Paddling days on the Rursee:

It’s that time of the year when I crave to get back out onto the water again – however, this year it’s different unfortunately. Whilst normally I’d be cheerily loading up kayaks onto the roof bars on a weekend, I’m now frustratingly confined to shore due to a knee injury. Indeed, this is despite persistent calls from my son, which it has to be said, is quite a piece of role reversal. For someone who loves being on the water, this can certainly be dispiriting, though I’m confident it’s just a matter of time before normal service is resumed; let’s certainly hope that’s the case.

In Scotland, where I first started sailing and then canoeing, we were pretty spoiled from a water sports perspective, given the sheer availability of water everywhere in the Scottish landscape – whether it be lochs, rivers or sheltered coastal locations. Ok, so Scottish water might certainly not be the warmest; I remember deliberately capsizing in Loch Tay as part of an open canoe rescue course one freezing February day, when the water was a balmy 2 degrees C – never again ! (at least not without a wetsuit that is).

Although there aren’t too many paddling possibilities around Aachen, the saving grace in this region is the Rursee; one of a series of large reservoirs constructed during the 1930s along the valley of the River Rur been Monschau and Heimbach, for supplying water and hydropower to adjacent urban districts to the north. The Rursee lies within the hilly and forested Eifel region and partly within the Eifel National Park area itself. In fact it’s only a 40 minute drive up the road to get there, making it a very doable and pleasant excursion for an afternoon or evening.

Over the last few years, I’ve often dragged (sometimes reluctant) family members and an assortment of paddling buddies and our kids’ pals up there for chilled-out (and occasionally more challenging) sessions on the water. Here’s a selection of images, including our friends Lamar and Pehr, who’ve quite certainly gotten into the spirit of these watery adventures, whether in open canoe, kayak or inflatable boats

Last year, I bought my son Kai his very own kayak – after spinning around in circles for quite a while (and getting extremely frustrated), he’s now taken to it like a duck to water. We’ve found evening trips by far the best time to visit the Rursee – by that hour, the day trippers have largely packed up and gone home for the day, the pleasure cruisers and overzealous rescue boats have finished their shifts (though we do like playing in the waves they create) and there’s generally a more peaceful vibe about the place. In fact you can often get the whole lake to yourself, save for a few sailing boats which drift peacefully by.

So, let’s hope that we can get out on the water and enjoy that evening calm again soon. We just can’t wait…

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Musical Journeys – Following the Songlines

Our lives take us through so many different phases, twists and unknown turns; well certainly mine has. Sometimes it’s interesting to look back and see what crazy things we were preoccupied with in years gone by; given perspective, we might even see some of our past projects in an entirely new light (or maybe come to the safe conclusion we were possibly just a bit deluded at the time).

So, around the year 2000, I suddenly had a hankering to become a wandering guitar man of sorts – a kind of Scottish version of Neil Young or Bob Dylan. Whilst others might just have dismissed this as obvious evidence of a midlife crises, me being me, took the concept a good bit further than it probably ever should have been taken (which most likely wasn’t very far). So, I wrote a bunch of songs about “real life” journeys and then, rather naively, walked into a recording studio in the Aberdeenshire countryside, determined to make my entry into the rock n’ roll hall of fame.

Assynt, the rocks and the rolling sea

The resultant collection was called “Spirit Creek”, and was inspired by journeys to far flung places (physical and metaphorical) and some of the more colourful characters from my own life, with some rather ethereal and ragged Celtic overtones thrown in for good measure. Of course, the expected worldwide fame never resulted and probably was never actually wanted in the first place really, if truth be known, These days I still trip over copies of the CDs which clutter up the house in abundance, much to the annoyance of my partner.

A few years later (around 2008), I recorded a few more tracks, this time in a much more raw and less polished format in a wee studio by the banks of the River Tay in the “Fair City” of Perth located in the heart of Scotland – this second collection of songs went under the name of “Heartbeat”. In truth, it probably was really straight from the heart (we ironic and self deprecating Scots aren’t normally quite so used to expressing ourselves so openly, unless of course we’re either Robert Burns, or alcohol is involved, preferably in industrial quauntities) and it was quite cathartic to write – song writing is certainly a great way of offloading the accumulated emotional baggage of the years and has much to recommend it in that respect as a kind of self therapy.

