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Spontaneous (and sodden) Speyside Way

Spontaneous (and sodden) Speyside Way


Postby samuelmacnab » Wed Oct 07, 2020 11:16 pm

Route description: Speyside Way

Date walked: 07/10/2020

Time taken: 5 days

Distance: 106 km

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A friend and I had decided that 2020 would be the year we finally walked a long-distance route, so we organised to undertake the West Highland Way in May. When COVID threw those plans out the window we rearranged for October - only for my friend to be struck with a kidney infection one week out. We decided to postpone and look forward to the WHW next spring instead.

Determined to make opportunity out of setback, particularly in a year when global pandemic had scuppered all other plans, I promptly bought a map of the Speyside way and decided this was the perfect chance to test myself on a solo hike.

Day 1 Buckie - Spey Bay
My first day on the trail was mostly travel and an easy lead-in. A train journey from Edinburgh to Elgin through gloriously (if suspiciously) sunny Cairngorms saw me passing through Aviemore - my (hopefully) soon-to-be finish line. The Stagecoach 35 took me to Buckie and the start of they Speyside Way.
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Start of the Speyside Way in Buckie

It was the perfect day to ease my train-stiffened legs into their groove over a flat 5 miles. Barely a ripple broke the surface of the Moray Firth as I ambled along the coast, the sky-blue sea merging with the sky itself. Past the sleepy seaside town of Portgordon I realised I wasn't the only one enjoying the weather, as it hit me that a noisy pile of rocks was in fact the largest haul-out of common seals I've seen in Scotland. Near 50 animals basking in the sun, nipping at their neighbours and eyeing me with curious suspicion.
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Seals hauled out on the beach

It was so sunny to the point that I began to wonder if I should've heeded the online advice to head from source to sea so as to keep the sun on my back. Rather than the stunning views, I found myself staring at my feet to keep the sun from my eyes and hoped my directional decision wasn't to prove an early indicator of my inexperience. My assumption that sun glare would not be an issue in a Scottish October would however prove (too) spot-on over the remaining days!

Having arranged ahead, I pitched my tent outside the club house of the Spey Bay golf course. Choosing a site with facilities and clubhouse for the first night was my strategy for easing nerves and preparing well for the first full day's walk, in which I intended to strike Aberlour in one go. In reality this also meant a score of locals raising my nerves with repeated warnings of the storm that was forecast to sweep in that night and their (somewhat false) assumptions that I must be a seasoned backpacker to undertake the hike in such conditions.

Watching the gentle roll of the waves under a calm pink and gold sunset, it was difficult to imagine that bad weather could be hours away.
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Sunset over the Spey Bay


Day 2 - Spey Bay - Rothes
The rain arrived overnight but hadn't developed beyond a light drizzle by the time I woke up. I was able to shower and get properly setup in the dry clubhouse before walking to the mouth of the river in full waterproofs and high spirits - confident that I could power through a soggy 20 miles no matter how grim the endeavor.
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Osprey at the mouth of the Spey

Not long into the walk however I felt uneasy that issues were quickly emerging. Though fully waterproofed, the day wasn't particularly cold so my striding was generating a sweaty steam underneath the layers despite attempts to improve air circulation.

Speeding through flat forests and past Fochabers, the route begins to kick upwards at Ordiequish. It's not a tough or particularly long climb, but the rain had intensified by the time I reached it, as had the wet rashes now developing on my inner thighs. My power hiking progressively diminished to an uncomfortable waddle until, exasperated, I gratefully bundled into my first refuge from the rain - a muddy spot under the the Boat O' Brig bridge where I stripped down to try and dry off, treat my legs and cook some noodles to rejuvenate for the next stage.

My efforts at makeshift treatment made the walking worse! Now barely able to waddle 50m for pain, never mind taking on the hilly miles to Craigellachie - I was gutted to conclude that I would have to call the day well early, and possibly the hike altogether. I hobbled from the bridge to an open spot with phone reception and, ashamed, raced to book a taxi and B&B in nearby Rothes before my phone washed out. The sheep and cows in neighbouring fields, seemingly less fussed about the weather, inched towards me inquisitively while I stood unflinching for half an hour in the rain until my rescuer arrived. I was angry at myself that it was a rather unglamorous pain and perhaps an oversight in preparation that was going to force me to call quits after barely 24 hours, as opposed to any lack of determination.

Stunned at the progression of events, I was unsure what my next move would be. I couldn't imagine being able to walk any time soon and the forecast remained fixedly poor but there were no Sunday buses from Rothes the next day, so an easy exit back to Elgin wasn't forthcoming either.

Day 3 - Rothes - Cragganmore
I awoke to find, with cautious optimism, that my rashes had dried out considerably - as had all my clothes which hung upon every handle, hook and angle in the room. Finding that the local shop sold lip balm, I bought 5 as substitute vaseline and resolved to make a wary go of resuming the walk. Being behind schedule already, I walked the main road until it rejoined the Way at Craigellachie rather than return to the location of my washout.

