Monday, 14 March 2016


A Dogs life

Nothing can prepare you for the loss of a family member, especially one so young.
Sally was six when she lost her brave and challenging 18 month battle with cancer, we were as you can imagine devastated.
Nothing and no one could heal the wounds that we suffered.
But there was a "someone" who would comfort us without words, who would listen without prejudice nor opinions (something some "councillors" could learn from)
some one who would love us unconditionally and Someone who would simply help take our minds away from what had happened.
They say a dog is a man's and best friend,  he was that and a whole lot more.

His name was Ozzy, and here is his story in brief and how I would like him to be remembered.

It was February 2002 when the subject of a dog came up, a companion for Mandy when she came home from work to an empty household, a friend for Nancy when she came out of school.
A trip to Sunnyside Kennels, part of the Birmingham Dogs Home group was in order.
Mandy saw a small black cross breed dog, a connection was made. We took him out into the walking area.
But the real test was from me, Nancy was five at the time, we didn't want to risk her being bitten.
Whilst the dog was chewing on a biscuit I reached down and took it from him. He simply looked up, no malice. We were good to go.

Ozzy settled into our life and we into his with ease, upon arrival he made himself instantly at home. Already house trained and as he had a fair chunk of Collie in him he was also an intelligent dog. He was also an inquisitive little fella and loved to disappear and  "mooch" around the local woodland whilst on walks then after a while he would come lay by me and chomp down on a piece of wood.

Boy he could run, judging by his physique he was made for it, light weight, narrow build and deep chested. At the ripe old age of 12 I recorded him via the aid of a push bike and a Gps at 28mph!

Ozzy loved camping especially by the sea where he could run along the beach and go for a swim. When back at camp he enjoyed spending quality time with his family, this was obvious as he was never far away from us.

He was never to bothered about toys, balls and Frisbee's bored him after a few minutes, there is one exception however, at a particular place he loved, a small river just before it reached the sea; he would stand in the water and bark asking to go after a stick, he would play there for as long as you could stand it.

The years have whizzed by as ever far too fast, with Ozzy being a constant companion to us all.

It was with great sadness that we said our final goodbye to him December 2015.

We are now a dog family and the house seemed empty without Ozzy, a trip to Sunnyside Kennels was in order, with a smaller dog maybe a terrier of sorts in mind.

However fate played its hand and Kally came into our lives, a collie cross although more collie than cross. Not as a replacement for Ozzy, more of someone who will carry on Ozzy's legacy.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Fellowship of the Spey

Five blokes six days one river

It was September 2012, during an organised Canoe Camping Club meet on the banks of the river Soar, when the topic for a 2013 Scottish trip was raised.

The conversation ended with an unanimous decision, we were to paddle a classic Scottish touring river, the Spey.
As with the previous year’s trip to Loch Shiel, a "secret" Face book group called The Fellowship of the Spey was created, hence the name of the write up, discussions regarding what, how, who and when took place on this useful platform.

Due to the nature of the river, the paddlers aka the Fellowship all needed to be competent in their chosen craft.
We had decided for more than one reason there was to be six paddlers in the group.

As the year rolled on and circumstances changed two of the Fellowship had to back out :( .

Their spaces were soon filled and we were back to a full strength group for the trip, or so we thought....

On the day before our departure member number six received some rather unfortunate news that prevented him from going.
The Fellowship was now down to five - Myself (Tim), Tim, Clive, Stu and Mike.
An eclectic mix of characters, with a broad range of skills and personalities that formed into a great team with the sole aim, not to conquer but to enjoy all of the aspects of the journey.

Description of The River Spey by the Scottish Canoe Association (SCA)

“Well known for its ‘Classic Descents’ this is a major river that can usually be relied upon to give reasonable water levels at all seasons. Probably one of the most beautiful rivers in Britain, flowing past the Cairngorms, through Badenoch and Strathspey and into the Moray Firth at Spey Bay. Whilst, before venturing on to the Spey unguided one should be a proficient paddler, there are very few highly technical rapids on the river. On sections downstream of Grantown-on-Spey there is a good number of entertaining Grade II rapids.
Truly a ‘water-path’, this river is navigable for most of its length ~ from source at Loch Spey (where the Spey shares its water shed with the turbulent River Roy). A major hazard occurring above Laggan Bridge is the Spey Dam, which like the River Roy steals the Spey's waters and takes them westward (to help power an aluminium smelter). However, good water-levels and much portage are required to make the very highest reaches navigable. Approx 1km upstream of Garva Bridge is a short Grade III rapid requiring care and at Garva Bridge the rapid is impassable in low water conditions and Grade III standard if ‘navigable’. Although Laggan Bridge is a fairly good access point, Newtonmore is normally recognised as the highest reasonable starting place unless river is fairly high. Roads run close to the river throughout its length.”

