Monday, 27 May 2013
A good friend Gordon Anderson was keen to experience another wild hut building challenge. We parked the car at Chatelherault
Country Park just outside Gordon’s home town of Hamilton and followed a woodland trail which shadowed the River Avon far below. These ancient woodlands were one of the great assets of the royal hunting estate of Cadzow, which came into the possession of the progenitors of the family in the early 14th century. Hamilton
We came to a sharp bend as the path steered away from some steep falling ground. As we left the path in search of a suitable build site, I noticed the cool forest had a thick carpet of wild garlic and tumbled trees. Gordon suggested that our hut concept echoed the form of an old ‘look-out hide’ which was perfectly fitting for this royal hunting estate location. This poetic observation helped to connect the project with the rich history of the woods.
As the area is predominantly characterised by a dramatic steep-sided gorge, I thought it would also be fitting to create a structure that dove-tailed with the topography. We decided to create a sleeping platform which could be suspended above this steep gorge by projecting out from the hillside. We scooped up a plentiful supply of fallen deadwood and bound the primary structure with biodegradable garden twine.
Gordon found working with the twine a minor struggle so I got to work on 4 large sandwich panels as he arranged the sleeping platform. The panels were heavy and difficult to place at high level. As I climbed on the structure in order to arrange a roofing panel I smashed through one half of the sleeping platform. After I patched it up Gordon suggested that at least he now knew which side he was sleeping on!
We had a deadline for 6:30pm as the Champions League football final was being played that evening and we had ambitions to watch it. We completed the last roofing panel together and hauled it onto the frame. Other than some patching-up, the build was complete by 6:45pm and we headed back along the twisting path for a mixed Kebab and a night of European football action.
Roughing it:At around 10pm we hopped back into the car with a football sized kebab wedged in our stomachs, remarking on how lucky it was that the hut was well ventilated.
We parked the car in a nearby housing estate and walked swiftly past groups of arguing youths. Our packs were laden with camping gear and we tried not to draw any unwanted attention to ourselves. We crossed the formal lawn at Chatelherault Estate and noticed a fox silently stalking some rabbits in the darkness.
Back at the hut-site we spent an extra hour building a small sandwich panel each which completed the roof covering. A large lemon-yellow moon shone through the dark woods as we climbed precariously onto the elevated platform and wriggled into our sleeping bags. The sound of the river rushing far below was often broken by the sound of distant cars screeching through the nearby country lanes. Similarly, Gordon’s snoring was often interrupted by the sound of screeching foxes in the fields beyond the forest edge. I’m not altogether sure which was better.
We woke to a typical Scottish breakfast of mince pie, washed down with some luminous orange Irn-Bru (which incidentally has a warning on the can suggesting it may cause ‘behavioural changes in children’?!) It was indeed the breakfast of champions.
After a loud cracking noise I turned to see Gordon snapping through his bed slats. He pulled his arse back through the branches and re-distributed his weight more evenly.
It turns out it is very difficult to control your laughter when someone is dangling precariously in their sleeping bag over a steep embankment.
Saturday, 23 March 2013
Some weeks previously I had arranged to collaborate with a Glasgow-based design consultancy called Giraffe Architecture. Raymond from Giraffe shares my passion for sustainable design and is also quite partial to an outdoor-adventure on occasion which was more than handy. After various emails we had decided to build something that would really test our design skills and explore a more ‘engineered’ solution. So in order to push ourselves we decided to build a mathematically complex geodesic dome…from wobbly twigs.
Having in the past made various shelters that were either too narrow or too short, I was worried that this more precise geometric puzzle would be impossible to achieve on a cold, dark evening with some rickety branches. It didn’t help that some of the worst snow storms this year had hit
on the very day of the build. It doesn’t surprise me. Glasgow
Travelling through the west end of
we arrived at the gates of Dawsholm Waste Transfer and Recycling Facility (or ‘the dump’ for short) in the early evening. The recycling plant has a surreal high-rise metal shed on the fringe of a small woodland park. This hilltop forest offers great views south over Glasgow ’s west-end but is fairly exposed to the bitter east-wind and blustery snow showers which now fell. Glasgow
We gathered some sticks and walked along the long approach path leading to the woods. Dog-walkers were out in force utilising what was left of the diminishing daylight. From a distance we may have looked like park rangers clearing up the fallen branches from the path. This was hopeful at best. It was more likely they noticed the serious conviction written across our faces suggesting that we were working towards something bigger, more epic, but ultimately less useful than path-clearing. We walked past with our heads down, avoiding awkward questions and eye contact.
Tall trees had been knocked down by the wind in an elemental game of woodland dominos. Tipped trunks were precariously resting against adjacent trees, interlocked at high level. Many trees lay motionless on the forest floor, revealing a tiny pond below their upturned roods. We stashed our rucksacks deep in the branches of a fallen conifer tree and proceeded to find yet more sticks.
Eventually, we had gathered enough sticks for the main pentagonal components and decided to take a quick break for a cold dinner. Ray lifted his sandwich to find a mouse had nibbled a hole in the corner of the packet. Slightly concerned I hung our main food bag from a branch but was ultimately pleased to find these tiny creatures harbouring in the security of this fallen forest giant.
We got back to work arranging the pentagons which would form the basis for the hut. We required 5 large identical pentagons for this build. The pentagons were made from an inner and outer frame, inside which we trapped some fir branches from the adjacent fallen tree. They took around 45 mins each to assemble and we had the feeling that this adventure might be a late one.
I nipped back over to the food bag when a little golden mouse (possibly a wood or harvest mouse) sprung out the bag and disappeared along the branches. I almost jumped out of my freezing skin and was of the opinion I could probably outrun Raymond if the mouse decided to attack. It was actually great to see a little woodland creature so close-up, right in the heart of the city. They are also slightly cuter than the usual fat rats I encounter on the pavements outside shops.
