“…over the Castle on the Hill”

I think Covid restrictions were getting to me.  The PC had been disconnected and stored below the desk as I waited for better days.  On reflection it was probably a mistake trying to write about the great outdoors while cooped up in a region about 17km by 17km with no significant wilderness to speak of.  Trying to escape the presence of another 150,000+ other souls stuck in the same locale also proved to be a thankless task.  My normal version of social distancing tends to be far more extreme than current restrictions – something I had practised quite successfully until the onset of Coronavirus.  But enough of my sociopathic tendencies.  It’s time to reconnect the cabling, press the ON button, and produce reams of interminable ramblings.  Welcome back, yet again, to “Where the Fatdog Walks”.

Setting the Scene

It’s a beautiful sunny day and our travel restrictions within Scotland have been lifted, so here I am about 20 miles from where I intended to be – staring at a hill I had no intentions of attempting anytime in the near future.  In reality, up until a few days ago, I had no expectations of being able to climb a hill of any note ever again. Broken…is how Cap’n Jack describes me.  Mind you he described me as that 10 years ago so maybe not so much has changed as I had thought.  I think the ennui of lockdown and the general enthusiasm of just about everybody to get out and about must have triggered a little ray of hope that I might just, even if it was to be the last throw of the dice, be able to manage a few short hikes on some easy gradients.

It had been my intention to be ambling up a steady, gentle, 150m of ascent in the Kilsyth hills but my plan had been thwarted by our granddaughter summoning grandma for an afternoon visit in the garden.  I now needed a walk somewhere closer to Alloa. I settled for a stroll in the general direction of Bank Hill (346m) near Dollar.

It was strange pulling on a pack after all these years.  The original plan had been to take the big camera but once I had loaded that and water into the rucksack I knew there was no way I would be carrying that weight up a hill on my first day out.  The camera was quickly removed.  J made sure I had food with me and I think I managed to convince her that I wasn’t going to do anything silly by way of attempting what might be clearly beyond me.  In reality it was to be probably the most controlled hill walk I had ever executed.

The Ascent

Here I am…staring at Bank Hill above the town of Dollar on the southern face of the Ochil Hills thinking I may just have bitten off more than I can chew.

click on photos for full screen image

Here we have a view of Bank Hill to left of shot. It is a bit mundane looking I admit, but mundane is precisely what I am looking for today.

This is the entrance to Dollar Glen. My mother was born very near here – in an old row of cottages long since demolished. Maybe I’ll find some family remains in the museum.

It’s a Sunday, beautiful weather…and the last day of the local school holidays.  Oh yes, Dollar Glen has more people per square metre than it has blades of grass!  Scenic as it is – I don’t take any photos.  I can sense my sociopathic meter bouncing off the top end of the scale.  I need to escape.  Unfortunately escape comes in the form a very steep zig-zag sequence of packed earth/timber steps leading out of the glen to the open hill above.  I say glen but in reality the word gorge is more appropriate.  The “hillfoots”, as the area is known locally, are blessed with quite a number of spectacular, steep sided, ravines – but for a hillwalker a real killer at the beginning of a day on the hills if you have to climb out of them.  Today’s first big test.

I’ve come up the zig-zag steps out of the gorge. That’s the first of the real tests of the day completed. I needed a couple of stops but other than that the walk is going fairly smoothly – so far.

Just liked the tree branch patterns on the path. I’m easily distracted.

I have to admit to being rather pleased with my efforts so far.  I’ve reached the top of the steps without bursting any major organs and am now walking through the trees on the border with the open hill.  It is hard going for me as the gradient, although not too steep at the minute, never lets up.  I have always found this a feature of the Ochil hills; until you are up about the 300m level there are few, if any, flat(ish) sections where you can amble along and get a second wind.  All rest breaks (or photograph opportunities as I call them) tend to be taken on the slope.