Day 1, Friday the 13th September, the longest day.

As soon as I returned home from that necessary evil that we call work I filled my front garden with my boat and kit, which had been inspected cleaned and packed.

After loading up Clives car with what looked like an aftermath of an explosion in a canoe/camping shop, we were ready. The time was 17.30, I kissed "tarrah-a-bit" to my long suffering wife Mandy and our daughter Nancy, I didn’t neglect the dog, he had a fuss too.
We drove up to Tims house in Doncaster, hitting some rather frustrating traffic en route, upon our arrival, we proceeded to load up a yet another car plus a canoe trailer for the second leg of our journey. By 22.00 we were fed watered and on the long long road up north.

We arrived at Laggan Bridge Grid ref NN615 943 (this is as far up the river as we thought practicable) and peered over the bridge to check the level of the river and surmised that there was enough water......there was...just. Minutes after our arrival, we were to witness the most glorious of sunrises, this at 05.30.

Our first view of the Spey

The Fellowship all mucked in and unloaded the kit and boats, before the drivers Tim and Stu embarked on yet more driving, an epic four hour car shuttle.
We were very lucky to have a contact living nearby who helped with the car shuttle by ferrying our tired drivers back to Laggan Bridge, a big thanks to "you know who" ;-).

The cars were conveniently stashed a few minutes walk from the end of the river just as it meets the sea, nearly ninety miles away from us in Spey bay.

Whilst the car shuttle was in progress the rest of us man handled kit and boats down a steep bank to the rivers edge. 

Here at Laggan Bridge just as the Spey emerges from under the bridge a broad, low concrete wall had been built three quarters across the width of the river creating a narrow weir at the far end, this made us a handy "pier" for us to stack kit and lie down.

Jus' chillin

 The weir had quite a small but "grabby" standing wave, which kept me entertained as I made the most of an empty boat and surfed for it a while, after play time Mike, Clive and I ate our breakfast and packed our boats.

 Downstream of the weir the river is shallow and narrow in places and the banks were (and still are I guess) lined with trees of which had branches covered in less fortunate trees/branches that had been uprooted by flood water. Some of these branches were dry and just the right size for the fire boxes which along with "Sherman" (Stu's wood burning stove) were to be our primary cookers for the evenings. Whilst we were waiting for Tim and Stu to return we harvested some of this wood, chatted and cat napped.

Fuel for the stoves

Finally the two tired drivers returned, they quickly loaded their boats (we would have done it but as you know loading a boat is a personal thing) and soon enough we were on the river.
As I mentioned earlier the river was quite shallow and narrow so to negotiate the bends we had to search for the deepest channel, sometimes with success sometimes not, overhanging trees didn’t help either!

Weaving through the upper streches

Various skills were called upon, paddling, poling (snubbing) and lining and on occasions plain and simple brute force was called upon to get the boats moving off "stuff" and in the desired direction.

Mauling the heavy boats

We had the wind at our backs, and it had a habit of disguising boulders and other underwater boat entrapments, with this in mind close quarter route finding was the name of the game; however this proved rather difficult with the fantastic scenery appearing at the turn of every corner, causing distractions and photo opportunities then ultimately an altercation with one thing or another stopping the boats dead in their tracks.

Lovely just plain lovely

could it get any better?

Our progress was slow, but speed wasn't on our agenda, the plan was to paddle until we could find a half decent camp site somewhere and then catch up with some much needed shut eye.

We found one, just before Spey Bridge at Newtonmore grid ref NN 700 974, overshadowed by Creag Dhubh Cairn.

Camp 1

We scouted the immediate area not only for our tent spaces but a spot for the communal tarp. Once the tents and tarps were pitched, we set about lighting the cooking fire in two fire boxes.
We had previously agreed that we would all supply and cook an evening meal each, tonight it was my turn. I had chosen to make a chilli which, in the main was prepared at home and then frozen. 

