Climbing Ben Nevis

There are few things I love to do more than I love hiking up mountains. They don’t really have to be mountains. A large hill will do. But there is something about reaching the summit that just makes me feel completely free. Maybe I’m just tired and light-headed, but while I am suspended up there above the world I imagine I can go anywhere.

It should be noted that this is not something I do very often, nor is it a pursuit in which I have any expertise. However when I recently visited Fort William in Scotland, I could not resist the opportunity to walk up the highest peak in Britain.

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The view from the campsite in Glen Nevis the night before the ascent was breathtaking, although the summit itself was not visible. From this vantage point the mountain did not appear quite as forbidding as described in the pamphlet I had picked up from a walking store in town. The glow of the evening sunshine and the first wisps of cloud spilling down the hillside gave it an almost ethereal appearance.

I set off early the next morning while frost still coated the grass and the outside of my tent. The walk would take four hours up, and another two or three to get back down. For the first half hour or so my path fell in the shadow of the mountain. The sun had not yet climbed high enough to reach the lower slopes.

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Eventually the sun made an appearance as I continued upwards. This first section of the trail was was littered with bags of rock and grit for maintenance after the winter, and I stopped for a quick chat with the crew carrying out the work as they finished their morning cup of tea.

After a little over an hour, I reached a wide plateau. The even ground provided a much appreciated rest for my legs. More clouds were beginning to gather, and I would soon be walking through them.

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The path grew steeper again, and after emerging from the cloud it forded a small stream which fell away into the empty space below me. Looking out across the valley, the peaks of the surrounding mountains were just visible above the cloud bank.

From this point the trail was increasingly covered in snow left from the winter, and the going became much more difficult. I had been warned that at the top the snow would be waist deep, although it was packed so densely even here that my feet only occasionally broke through.

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After another hour’s walk, maybe a little more, I reached a point where the path was no longer discernible. The snowfield spread out before me and there seemed to be one high point ahead of me and another off to my left. It was difficult to say which was higher, and I had no idea that the actual summit was still completely hidden from view.

Luck and an educated guess led me to the right-hand path, and after about half an hour I rounded the side of a small rise and I could finally see just how far I still had to go. The last section of the trail was marked with a line of cairns which thrust through the snow like signal beacons.

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When I reached the summit, I could have spent hours there. The sky was the most beautiful blue and the sunshine was dazzling. The word that kept running through my mind was ‘glorious.’ I ate my lunch seated on the remains of the 1883 meteorological observatory, trying to soak in the view, to absorb it into myself and imprint it on the backs of my eyelids.

I never wanted to leave.

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Of course, eventually I had to. On the way back down I could feel how tired my legs were. The muscles were numb and shaky, but gravity did its work and at times I almost broke into a jog.

Passing back beneath the layer of cloud I entered a different, much greyer world. Retracing my steps past the same places I had seen that morning felt oddly anticlimactic, but my memories of snow and sunshine and mountain peaks would keep me going for days.

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The only question now is: where do I go next?

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Jorvik Viking Festival

Every year since I moved to York I have taken part in the Jorvik Viking Festival. Normally I don’t get a chance to take any photos of the event, being somewhat preoccupied with other things. Like fighting a horde of Vikings. But this year I managed to capture a few snapshots. (The photo above from last year’s festival is not mine, but you can see me marching along in the middle ground.)

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The markets are always one the most exciting parts of the festival. I didn’t do a great deal of shopping this year, but I got one or two nice things.

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The Merchant Adventurer’s hall makes a lovely setting for half of the market stalls. I normally spend most of the Friday shopping and looking around before the big battle on Saturday.

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This year there was a display set up on Parliament street showcasing different aspects of Viking life, including a small boat.

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On Saturday afternoon the armies form up outside the Minster before marching to the Eye of York by Clifford’s Tower for a series of three practice skirmishes. This year the festival commemorated the Battle of Assandun in 1016, and here the English army prepares to march under Edmund Ironside.

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Meanwhile the Viking army prepares to follow King Cnut into battle. I portrayed one of Cnut’s honour guard of Jomsvikings led by Thorkell the Tall.

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For reasons which I hope are obvious, I didn’t get any photos of the battle itself. But I did sneak a quick and slightly blurry shot of the Viking army about to march on for the big evening battle. As always, it was great fun and I look forward to next year.

Travelogue: The Battle of Marathon

Last autumn I spent two weeks traveling across Europe to attend an international gathering of reenactors at Marathon, in Greece. This is a trip which had been in the works for over a year, and I got to see and experience some incredible things. The objective was a commemoration of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, to be held on the site of the battle and attended by reenactment groups from all around the world.

Here is my odyssey.

I set off from my home in York in late October, catching the Eurotunnel to Calais, and subsequently getting lost in the French countryside as the evening light faded. The plan had been to save money by camping on the way. Unfortunately every single campsite in Europe was already closed for the winter.