Anyway, it would be a crime surely not to share these historical masterpieces and some rather dodgy vocals with you all out there. I’m certainly not a natural singer by any stretch of the imagination. However, I’m rather happier with some of the guitar work, despite the fact I do tend to automatically home in on the minor mis-tunings, timing errors and occasional bum notes; though admittedly not all of these were my own creation. In the end though, it was all down to good creative synergy with the other people wo helped me out, teamwork and a good few blazing arguments, not all of which I won sadly.

So for now I’ll promise to stick to the day job, if you let me know what you think…

Spirit Creek:

The Wrong Girl

Assynt

Rolling Sea

Wagon Train

Running

New Day

Heartbeat:

World Gone Crazy
Heartbeat
Another Day
Rebirth
Walls of Jericho
Footsteps
The Flame Within

Still happily strummin’ away
(when nobody’s around to complain)

Rough cuts & unfinished bits and pieces:

Somewhere along the line, life got in the way and so these following songs (below) remain like a collection of rough sketches, recorded in my living room in the countryside near Edinburgh – they have an unfinished quality about them and I think are somewhat understated (probably so I didn’t disturb the neighbours too much at the time). I do wonder though how these might sound with a bigger scale production to breath life, power and greater tonal variation into them ? (I can imagine driving guitar solos, Hammond organs, harmonies and heavenly choirs doing their stuff in the background – maybe even a decent lead singer to boot).

On the other hand, I also like the existing low key acoustic guitar, which isn’t drowned out, forced to synchronise reluctantly to a metronome beat or otherwise constrained, as tends to happen in a studio environment – just simply left to follow its own course; that’s surely good too. Maybe that’s rather like the Taoist philosophy of the simple virtue of the “uncarved block” – or just a case of “less is more”.

For me, listening to these tracks again after a gap of a few years, they come across as somewhat melancholic and introspective (the vocals could certainly have a bit more oomph about them; they sound more like some old drunk slurring away in the corner of the bar, or perhaps how my Dad used to sing in church – which wasn’t something we were particularly proud of). 🙂 Then again, we can all too easily become our own harshest critics; send in the heavenly choirs, the African rhythm section and the keyboard virtuoso and I’m sure the songs could equally well soar upwards to the heavens (I’ll not be footing the bill for that one though right now). I think a couple of the songs there that sound the weakest at the moment, actually offer the potential to pack the most punch, given the right production.

Raining Colour
Turning Point
New Star
Reach Out
My People
Skywards

Zen and the Art of Songwriting:

Perhaps these raw cuts are interesting from the perspective that they help us to understand the humble roots from which a creative project kicks off – that initial spark, which usually occurs when a wee tune or a few words randomly pops into your head – and how a little technology and some slick studio production, can help to create a fire from these small sparks, usually with some hard slog and a whole load of aggro en route. These days, simply any aspiring numpty can be made to sound like Sting, Bryan Adams or Madonna thanks to the wonders of digital processing technology.

However, the more interesting and profound question, is where do these “sparks” actually come from in the first place ? For me, it’s not generally in the supermarket checkout queue or when my mind is cluttered up with a long list of daily tasks, routines and distractions (which is pretty much most of the time these days); more often than not, it’s when I’m immersed in nature’s rhythms and cycles; whether that’s sitting on the rocks by the sea, walking the hills, or through enjoying a spot of informal forest bathing.

In a Scottish context, Gaelic songwriters such as Julie Fowlis have been particularly influenced and inspired by their surroundings and percieve themselves and their music as being intimately connected with the landscape, both present and past. Rory and Callum MacDonald, of Runrig fame, articulated the concept perfectly in their song “When I Walk Among the Hills”, albeit under the guise of “The Band From Rockall”. In addition to landscape and cultural heritage influences, life changing events (like falling in love, the birth of a child or a death), can also be a major catalyst for creativity, without a doubt – they haul us unexpectedly out of our comfort zone and make us think about the overall trajectory of our lives.

