Outdoor Discoveries

What originally was a news section for the rest of the website soon became a place for me to write about human-powered wanderings in the countryside. Photography inspires me to get out there, mostly on foot these days, though cycling got me started. Musings on the wider context of outdoor activity complete the picture, so I hope that there is something of interest in all that you find here. Thank you for coming!

Visiting castles and coastline around Aberdeenshire

9th April 2019

Sometimes, thoughts cannot be expressed as envisaged. For instance, it might have seemed a good idea to compare 2010 and 2017 in this post but it did not fit well and instead inspired another one. The choice of years could have included 1997 just as well since that year saw the first of three visits to Aberdeen and it is the third of these that gets related here.

Another factor that inspired the 2010/2017 comparison was the that both years bookended a period spent working for the same employer and the fact that my enthusiasm had waned became apparent to me during my spring sabbatical break. In a vain effort to ward off an eventual and inevitable resignation, I planned some excursions: the first took me to Aberdeen for the Spring Bank Holiday and June saw me go to Norway for nearly a week.

A trip into a bookshop during the 2010 stay highlighted how many castles there are to be found in Aberdeenshire. That partly influenced what I got to explore during the 2017 getaway because both Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven and Crathes Castle near Banchory were visited during the weekend. The former of these lay on my wish list for a number of years and has graced many a calendar so I had designs on some photography too.

Getting Away

Prior to my career break and subsequent ongoing period of self-employment, an annual leave allocation was something to be managed carefully. Thinking back to my employer from 2001 to 2010, there was a possibility of buying two more weeks of holiday every year that I no longer had between 2010 and 2017. For what life had in store for me in 2016, the extra time off from work would have been very valuable but it was not to be had. As it happened, I never had recourse to buying additional days of holiday during the first decade of the century in any case and the act added more personal independence than you might think.

That rationing mentality meant that I needed to leave my departure to the end of a working day or lose one day out of the weekend. After all, the journey from Macclesfield to Aberdeen takes between six and seven hours by train so it was little wonder that I booked one off from work for the 2010 escapade. For an evening departure, another approach is needed with overnight travel being a possibility that could leave one more tired than is ideal, especially if coach travel is involved. Overnight train travel can be an expensive affair that gets booked up before a bank holiday weekend.

Those considerations led me to considering air travel instead, especially given the way that the cost of train travel has risen in recent years. After looking at schedules, I found Flybe flights that did what I needed in spite of a delayed departure caused my needing to retrieve my mobile phone from the office desk where I accidentally left it. That scuppered a planned train journey, but a taxi did the needful in its place. The flight itself was late anyway so getting into my hotel involved ringing a doorbell to secure access to the building. Aside from those very minor hiccups, all went smoothly.

Wandering About Aberdeen

After a decent night’s rest and a good breakfast, a day of strolling commenced. This was to have two parts with the first spent around Aberdeen and the second taking in Stonehaven. The pervading ambience was one with the same sort of peace that I tend to find along numerous North Sea coasts, regardless of their being in Northumberland, Lothian or Aberdeenshire. It was a vast contrast to the sensation associated with a terror attach in Manchester earlier that week or with the Grenfell Tower fire a few weeks later. There are times when life can bring too much despair so it is good to step away from that for a while.

Union Terrace Gardens, Aberdeen, Scotland

Oases from such horrors can be found in unexpected locations and Union Gardens in the heart of Aberdeen is but one of those. It may be found next to the city’s main thoroughfare but the fact that it lies below street level ensures that a certain sense of sanctuary can be found there. All of my wanderings around the city have found me drawn to the spot since I discovered it in 1997. In 2010, a day of city strolling began there with a looming threat of reconstruction to create a street level park that obscured any signs of a railway or a tarmacked dual carriageway. Thankfully, that scheme came to nothing and the park remained there in 2017 for the start of another day of stravaiging.

The quiet atmosphere on that sunny Saturday morning did its best to belie not only my location but also the times in which I was living. Simpler pursuits like photography caused me to linger until at least until the departure of council workers attired in high visibility clothing before making some photos, but that was a mere passing intrusion. Bright colours like yellow and red did not fit my intended palate of green, blue, brown and grey so I awaited their exit before gaining my fill of satisfaction and more architectural delights awaited revisitation.

Part of Marischal College, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland

After climbing steps up towards His Majesty’s Theatre and taking in a statue of William Wallace, I continued on my way to the statue of another hero from Scottish history: Robert Bruce, one-time king of the country after winning its medieval wars of independence. Another landmark lay adjacent to its situation in the form of the once independent Marischal College that now forms part of the University of Aberdeen. If I was not bound for Old Aberdeen, it may have been worthwhile to try photographing the lofty edifice from a better vantage point than its immediate environs, whose low level presented many challenges despite such successes as the photo you see above.

Towers of Saint Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen, Scotland

It only took two of the charms of Old Aberdeen to draw me there again but there happens to be more to the area than those. The first was King’s College, another part of the University of Aberdeen that once was an independent institution, and the second was St. Machar’s Cathedral Church, one of a small number under the custodianship of the Church of Scotland that retain that designation.

