and we certainly felt as if we had made the most of this unexpected opportunity to spend some much-needed quality time in the Dales.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

A Grassington Weekend – Day 1

Linton, Grassington & Conistone – 8.75 miles

Saturday 2nd March 2013

Map: OS Explorer OL2 Yorkshire Dales Southern & Western Areas

Linton – Linton Falls – Sedber Lane – Grassington High Street – Dales Way – Conistone Dib – Conistone – Grass Wood – Ghaistrill’s Strid – Beside The Wharfe – Linton Falls – Linton

It had been a hard week: physically, mentally and emotionally draining, and topped off on Friday night with a boozy business dinner that went on into the wee small hours. So a weekend given over to the holy trinity of walking, eating and sleeping was just the tonic needed – a pick-me-up made even more invigorating when Saturday dawned clear and bright with plenty of spring sunshine.

The Yorkshire Dales was our destination for the weekend, and it was looking at it’s glorious best as we pulled into the little Wharfedale village of Linton.

This is a circuit we have done on a number of occasions, so required little in the way of navigation. What makes it such a good outing is the wide variety of scenery and landscape the route passes through, much of which encapsulates the best the area has to offer – open fellside walking, Nature Reserve woodland, classic Dales villages, a riverside stroll and some striking examples of typical Limestone features – all in one compact package.

Linton Falls is an impressive sight in all weathers. On our last visit just a few weeks ago, the river was high and water thundered powerfully through the defile: in fact we couldn’t recall having seen it so full. Today, though, we were amazed at how little water was flowing through the blocky channels: the ducks were practically standing on the river bottom.

Grassington Main Street was busy but soon negotiated, and before long we were out on the fell side following the Dales Way towards Kettlewell. Aficionados of the walk will know this as a favourite section, with expansive views and big skies – and often an invigorating breeze.

Soon the path levels out and begins to pick a way through an area of Limestone pavement. Bent, misshapen trees attest to the strength of the winds encountered hereabouts, and there is a definite wild feel to this stretch. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, there is evidence that this landscape was not only inhabited but farmed as well as far back as the Bronze and Iron Ages.

After the breezy, high-level traverse of Old Pasture, the drop into the shelter of Conistone Dib provides an impressive contrast. Here the path follows the course of a dry, rocky gorge that becomes increasingly narrow and steep-sided with the descent.

Care must be taken as the smooth limestone and loose rubble provide ample opportunity for slips and twisted ankles, but the drama of the surroundings and the Geological demonstration on show means that time taken over this section is not wasted.

Conistone is a small, attractive village and an ideal spot for lunch: a central triangular area being equipped with wood and stone benches for this very purpose. We sat and ate our sandwiches, watching the comings and goings and the to-and-fro of life in this particular corner of the Dales.

A short section of road walking and a field crossing brought us to Grass Wood, an area of ancient woodland that is both a Nature Reserve and a SSSI and numbers amongst it’s mix of species Ash, Wych Elm, Sycamore and Hazel.

Leaf cover is low at this time of the year, and it was obvious that some cropping of the timber had been undertaken. Piles of slim switches (probably hazel and produced by a kind of coppicing process) lay all around, with emerging new growth protected by a “Witches Hair-do” swirl of intertwined undergrowth.

Across the road we picked up a clear path that brought us down beside the Wharfe and followed the riverbank as far as Ghaistrill’s Strid. Normally tempestuous, the lack of water had diminished the impact of these rapids, but they are still worthy of a few moments contemplation and we obliged.

We continued to follow the riverside below Grassington, returning to Linton Falls, before taking a different route back to the car.

The afternoon was still young, though. Despite being slightly more overcast than the morning, there was still plenty of sun and time for more walking. So we picked a section of riverside path and ambled along for a further hour, taking advantage of our good fortune.

That evening, we ate at the Forester’s Arms in Grassington – friendly staff, a convivial atmosphere and good food in sizeable portions. I had a planetary-sized bowl of Steak & Ale, topped with a tectonic plate of pastry and served with a Continental Drift of chips and vegetables: it’s not often that I’m stuffed after one course. So, if you’re on the look out for hearty helpings of good food after a day’s walking, I can recommend the Forester’s!