This is my first decent look at Bank Hill. Not sure where my route lies further up but knowing my luck it will be via what looks like two rocky outcrops or at best steep, worn, slopes with a stepped trail.

Although I’ve been up Bank Hill in the past I’ve never taken this route and it looks a bit steeper than what I’ve tackled in previous visits.  I can see two hefty ramps towards the top of the hill and I know that (if I get that far) they could cause me a wee bit of a problem.  I’m now having my first thoughts about calling it a day.  I’ve exceeded my own expectations for this type of walk and I reckon the legs have held up very well considering.  I must be about the 200m contour level by now so that’s about 150m of ascent so far.

Oh yes…had to be. Looks like I’m heading straight for the steep bits. Can feel the gradient going up a notch under foot and it looks like it will take another upward turn in about 30m. This is becoming quite a workout!

Thought I’d show you the view down towards Dollar from here. Put another way – I need another wee break.

If you compare this photo of Castle Campbell with the first photo taken in the village you can see I’ve made some upward progress.

I’ve had a minute or so of a breather so I’ve made the decision to see how I fare on this grassy slope; the softer terrain should suit my legs. I can sense the gradient increasing so I’ll have to slow down even further and have a few more rest stops but hopefully I can reach the foot of that first steep ramp.

I’ve never been so pleased to see a handful of hikers.  As they were first onto the near vertical stepped section I feel obliged to wait at the bottom to let them descend.  My politeness is nothing to do with me needing another break you understand.  One of the group has difficulty on the steep steps which increases my “politeness” no end.  It gives me another minute or so to draw breath. This little ascent will be, by far, my biggest test…and so it proves.

I step up 2 or 3 metres and wait until I can’t hear the bump/bump of the increasing heart rate pounding in my ears; wait another minute and repeat the sequence.  Slow but effective.  I reach the top of the ramp, have my moment of triumph, then stare in horror at the second ramp which I had conveniently managed to forget about. 

Taken at the top of the first steep ramp. You wouldn’t know it was there except that some of the walkers below appear to be missing their bottom halves! Castle Campbell is becoming a speck in the distance. You may even be able to work out where I took the previous photo from. OK…one ramp to go and we’re there.

I think once again about calling it a day but reason that all I have to do is repeat the process of the last 5-10 minutes and I should be fine.  And so it proves to be the case that around about 3.30pm on Sunday 17th April 2021 I stand on top of a hill some 346m in height wondering how the hell I managed to do it when some days I struggle to walk 2 dogs around a housing estate.

Made it! Who would have thought it. All things considered this has to rate as one of my major triumphs.

Slow and controlled it was but never once did I find myself gasping for breath or feeling that I couldn’t take another step.  It makes me so grateful for all those years of experience trundling up hills with Maisie.  Although I miss having her with me the pace she would have set up that slope today would have finished me for good!

People say I should take a selfie at the summit. Somehow I feel I haven’t quite mastered the concept yet.

This is where I didn’t go…the continuation of the hill to Kings Seat. There is no way on earth I would have made it up there today. I think it would be about another 300m of ascent.

I have a celebratory banana, text J, take a few photos, then try to finish off my legs completely on the descent – something I had been sort of dreading for most of the day.  The knees, these days probably my weakest body parts, survive thanks to the judicious use of my walking poles.  

Time for me to head back down. Think I’ll go via the road on the other side of the castle for a bit of variety

Probably my favourite shot of the day walking down the spur towards Castle Campbell.

The day is an unexpected success.  I make it back to the car without mishap although I make the mistake of taking the steep tarmac road from Castle Campbell down to the village which proves to be harder on the legs than anticipated.  I will have to be careful on descent routes and avoid hard surfaces in walks to come.

For those of you who would like to look back to a previous visit here’s a link – A Day of Care and Sorrow – Where The Fatdog Walks

The Route

Upward route shown in blue

Today’s music choice almost had to be Ed Sheeran’s reflective “coming home” song – “Castle on the Hill” Altogether now “I’m on my way…”