Smokey campfire chilli

It thawed during the journey, and was cooked as a chilli should be, in billy pans suspended from tripods over an open fire. The evening drew to a close as we stared into the flames with full bellies, a brief chat followed by a wee dram and we were all yawning. 

It had been a long day

It was about eight o’clock Saturday night and we were all pretty much bushed. It had been a long long day, about thirty eight hours for me without a proper sleep.

Sunday 15/9/13

During the night the weather changed dramatically, a storm front had hit us, wind and rain gave the tents and tarps a fair old lashing, but they stood firm.
The following morning we awoke to the noise of more rain and yet more wind. This didn't faze us as we were on a natural high, we just got stuck in to our chores.

Wild Country in a Wild Country

The view from my tent

Again as the day before the river levels dictated how we propelled our boats, be it with paddles, poles or just plain jumping out and mauling. That was for the four canoeists, Mike who was in a loaned cross over kayak which being all but two weeks old was employing as many techniques as he could to prevent his boat from "boulder strike" and scratching/marking it  (find out later if he succeeded)
Not long after setting off we went under a road bridge at Newtonmore where we had to make an emergency pit stop, one of Stu's seat bolts gave up the ghost and his seat was now looking rather wonkey. This was soon fixed with my super strong kite string-tracking bridle. (Thanks to the 4* training we had for that idea) this temporary fix lasted the whole trip and was easy to untie as well :)

Fixing the seat

Stu's broken seat and the temporary repair that lasted 70 miles of canoeing

Off we paddled, shooting the odd riffle, dodging submerged boulders and negotiating gravel beds, of which, kept us on our toes or indeed on our feet out of the boats, mauling them if we got stuck. My poling repertoire had gained yet another technique, I called it the Spey shuffle, whilst asserting a fair amount of pressure on the pole I was rocking my boat side to side vigorously to free it from boulders etc that lay just below the surface.

One of the many, many riffles along the way

We passed a few islands en route as the river meandered towards the Insh Marsh Nature Reserve, by now our stomachs were saying it was dinner time, but as we were in the middle of a marsh with steep banks either side, it was deemed wise to push on to Loch Insh and the possibility of a beach.

Entering Loch Inch

The rain breaks as we search for a lunch spot

We pulled up for lunch on a beach at the southern most point of the Loch, just in time for the rain (Scottish mist?) to ease. Lunch was eaten and very soon over, we clambered back into the boats. I have to say we were all surprised how warm the water was on our hands.
In the small bay by the beach the Loch surface was like a mirror, but we noticed when we pulled off that there were a few tell-tale riffles in the middle of the Loch indicating some wind, on the shore a photographer was clicking away, his telephoto lens pointing in our direction, whilst the Fellowship crossed the Loch. It would be interesting to see his photos.

Lunch at Inch

Leaving the lunch spot

The exit route of the Loch being the mouth of the river was just over one kilometre North from "our beach," and the wind was blowing North East, not a problem when we started but sullen storm clouds were coming our way at speed, hitting us as we were mid-way across, in no time at all, the wind had picked up the waves turning them into galloping white horses. The waves were big enough to break over the sides of the canoes threatening to swamp us; on top of this we also battled desperately trying to prevent the boats from "weather cocking." Only Stu equipped with his sail enjoyed the crossing as he tacked his way across.

The weather started to turn..
The wind picked up some more

The Fellowship collected together in the lee of the island at the mouth of the Spey, just in time for the storm to abate. Now with a smile on our faces and fully warmed up we paddled off down-stream.

The Fellowship made it to safety and calmer waters

I will not try to repeat myself, but just to reiterate each and every day we were confronted by stunning views as the rivers character changes as it flows towards the sea, re-entering the river was one such event.

A stunning river
Peace and tranquillity 

Another river joined as we started to look for camp two. Several kilometres later we had found one, grid ref NH 833 086. This campsite had a sandy surface with trees and shrubs dotted about which were convenient to hang our drying lines and to suspend the tarp upon. Same as yesterday and the following days to come we chose a "tarp spot" and then bagged ourselves a tent space.

Camp 2

Wood was sought, cut and chopped for the cooking fire, some was stored from the previous night in my boat but needed drying out a little as earlier that day my gunnels were dipped under water by a tree, I didn't swim but I did come close, loaded boats just aren't responsive at all and the river had a fair flow to it!