The mention of King’s College takes me back to 1997 when I was based near there for a chemistry conference during the very week after the death of Princess Diana and the displays of public grief that it provoked. Aberdeen then offered respite from the vagaries of the world and it has become a theme. The village like atmosphere of Old Aberdeen makes it a pleasing place to visit with its cosy-looking houses clustered around larger university buildings, such of which are less elegant modern constructions that are kept away from the older architecture.

It took until 2010 for me to reach St. Machar’s Cathedral on a damp grey night, but a repeat visit happened the next day, though weather conditions were not so permitting of photographic activity. 2017 made up for that, though I did need to allow a wedding party its privacy as it entered the church for a nuptial service. Such events are to be expected, so a little patience and so time exploring other vantage points was all that was needed before I had the churchyard to myself again.

Trees in Seaton Park, Aberdeen, Scotland

The route that I had taken from King’s College to St. Machar’s Cathedral had been an indirect one that took me through part of Smeaton Park and I was to sample more of the place after leaving the churchyard. The weather had lured many others into the park and I was surprised to see a Segway tour being led along its paths. My own strolling took me along the south bank of the River Don and away from those other users.

Following the river, I hiked east to the Brig O’ Balgownie and from there to the A92. Crossing that, I headed for the Donmouth Nature Reserve, lured by the appeal of being near where the Don enters the sea.  Possibly because of geographic realities such as tides and the presence of mudflats, I did not venture so close to such a point but chose instead to continue south along the Esplanade.

As I did so in typical North Sea coastal peace and quiet, there were ships lurking in the sea haze. Some were stationary while others were passing. Others were out strolling, but there was enough space for all of us with an amusement park drawing most of those who were attracted to the shore.

Castle Street, Aberdeen, Scotland

Most of the way to Footdee, I remained on the solid walkway but I occasionally ventured onto the sand too. For reasons of human occupation and disordered building, my ambling around Footdee took a meandering course until I pottered out along the North Pier and then back again. Quayside rambling soon enough brought me to Castle Street in the heart of the city. Along the way a Northlink ferry had been spotted, a reminder that I never ventured north to either the Orkney or Shetland islands. However, another destination beckoned more immediately and that was where I went next. Island exploration was to be left waiting.

Seeing Another Stretch of the North Sea Coast

My pending and momentary departure from Aberdeen brought me to its train station and a reminder of contemporary events. The sight of armed police officers at a city station far away from the site of a preceding terror attack in Manchester did not strike me in the same way as the removal from public use of luggage lockers at Fort William’s train station. Then, the overriding impression was one of overreaction, but my mind was full of other thoughts in 2017. All I did was to catch a train to Stonehaven without greater contemplation of the situation.

Stonehaven may be but fifteen to twenty minutes away from Aberdeen by train, but it might as well have been much further for the weather was very different when I got there. The skies were clouded and grey as I covered the longer than expected distance from the town’s coastline to its shoreline. At times, the air even felt damp but I remained undeterred from continuing as far as Dunnottar Castle. Others were doing likewise since this is a well known Scottish landmark.

Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Given enough time, the cloud cover broke in concert with the passing of any light rain showers. These are times when a seemingly hopeless quest becomes fruitful and a momentary vigil gets its reward. For my own, I sought a quieter spot where no one else bothered to loiter by the dramatic coastline. All it took was a few-minute southbound walk from the start of the path leading to the castle itself for that is where most had congregated without designs on further coastal exploration.

Dunnimaol and Maiden Kaim, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Maiden Kaim, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

In fact, my mind started to wander further along the coast than I did. It might have set to wandering as far as Montrose but my lack of time and equipment ensured that I did not do likewise. The cause had been the dramatic coastal scenery and there was a tempting path leading south, but my self-discipline held.

War Memorial, Black Hill, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Though coastal views were hazy, brighter skies accompanied my return to Stonehaven. There was a brief stop at its war memorial before I descended to potter along the coast where another reminder of ongoing political tumult lay: election posters for the then incumbent SNP MP, Stuart Donaldson. He subsequently lost the election, but that incursion of world events was left after me quickly as I ambled up the coast before stopping in the town centre for some food and making my way to the train station again. Once back in Aberdeen, I returned to my lodgings for the night after what had been a fruitful day.

Following an Old Railway Alignment

While its predecessor was divided between two pieces of recreational business, Sunday’s wandering was to consist of a single thread: walking the Deeside Way from Banchory to Aberdeen. What actually drew me to Banchory after attending to a matter that morning was the proximity of Crathes Castle, but that proved to be a sideshow from the main activity of the day.

The Deeside Way extends from Ballater to Aberdeen yet it seems that the section going east from Aboyne to Banchory is not marked on OS maps while other parts are indicated. It was not my intention to walk all the way to the trail’s eastern terminus, but the sunny evening led me along all the way to Duthie Park where I arrived in the gloaming. The decision had been made with serendipity but it also could have been said a long walk was in order given what was happening in my life back then.