With growing confidence I realised that the rain had eased off and I could walk pain free! Before long I was crossing the picturesque Telford bridge and over a river Spey that had risen to a raging torrent with the previous day's downpour. At this point the Way rejoins the abandoned trainline that makes up much of the route - making a fast and easy walk past Aberlour, Carron and Knockando to Cragganmore.
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Rushing Spey (taken from Telford Bridge)

The area around Carron was a particular highlight of this leg. Shortly before the river crossing you can find the most spectacular and mature examples of Scots Pine I have ever seen - rising tremendously high before fanning out almost completely flat, like African Acacia's but for their deep-red and black bark and refreshing smell. In my opinion Carron also hosts the prettiest distillery - the stylish, modern and environmentally-friendly Dalmunach building. The local phone box has also been converted by the local village hall into a veritable goody-box of drinks and snacks available to hikers by donation.
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Hiker goody-station at Carron

Having intermittently showered throughout the day, at Cragganmore the rain returned with a full vengeance. Seeing that there was a small grassy patch reserved for Way campers here, and knowing that the route beyond kicks back up into the hills, I decided to again call the day shorter than I felt I had the energy for. Unfortunately the hikers' tap was broken, but it was nonetheless a pleasant site to spend a long evening cosy under the patter of rain.

Day 4 - Cragganmore to Nethy Bridge
Determined to start stacking up higher mileage, I started day 4 early. The morning was quiet with a mystical atmosphere heightened by a mist that hung low in the valley and encounter with a red squirrel navigating the railway-line birch grove branches in my opposite direction.
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Morning mist at Cragganmore

Shortly after Cragganmore the Way opens for the first time onto heather moorland where time was passed amusedly observing grouse running ahead of me for long stretches, unable to comprehend that simply turning off the path would save them much stress. The silence was frequently broken by the frantic flapping of wings as I passed the hidden, sheltering females.

The trail goes beyond the moors and continues climbing, traversing a series of hills in sequence until Cromdale. Though it was enjoyable to vary the route and spend time in misty upland forests beneath mewing buzzards, parts of this section were monotonous. Progress was slowed owing to gates seemingly every 20 metres, paths that were narrow, rocky and overgrown, and a section passing through a cow paddock where the fencing had been dismantled - forcing me to take a makeshift detour away from the anxious-looking herd. I was also very dehydrated at this point - I didn't come across any shop between Aberlour and Grantown, and was reluctant to trouble locals in the time of COVID so had to spend time boiling whisky-coloured water from one of the peaty upland streams.
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Following the hills to Cromdale

The Anagach Wood between Cromdale and Grantown was one of the highlights of the trip. An incredible example of Caledonian pine forest, and the time spent wandering this maze of creaking trees and soaked moss was wonderful. Despite some cautionary signs raising my anticipation - I did not come across any capercaillie.
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Anagach wood

I can see that Grantown would make a well-serviced overnight stop, and I was very tempted by this late stage in the day! Seeing the chance to get within striking distance of Aviemore however, I forced myself up from a very late lunch and onto the final stretch to Nethy Bridge. This long section of former rail-line under the evening sun was enjoyable and included my second squirrel sighting as well as an up-close buzzard as it glided from a nearby branch to a more distant vantage point. After a long, hilly, wet and thirsty day I opted to treat myself to indoor accommodation once again and the chance to shower and wash my rain and sweat-soaked clothes.

Day 5 - Nethy Bridge to Aviemore
The reason I opted to start in Buckie was that I consider the Cairngorms, Abernethy Forest and Loch Garten to be truly magical places that could be most fully appreciated after spending four days of toil to reach them. Stepping into the forest from Nethy Bridge brought instant excitement and a sense of peace. Rather than aim to finish in Kincraig, I instantly knew I would prefer to spend more time here and to end at the original finish in Aviemore. I took a long detour to extend my time under the canopy, affording time for chance wildlife encounters to present themselves. No pine martens or wildcats emerged from the quiet depths but plenty of bird, insect and plantlife more than sufficed. I also detoured to incorporate Loch Garten, which isn't on the official route. Finding a peaceful spot away from the road, I spent 30 minutes just sitting on the shore and gazing out over Ben Macdui as a light rain shower glided over, replacing delicate birdsong with the soft uninterrupted patter of countless drops spraying the water's surface. Returning to this place for the first time in 15 years and savouring the peace was an experience of zen like nothing I've known. This was the reason I chose the Speyside way above other routes.
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Half an hour spent sitting under rainshowers at Loch Garten

After another meandering reroute I emerged back into the daylight and sensed the close of my adventure nearing. From Boat of Garten I crossed the final stretch forest and of open heath, enclosed by mountains on either side.
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Final approach to Aviemore

Underestimating the length of the Aviemore high street (2km+), there was finally a long and weary crawl on tired feet to the unassuming car park that signifies the original start/end of the route. As the returning crowds milled among the recently re-opened shops and restaurants, I savoured the accomplishment without fanfare - delighted simply to have overcome early challenges, to have rediscovered an appreciation of nature in a year of global catastrophe, and to have made a spontaneous solo adventure out of a setback.

I look forward to taking on the West Highland Way (with some lessons learned) next spring!
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Finished!
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samuelmacnab
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Re: Spontaneous (and sodden) Speyside Way

Postby Low Level Walker » Wed Oct 28, 2020 2:18 pm

I really enjoyed reading that :clap: :clap: .

It sounds like a lovely walk. I may have to put it on my 'to do' list.

Good luck for West Highland Way when you get to do it. It's also a beautiful walk, well serviced along the way with shops/restaurants/bars etc. I can only hope it will be same in post covid times. If you maintain reasonable fitness levels you will manage fine.

Well done on completing and thanks for an enjoyable read.
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Re: Spontaneous (and sodden) Speyside Way

Postby Totsbels » Thu Oct 29, 2020 10:45 am

Your walk sounds like an experience! I really enjoyed reading your report, too - you have a great writing style! This walk is definitely on my to-do list. Thank you for sharing!
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Location: Buffalo, NY, USA

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