It was Mikes turn for tea that night, Pasta Carbanara was on the menu followed by "*Lumpy Delight*" for pudding, a new one on me but it worked. We were now running low on water, I had bought a water filter and was filtering the river water, however it was hard going as the fine peaty water soon clogged up the ceramic filter. Eventually we set the fire with a big billy pan full of river water suspended from a tripod; we got the water to a rolling boil and left it for the morning. This was to supplement the filtered water, filtered water for cold drinks, boiled river water for hot drinks and porridge. As the night before after some idle chat we "hit the sack" as the sky went dark.(we weren't being unsociable as had been chatting all day.) During the night Clive heard a pig like snuffleing and snorting sound around our camp, wild boar maybe?

Camp 2's kitchen

*lumpy delight for the curious ones is Angel Delight (this one was caramel) with crunched up Hobnob biscuits*

Monday 16/9/13

We awoke to a dry morning and packed away our gear brushing the sandy earth of as much kit as we could, leaving the site with no traces of our stay.
Saturday’s rain by now had made it to the river and it had risen a good and helpful  8 - 10 inches, fortunately Mike had tied his boat to a tree as the beach that it was pulled up on was now under water. Boats packed we were on our way, time was immaterial when we were there but it was early(ish) in the morning.

Duke of Gordons monument, on hill adjacent camp2

Just past the bridge that carries the  B970 to Aviemore there is a launch spot where we pulled in for supplies, it was here we saw the only other paddlers of the week, kayakers who were on a three star course, we exchanged some pleasantries with them before they splashed away upstream.

Supply stop

Soon enough we left Aviemore and continued our journey through the outer fringes of the Cairngorms Mountains. 

Paddling away from Aviemore

The Fellowship head towards the Misty Mountains

Stopping for lunch of at an old "bargain basement" wriggly tin Gillie hut.

Lunch hut

 The weather was an off and on mixture of light rain/cloudy/sunny/windy weather, the wind whilst strong at times was predominately at our backs causing no real problems. In fact on one stretch the wind was strong enough to propel us through the water at a reasonable pace; at this point I didn't paddle for at least 500 meters (547 yards in old money.)

The wind at our backs 

The only real disadvantage we had with the wind was finding a sheltered campsite, the campsite that night was on one of the many islands scattered along the Spey. Grid ref NJ022 255 although it was sheltered and was easily big enough, it had a six foot bank to maul the kit and boats up, but being The Fellowship it all went smoothly boats and kit was soon out and on flat ground. Once all the kit was up it was time to set up our temporary home. I had bought my hammock and was determined to use it, I don't know why in hindsight as it took me longer to put up than my tent, I had far less privacy and wasn't as comfortable, nothing against hammocks I guess they just don't suit me for sleeping in.

Camp three

Tea that night was cooked by Tim, Vegetable Moorish Tagine followed by steam pudding and custard, the steam pudding needs another mention as it needs to be said it was made from scratch on an open fire in the Cairngorms National park! Hats off to you Tim it was delicious.
It may have been this night that we all stopped up late, the last one of us turned in at about 21.30!

Tuesday 17/9/13

The morning broke and we were packed and "humanized” (fed, coffee'd and cleansed teeth) and lowering the boats to the river. 

Lowering the boats into the water

Setting off
We were soon past the bustling metropolis that is Grantown on Spey, relatively speaking that is as we saw very few people.

 Again the river didn't disappoint, more often than not you can see how much the river was dropping in such a short time, the riffles were now turning into low grade rapids, wave trains were getting bigger necessitating more bailing and more sponge work. 

gaining water

Bailing out with a pump

This didn't bother us as we were all now dry suited up. There were a few more islands on this stretch. As we reached Craggenmore and according to the guide a grade 2 rapid was soon to be upon us, just as the river Avon joins the Spey, I readied myself shuffling in my boat in expectation when.....wait was THAT it? Just another wave train???

The pace had picked up some more, one more rapid until we reached our campsite at Blacksboat Station when Stu bellowed "WASHING MACHINE" having heard of this named rapid I knew he wasn't shouting about a wayward Zanusi, I quickly assumed the kneeling position . A horizon line appeared as one by one we dropped down into the maelstrom, I was at the back and like Clive took the fun line, right through the eye of the rapid, I hit the first of the big waves then a bigger one and so on until the biggest one of the rapid which was nigh on at eye level, the bow of my canoe buried deep into it before lifting out and pointing skywards before slamming down onto the following waves. A few inches of Spey water now slopped around my knees, I grinned like a little kid at Clive and Clive grinned back at me whilst we both bailed out our boats.

