Box Hill – 209.4m, apparently

There’s not many hills in London to run up, certainly no proper hills. Box Hill in the Surrey Hills is about as good as it gets. Four months in London and my mountain legs have already deserted me. In their place are the puny, road-running limbs of a southern softie unacquainted to a steep slope. I had forgotten that once familiar lactic acid burn that arrives in the calves when the gradient steepens. Still, it was a useful 11-mile run and Box Hill is a fine place from which to survey the world.

County tops between Inverness and London

Leaving my job in Inverness and re-locating to London has brought a temporary halt to my blogging efforts. However, in between lugging my worldly possessions hundreds of miles from one corner of the country to the other, my round-Britain trip re-visiting numerous county tops has continued in earnest. In the last week I have re-acquainted myself with the following: Fife, Kinross, Clackmannanshire, West Lothian, Lanarkshire, Dumfriesshire, Midlothian, East Lothian and Berwickshire (same hill), Northumberland and Roxburghshire (almost the same hill), and, most recently, Nottinghamshire and Kent.

As I’ve said before, I am writing a guidebook on these hills (the county tops), so I wouldn’t necessarily choose to re-visit them.  Hence, there were few surprises, although I enjoyed a 10-mile run over The Cheviot in inevitable clag, while crashing a hire car into a road-side boulder in Tillicoultry cheered me up no end.

I did visit Silverhill in Nottinghamshire for the first time, having previously taken land off Newtonwood Lane as the county’s high point. Silverhill is a solitary metre higher, but – as the purists quite rightly argue – the summit has been created from the slag heap of a redundant colliery, so the high point is unnatural. Silverhill, which is topped by an Antony Dufort sculpture of a coal miner, is infinitely more interesting than Newtonwood Lane, so, for the sake of the guidebook, I’ve elevated it to the ranks of the county tops. Over time it will surely be considered as such, usurping Newtonwood Lane?

I also went back to Kent – the so-called garden of England – which, rather aptly, but infuriatingly, has its high point in a garden. The closest the walker can get, without grovelling to a resident, is walking along the lane, pictured below, on the outskirts of London, close to Biggin Hill. I comforted myself with the thought that I never have to come here again.


County tops

In a madcap, two-day cross-country dash, I re-visited 12 English county tops, from Worcestershire to Suffolk, as part of research for a guidebook on these high points. These three hills were the highlights.

Worcestershire Beacon, Worcestershire

Cleeve Common, Gloucestershire

Milk Hill, Wiltshire

Craig Dunain

Up Craig Dunain again, yet again. There is no other hill or mountain I have climbed so frequently, at the moment three times a week. And why not? The hill is a perfect training ground within easy running distance of Inverness.

Craig Dunain – all 288m of it – doesn’t look terribly impressive in this photograph, but it’s a hill with a bit of everything:  gentle grassy slopes, steep rocky climbs and sopping wet woodland tracks.

Having now committed myself to the Highland Cross, a 50-mile duathlon between Kintail and Beauly in mid-June, as well as the Ben Nevis Race two-and-a-half months later, Craig Dunain hasn’t seen the last of me.

Craig Dunain

Last night was my work’s Christmas bash. No expense spared in this year of recession. To Wetherspoons in Inverness we went for cheap turkey and trimmings, and even cheaper drink.

Hence the reason I woke up this morning feeling considerably worse for wear. A run will sort me out, I reasoned. Fresh air, that’s what I need. Hangover runs are normally disastrous. How else is the human body meant to react to eight hours of abuse?

I headed along the Caledonian Canal and began up Craig Dunain, the 288m hill overlooking Inverness, waiting for my legs to wilt. I expected it to happen on a hill appropriately known as Vomit, the nastiest, steepest part of the ascent.

But something was wrong. I actually felt good. My senses may have been dulled by alcohol, but my legs moved almost effortlessly. There was no vomit on Vomit, and once at the top of this stretch, it’s not far to the masts on the summits. Easy.

Such is the perplexing nature of running. Drink yourself into oblivion and you’ll run a blinder. Live like a nun and you get to race day feeling like you’ve run a marathon in your sleep. Maybe Mo Farah should have had a couple of large drams before going to bed last night?

Bushey Heath

I’m re-visiting many of the UK’s county tops for a guidebook, due to be published some time in 2011. This is one of the least memorable: Bushey Heath, a 153m ‘peak’ on the Hertfordshire/Middlesex boundary and the highest point in the latter county, which I visited during a recent few days in London.

The ascent from Stanmore station isn’t a challenging one, climbing about 60 metres. The ironic twist of this low summit is that a pub called The Alpine sits virtually on the highest point. Close by is a road called Alpine Walk. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Creag nan Clag

Highland cow

I saw this big fellow as I made my way to Creag nan Clach, a Marilyn overlooking lochs Duntelchaig and Ruthven in the northern Monadhliath.

I’m without a car at the moment, so unless I can cycle, walk or catch a bus or train to the bottom of a hill, I’m not going there. Frustrating at times, but also liberating. Fortunately, Creag nan Clach is within cycling distance of Inverness, which is lucky because from the north is the best way to approach this hill. While the southern side of the hill slopes gently to the highest point, walk too far north and you’ll plummet off a sheer, spectacular cliffs dropping at least 100ft.