A fox danced through the woods like a drugged gypsy, darting in various directions as the snowfall became more concentrated. It didn’t stay for long and headed towards the recycling centre for supper, or indeed to recycle. We completed the 5 pentagon sandwiches and had them arranged upright by midnight. It was freezing cold so we could never stop for very long without our fingers becoming increasingly numb.
A couple of hours later we had arranged the roof and tiled it with the conifer branches from the adjacent deadwood tree. The hut looked surprisingly like a geodesic dome. I was surprised at how neat and structurally capable the form became. The rigid dome flexed and compressed to hold each of its components in place. The snowfall now seemed fairly heavy and I was sure that the hut would soon resemble an igloo rather than a finely panelised dome.
We passed our gear through the small triangular door and rolled out our sleeping mats. Things weren’t much warmer in our sleeping bags as temperatures on the hill plummeted to around -7. Not ideal, although I learnt a good trick that by placing my hands deep into my pockets I was able to sleep without shivering. I wrapped a scarf around my face as tiny flakes of snow drifted through similarly tiny gaps in the structure. The hut became a great wind-break and we were more than pleased with this minor sheltering victory.
We chatted until late and fell asleep to the sounds of agitated trees moaning in the wind with old limbs creaking. A dog barking right outside the hut signalled morning and was a great natural alarm (reminiscent of clockwork, much like their toilet habits). We packed quickly as the morning air was much colder than the previous night, partnered by a fierce wind.
We skipped breakfast and made our way through the arterial maze of forest trails until we aligned once again with the main dump access road. The snow was still falling heavily and after a short commute I was back home and beginning to warm up slightly.
I decided to eat the croissant I had bought for our breakfast, but on further inspection the bag was chewed open and the croissant was hollowed out by that stealthy little mouse earlier. It’s lucky the rodent had retired as it may have well found itself on the menu after munching our breakfast!
Saturday, 16 March 2013
Kinnoull Hill, Perth
To help record the event, I also enlisted my friend Richard Patterson (www.360pix.co.uk) who kindly offered to lend his photographic and log-chopping expertise.
The Kinnoull Hill in
is characterised by a dominating cliff-top wood and historic tower high above the bustling little city. It offers panoramic views south and east across the winding River Tay and westwards along the complicated concrete approach roads to Perth . Looking down from the edge you can often see great bursts of black crows exploding outwards from the rock face and bouncing effortlessly around in the passing updrafts. Perth
The folly tower dates from 1892 and was built as a romantic gesture by Lord Grey of Kinfauns. Where most people buy flowers or chocolates, Grey went slightly over-board and attempted to recreate the castles-strewn landscape of Rhineland
It has also been claimed that William Wallace on occasion used the cliffs below Kinnoull Hill as a refuge when pursuit became too close for comfort. No doubt the so-called Dragon’s Hole, which was a substantial cave high up among the rocks, would have been one of the places to which he could retreat. Scottish folklore also hints at the cave being home to a dragon, although I believe more likely an angry badger.
More recently 14 woodland creature carvings have appeared throughout the forest by the sculptor Pete Bowsher. Unfortunately, the cliff top summit also has a sinister reputation as a suicide hotspot. In 2002, a 31-year-old mother-of-two, pushed her two infant children off the hill's summit while they were strapped in their pushchair, before throwing herself off. It’s a strange and dangerous place with a rich mix of history and dramatic views.
We met Al following his talk at the outdoor learning conference in Crieff and had soon found a location for our shelter in the shadow of the old cliff-top folly. We had planned to build a simple A-frame shelter which contained 4 bunks and had a roof made from 4 triangular panels. We dispersed into the surrounding woods to source some large deadwood logs for the primary timber frame. Mark had planned to join us later that day as he had only just returned from his
expedition the evening prior. Chile
We created some small A-frames which would support 2 large ridge-poles. We then strung the sleeping platforms to the frame and the basic structure was almost complete. Mark arrived in great time after cycling from his home 12 miles away. The heavy work was about to begin, as was the biting wind and fading light. Richard began work on the fire whilst Mark and Al completed the slats on the sleeping platforms. I began to construct a triangular roofing panel which would hopefully trap forest debris between two timber grids like a giant vegetarian toasty.
The most important part of the build was soon upon us – sausages! We ate dinner around the fire and resumed work on the roofing panels. The panels were fairly heavy and took some effort to cajole into place. By 11pm we had positioned all four of the roofing panels and decided to spend some time embellishing the bumpy sleeping platforms. We gathered armfuls of dry grass and spread it evenly across the 4 bunks which now looked surprisingly warm and comfortable.
In hindsight, if we had spent 5 extra minutes arranging the initial timber posts we could have made the bunks slightly wider and indeed slightly longer which would have been a great help at this late stage. Instead we spent quite some time wriggling into our bunks and squeezing our feet deep into the diminishing corners of the hut.
If there was one thing I knew for definite about Mark Beaumont – is that I was never going to win the battle for feet space with his cycle-strong legs. The whistling wind picked up which soon complimented our chorus of synchronised snoring.
Far below us the cars moved like a river of red light towards
, turning yellow on whirlpool roundabouts. Dawn light soon filled the hut as the team woke to a cold bright morning. To the east the River Tay appeared milky-white with reflected sun light en-route to the sea. We gathered our gear and wandered back through the woods slightly tired but refreshed. Perth
It was a pleasure to spend some time with people who are essentially challenging the boundaries and pushing the limits of human capabilities. The only thing I was challenging was the patience of the other commuters on the train home as I filled the carriage with the smell of damp earth and smoky campfires.
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