Dropping down into the washing machine

We made camp at the disused railway station,grid ref NJ 184 388, it was a campsite marked in the guide as a "basic camping" with a composting toilet and a tap. The loo was shut and we had to boil the water. Oh well.

Clive cooking on Sherman

It was Clives turn to be the cook and we had a chicken curry with flapjacks and custard for pudding. This was cooked on "Sherman" as it was a grassy field with no boulders to lay the fireboxes on.
We had a little smattering of rain that evening.

Wednesday 18/9/13

Wednesday morning came around and saw us launching and then ferry gliding across the river to tsrt another brilliant days paddling, after a couple of kms we were heading towards Knockando which the surrounding area has more whiskey distillery's than a junk yard dog has fleas, oh and another named rapid, funnily enough called Knockando (no-can-do?) We past one of the nicest Ghillie hut on the river, a few Ladies and Gentlemen were fly fishing, I say Ladies and Gentlemen as they were very very polite and civilised, bear in mind they are probably paying over £1000 a day for the privilege of fishing there.
A few well timed paddle strokes and a little more "flying by the seat of your pants" route finding and we were all through, not a particularly difficult rapid but fun all the same. We past a few more distilleries and paddled a few more rapids before we reached Charlestown of Aberlour, we pulled in by the bridge and had lunch, Stu was in desperate need for a pint and a butchers shop to buy meat for tea.

More rapids

Thoroughly refreshed he returned with some news, there is a manhunt further down river and we were to be on the look out for a man with a knife! I was surrounded by four unshaven men with knives and big sticks, we should be ok.

The surrounding area was stunning......still

As the day wore on it was time to look for a campsite, there is some remains of a castle marked on the map it could be a possibility? We paddled past Nothes and the smell of the distilleries was a bit too strong for comfort, all being well we would be far enough away from the plant to smell it.

another rapid

 The castle was a no-go for camping, but there is an island on the Map a little way downstream. This one was a go-er. Camp was made the Stew was cooking on top of Sherman, we were relaxed when a Ghillie strode into camp with a "punter" a brief chat later as we reassured him we would leave the island just as we found it. We watched as the fisherman "whipped "the water hunting for the elusive salmon that never came.

A ghillie and his client

 Tea was consumed as was another first for puddings, Jelly, apple pie and cream. In fact it was Spey Jelly as it was made the night before and cooled at the bottom of Stu's canoe.

A little R & R for me.

 The last of the Jura whiskey was drank around the fire boxes as we waited for night to fall.

During the night I woke to what I thought was a search light shining on the side of my tent, being a nosey so and so I stuck my head out to witness the moon shining brightly, lighting up the surrounding area, I couldn't resist a walk out to the beach to soak up the atmosphere.

Thursday 19/9/13

It was starting to become a bit noticeable that despite wet wipes and in-tent washing we were all starting to hum a little.
Much to my/our delight the rapids kept coming.
The Ghillie huts and their rowing boats were now looking a bit less luxury and more and shabbier the further we were from the "prime fishing areas"
At one point it was a brolly and a wooden chair, a far cry from the luxury chalets further upstream.

A not so plush Ghillie Hut

We passed a Ghillie who told us to be on the lookout for "a body!"
Fortunately we didn't see it, phew!

The river changed character again

As we approached Spey Bay the river changed its character for the very last time before it turned salty, large shingle banks and yet still more rapids, until finally we saw Spey Bridge and then the opening to the sea.

And the small rapids kept on coming

Spey Bridge looms

I wasn't content until I had tasted the salt in the water, then I could say that I paddled (in) to the sea. I floated about for a short while pondering the trip and soaking in what we have done.

And the river meets the sea at Spey Bay

The Fellowship at the end of a journey

The trip was over, the evening and  night revolved around first showers and clean clothes then chips and finally beer at the golf club, until that is we were kicked out at eight o'clock. Not that we were rowdy or anything, just that the barman wanted to go home.

Not a bad thing really as it was a long drive back home the following day.

A big thank you to all that contributed to make this trip possible, it was grand.

As for Mikes fortnight old borrowed kayak, did it remain unscathed? Nope it had gained quite a few "battle scars,” from its trip down the Spey, as did all of the canoes.

 Maybe we should not call it damage, more marks of respect to the river.

Cheers Tim.