I hid my cycle in bracken under the cliffs and without any obvious path, I plowed steeply upwards through more bracken and heather. I’m speaking about my book at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival on Thursday and tried to rehearse my lines. I was stuttering over every word, even with an audience of two wee deer and a grouse.

Still, here was a place to inspire great words.  Non-descript the summit may be, but the view was glorious, with lochs on three sides and Tom Bailgean, another Marilyn, to the west – all helped by clear skies overhead. Home…to prepare.

Carn Glas-choire

Carn Glas-choire

In the north of Scotland, summer – all two days of it – seems to have merged seamlessly into winter, with the first flakes of snow sprinkling the high tops of the Cairngorms.

I went back to Carn Glas-choire, the 659-metre summit of Nairnshire on the northern edge of the Cairngorms National Park, three years after I climbed it for the first time. It’s not a hill to set pulses racing. Carn Glas-choire will never be mentioned in the same breath as its neighbours Ben Macdui, Braeriach or Cairn Toul.

The obvious ascent is by the 4×4 track to Auchterteang Cottage. A sign on the gate grandly says: “Cawdor Estate. Private grouse moor.” Don’t be put off; keep walking. Within 90 minutes, I was on the summit, where a ferocious wind threatened to lift me off my feet. The Cairngorms were obscured by low cloud, but Ben Rinnes was visible to the north-west and Ben Wyvis to the north.

On the summit, the gloopy sphagnum moss is so white it has the appearance of snow. Soon it will be the real thing.


Fyrish  Fyrish is a 453-metre hill overlooking the Cromarty Firth and topped by an 18th century monument, making it a focal point for the Easter Ross community. It is also the venue for an annual hill race, a seven-and-a-half mile jaunt along forest tracks from Evanton.

It was hot, still and steep. Vests were off. A mile-and-a-half in, I was happily in fourth place, only to sacrifice two positions after taking a wrong turn. Furious with my mistake, I ran with anger and caught the two runners ahead. Inevitably, adrenaline ebbed away. Pain moved in. I lost a place. Fyrish suddenly looked a long way away.

Fifth at the monument became fourth at the finish, following a fast and frenetic descent. I was delighted with it. I wouldn’t have been able to descend in such a gloriously reckless fashion, abandoning all caution, six months ago. But, my goodness, I was straining. Feet and shins on fire. Thighs screaming. Tough work.

There was a ripple of applause as each runner came home, helped by the fact that the race coincided with a junior fell run and a fete in Evanton. Soon after the top runners finished, an elderly fellow introduced himself as the winner of the first Fyrish race in the 1970s.

He seemed touched by our efforts and posed for pictures with this year’s winner, Paul Raistrick, who I trailed by almost six minutes. There’s room for personal improvement…

As the scrawnies left having gorged on cake and crisps, the heavies took centre stage, proving their mettle in a village tug o’war. Fyrish: a good day out.


RoineabhalWe We were coasting through South Uist when the car lost power. It just died. Flat battery we thought. But, no. Even with jump leads attached to a Range Rover, car refused to play ball.

Ever tried to find a mechanic in the Western Isles on a Sunday morning? Your chances are slim to nil. They were either in church or certainly not available to work. The RAC weren’t much use: trying to contact the same people – their contractors – as were, only we made contact sooner. 

When we tracked down an open garage, the mechanic was more interested in watching the Monaco Grand Prix than fixing a VW. I really couldn’t blame him.

I ignored the mutterings about ‘bloody English tourists’ and with a little cajoling he fixed the damn thing, after stealing a part from another car that was due to be serviced the following day.

Before this intervention, it had looked bleak and I had resigned myself to another night on South Uist, even though we were booked onto an afternoon ferry to Harris. So, it was with great relief that our reluctant mechanic sent us on our way with time to make the ferry. By early evening we were in Leverburgh, and, fell shoes on, I was running uphill, South Harris’s highest point, 460m Roineabhal, in my sights.

It was a hard climb, tougher than the Munro, Bynack More, a fortnight ago. There were no paths and the terrain was either a confusion of jagged outcrops, rocks and boulders or sopping bog. But, I made it – and what a reward: a view back across the Sound of Harris, north to the Harris hills and an endless vista of loch, moor and sea.


Carn nan Tri-tighearnan

Carn nan Tri-tighearnan – I’m glad I’m writing that name, not saying it – is the highest point in a swathe of land bordered by the A9, the Moray Firth and the River Findhorn. It is a bleak, brooding and melancholic place. Think Kinder Scout without the crowds.

Once up on the high moor, the journey from Carn an Uillt Bhric, a 599-metre tump one-mile west of Carn nan Tri-tighearnan’s summit, was across a pathless maze of peat hags and pockets of snow. Apart from a trio of nervous mountain hares, I was quite alone. There was more activity in the skies, where a plane hidden by low cloud growled overheard, followed a few minutes later by the dull thud of a helicopter’s rotor blades.

Nor is Carn nan Tri-tighearnan a good place to get lost. Even after I had reached the summit and could see the trig pillar of Carn an Uillt Bhric in the distance, the simple matter of retracing my steps was fraught with problems.

As soon as I dropped below the crest of a peat hag, I was effectively blindfolded, wandering in circles over terrain that has no distinguishing features. I was relieved to finally touch the trig pillar again and glimpse the reassuring meanders of the River Findhorn in the glen below. I was glad I came, but doubt I’ll be back.

A warning...before I'd even parked the car