The almost miraculous appearance of a cheap hotel saved the day, and things only got better from there. The second day began before dawn in a thick, cold fog. But the sun finally burned through and the approach to Mont Blanc afforded some breathtaking views.

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And some unsettling ones. I cannot recommend the viaducts in this part of the world to anyone with acrophobia.

On the other side of the tunnel I was into Italy, my very first visit to the country. This time I had planned ahead and made a last minute booking via the magic of phone internet. I managed to find a beautiful (yet very reasonably priced) apartment run by a lovely Italian lady in the town of Reggio Nell’Emilia. She didn’t speak a word of English. I do not speak a word of Italian. Yet we managed to communicate in some mix of the two. It was one of those perfect travel moments that can never happen until you take a step outside your comfort zone.

The next day I continued down the eastern coast of Italy to catch a ferry from Ancona, stopping briefly in Rimini to see the sights. The sight that will stay with me most is one I never expected, although it was actually the scent of incense that struck me first. Then I rounded the corner from a side street into the path of this procession.

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I have never been religious but I do enjoy the trappings and the rituals of religion, and this was so completely different from anything I had experienced in the cold, Anglican world where I live. This was the moment I really felt I came face to face with the heritage of Italy.

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The ferry left Ancona by moonlight, bound for Patras, and the next morning I awoke in a different world. The sea was blue, the sun was warm, and something in the air smelled just as I remembered from my last visit to Greece the summer after high school. That last part might have been psychosomatic.

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The ferry charted a course past the island of Ithaca, not only the famous destination of the unluckiest man in Greek epic poetry, but also the namesake of my own childhood hometown.

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I took twelve photos of it. Twelve. They all look the same.

Arriving in Patras after twenty-three hours at sea, I continued straight on to Athens in the dark. The roads were just as mad as I remembered them too. Finally the traffic slowed a little, and coming over the crest of a hill I saw the city spread out beneath me with the Acropolis lit up at its centre. The city itself was the same yet different. It was more run down. Graffiti covered almost every building. Walking through the streets that first night it sometimes felt as if I had stepped onto the set of a dystopian film from the 1980s. Even so, Athens is still one of my favourite cities.

I had a full day to be a tourist before continuing on to Marathon, and I visited all the usual places with no small sense of nostalgia.

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I also had great fun wandering around the markets, of which there were a wonderful variety. Meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, pastries, nuts and spices, antiques, hardware, and all manner of souvenirs vying for attention. I must have eaten my weight in baklava.

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The next day there was a short drive to Marathon, many introductions, and a campsite to set up. The groups putting on the event came from Greece, Italy, France, Romania, Bulgaria, England, Canada, and the United States. I had the chance to meet and work with some excellent reenactors and truly lovely people, and I hope to see them all again. The sense of camaraderie around the campfires in the evening will probably stay with me as much as anything else.

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On the Thursday and Friday we put on educational displays and activities for groups of schoolchildren, with a certain amount of help from a team of translators. On Saturday the campsite was open to the public, and we put on a show describing some of the tactics and the outcome of the Battle of Marathon. I was portraying a Scythian in the Persian cavalry.

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You may notice the slightly incongruous modern bridles on both horses. Unfortunately neither horse had seen anything like a Greek hoplite before, or a shield, or a spear, or a bow, or historical tack. In fact the black horse I am riding in this picture had received very little training of any sort. We were incredibly lucky to have horses available for the event at all, and I enjoyed spending some time training and working with them. But with very little time available, when it came to the battle, the cavalry elected to run away.

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In the brave and noble tradition of Sir Robin.

In addition to the public displays we carried out experiments on the movement of a phalanx, and the pressure that could be exerted in the push between two armies. On our final evening we met with a historian, Fotis Karyanos, who very kindly offered to take us on a tour up to the site of the Greek encampment before the battle.

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Sadly my stay in Marathon had to be cut short by a day due to a ferry strike. On the other hand, that meant an extra day to see Italy. After arriving back in Ancona, I spent the night in Ravenna where I had one of the most delicious takeaway pizzas I have ever tasted. The next stop was Verona. I was not enthused by the prospect due to my inveterate loathing of Romeo and Juliet. However, I can now say that it was absolutely 100% worth it.

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There are plenty of good reasons to visit Verona, but if you go for no other reason, you should go to see the Roman Arena.

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Walking from the tall, echoing internal chambers out onto the sand it is not hard to imagine the roar of a crowd eager for blood.

After Verona it was time to head back through the Mont Blanc tunnel. It was almost two weeks since I had left York, and even on the Italian side of the Alps it was starting to feel very much like late autumn.

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Back in France I visited the Thiepval Memorial and drove along the front line of the Somme before spending a rainy night in Calais. Finally on the fifteenth day I arrived back in York, tired and somewhat poorer than when I left, with a bag full of laundry and a phone full of pictures.