The start of my hike was a grey one and I even reckon that the weather was no different in Aberdeen, though a lack of photos and the effect of other events on my recollection both mean that I cannot be sure. In any case, the city in question was left after attending to a matter and I pottered around Banchory before making for the River Dee where I met with the trail that I was to follow for all the remaining hours of daylight.

Austin A35

Once I was on my way, the cloud cover began to break to allow the sun to work its magic from time to time. By then, I was strolling along the bed of the former railway line with the River Dee beside me. At times, the pastoral nature of the surrounding countryside was on show though I was among trees for much of the time. More vintage installations like the Royal Deeside Railway, a heritage line, and an event like the Crathes Vintage Car & Motorcycle Rally added a momentary feel of an earlier age, even reminders from my own youth when vintage rallies were momentary diversions from contemporary life.

Crathes Castle, Banchory, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Leaving the trail after me for a while, I strolled into Crathes Castle and that was what drew me this way in the first place. It also was an encounter with another heritage attraction, albeit one that was nearing the end of its opening hours for the day. My start had been an early afternoon one and the sun had drifted behind clouds, so a vigil began in the hope of our nearest star escaping what might have felt like its cloudy prison.

As I did so, a request for a photo came my way from a mother who spotted my DSLR. Unfortunately, the sun was coming out right then and I was not as cooperative as I otherwise might have been. The above photo came at the cost of someone else’s disappointment, but others had done the desirable before me, so that was one consolation.

Disappointing others does not come readily to me so I was happy to have some solo time afterwards. This allowed me to move on from the moment a little and return to the Deeside Way. There was a choice to be made about what to do next. Quite why I rejected the possibility of returning to Banchory is lost to my recollection but I chose to continue east. Maybe there was an urge to explore a little more.

Deeside Way marker, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

While the Deeside Way uses the former railway alignment for much of its length, there are deviations but these, thankfully, are well signed. That notably helped near Milton of Crathes and I was sent along parts of the A957 and A93 near Crathes. In fact, the section between Crathes and Drumoak shadowed the A93 and made it much less of a wild walk, though the road and the trail both were quiet at this part of that Sunday. In fact, this was the prevailing mood for the rest of the walk.

At Drumoak, I was tempted to await a bus to Aberdeen but instead chose more walking and the Deeside Way also left the course of the old railway until not far outside Peterculter. Going this way also meant that thoughts of bus travel needed to set aside for a longer period, but the feeling of being out and about in the quiet countryside was more than enough reward.

Going along a narrow lane leading south from Drumoak brought me onto an off-road track that took me through forest and field before returning me to tarmac again. Some were using the facility for dog walking, but that was no intrusion and quiet lane walking followed on a blissfully peaceful evening.

At Coalford, I returned to the railway alignment near where beef cattle were standing on a part that without any right of way. It was a curious scene but I did wonder at any damage that might be done by leaving such hefty beasts traipse around the embankment as they were doing.

My mind had other things to occupy it. Mid-evening was upon me and the prospect of fading daylight loomed large. Nevertheless, I strode onward with tiring limbs. Every landscape feature was noted as a progress indicator and there were information boards describing former stations that could be checked off against my map as I went along.

After all, this ended up as a purely suburban railway in its last days, but there was a reminder of modernity as I was directed to plod across what now is a newer section of the A90. Though the landscape was scarred by the then ongoing construction, the River Dee remained in view and gentler surroundings lay ahead of me.

After this, light began to decline as the distance to Duthie Park became ever shorter. There were others about who were snatching a quick stroll before darkness fell, a practice that I also witnessed in Sheffield last November and December. Eventually, any thought of leaving the trail could be vanquished by its providing the clearest route ahead and that got me to its end near the aforementioned park.

There was a brief visit to the park that left me wondering at its being left open to the public at all hours, something that often is not offered by some of its Cheshire counterparts. The idea of seeing the place in daylight remained as I then went through the streets to my lodgings for the night. It had been a long hike accompanied by lengthy peaceful moments that were sorely needed at the time. Even a passing bus did little to intrude on that overriding ambience.

Returning to Real Life

The next morning, I arose to see grey skies overhead and largely is how things stayed. Even so, I still revisited Duthie Park before heading to the city’s airport to commence my journey home. The sun did struggle to break through the clouds but without much in the way of success. In its own way, it may have planted the idea of another visit in my mind.

Life has gone elsewhere since then though and the summer of 2017 was a dramatic one for me. There may have been trips to Norway and Sweden, but the season is remembered for the emotional toll of the events that led me to begin a career break dominated by recovery and re-energisation.

A renewed enthusiasm for living has resulted as much as a new way of working for a living that better suits my situation. It is a reminder that nature’s soothing embrace cannot work on its own but that you may need to do something constructive to gain a better outcome, not that such a lesson stops me from exploring any countryside as should be apparent from this blog.

Travel Arrangements

Taxi ride from Wilmslow to Manchester Airport. Return flight from Manchester to Aberdeen. Return bus journey on route 737 between Aberdeen Airport to Aberdeen city centre. Return train journey between Aberdeen and Stonehaven. Bus journey from Aberdeen to Banchory. Train journey from Manchester Airport to Macclesfield.

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