Personally, I think there’s a certain intuitive energy that comes from connecting with the natural world and landscapes though – this can bring everything sharply into focus, like flicking the trip switch and suddenly plugging into the mains voltage supply (instead of our usual, feeble AA battery energy source). However, it’s also subtle, easy to miss, or to ignore completely, as we rush around blindly in our frenetic daily routines and minor quests.

To tune into the “music” we need to find time and space to let the dust settle and the haze dissipate; “Reaching out, tuning in to your soul” as I described it in the song “Running” – the first one I ever recorded. The “Flame Within” – the first composition I wrote, after my guitar teacher assigned me the task of writing a song for “homework” – was pretty much based around the same concept of connection with the natural world. I remember Simon, my teacher (a diehard “blues man” and rock maestro, if ever there was one), telling me it sounded a little bit “twee”, before qualifying that with, “…but then fuck what anybody else thinks !” – a useful piece of advice that has stayed with me down through the years; I can live with “twee” as long as it also has soul and integrity.

Moving decidedly into the metaphysical and the philosophical realms, it seems the ascetic Celtic monks of the Skellig Islands, the Australian Aborigines, the wandering holy men of the Himalayas (the ones that weren’t liars and cheats that is) or Zen minded conservationists like John Muir and Henry David Thoreau understood such concepts better than you or I. For them, the intangible notion of “spirit of place” has been an important theme. That might be found in the collective consciousness of a nation itself (the “Heartbeat”), on a stormy Atlantic coastline (“Assynt”), in a bombed out hellhole in Syria, Iraq or Ukraine (“Walls of Jericho”), by a Himalayan sacred lake or pass, in the Sierra Nevada or Yellowstone (“The Flame Within”), along an old gold rush trail in the Caribou Mountains of BC (“Wagon Train”), or in a Sicilian ghost village.

It could be simply manifest through those inexplicable goosebumps we experience when visiting a tumbled-down steading from the Highland Clearance era; maybe we imagine catching fleeting whispers from the past, carried on salt-laden winds across the ages. Indigenous shamans, poets and writers have been better at tuning into and expressing such powerful voices from the cultural landscapes they inhabit; as a homegrown example, just think of Gaelic poet, Sorley Maclean and his powerful poem, “Hallaig”, in which he repopulates and rebuilds a whole deserted community from the Hebridean Island of Raasay, in his mind’s eye – as if the ghostly inhabitants themselves are springing from the very soil, the trees, undergrowth and stones of the place, where they’ve merely been resting for a while. This was later brought to life later by the late Scottish contemporary composer and innovator, Martyn Bennett, in his inspiring, but rather unsettling, film of the same name – this conveyed a potent and frenzied atmosphere, more akin to that of a West Papuan Spirit House, than anything we might normally associate with the Scottish Highlands or Gaelic society.

It’s fair to say that we also inhabit a world of constant turmoil, albeit it one based upon infinite distractions and instant gratification through overconsumption, that we think will make us happier somehow. In effect, these things achieve little, except to isolate ourselves from the real connections and sources of power, including from the little stream (the “Spirit Creek”) that transforms itself into the big river and flows ever onwards towards the deep “Rolling Sea”. Like nature itself, music can also be a raft to help us navigate the rapids we encounter on that, sometimes turbulent and unpredictable, journey downstream.

For someone from a scientific background, these topics also might sound pretty esoteric and abstract, but I think we all function on different levels and we should accept that not everything we can relate to on an everyday inituitive level should necessarily be the subject of a detailed empirical analysis. But, coming sharply back down to earth with a bump (and away from such a load of pretentious old “hippy shit”), at least I can enjoy the smug satisfaction that I can actually play my own instrument and write my own songs – and that’s certainly far more than many of today’s manufactured, one-minute-wonder, talent show participants can do (though admittedly some might sing more sweetly or have better looks).

Bah Humbug ! Maybe that sounds like I’m a wee bit jealous really… I’m most certainly not; authenticity is everything after all 😉

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Ouch – an unexpected Easter break !

When you go out for a straightforward hike with your family, you don’t expect to have to be carried out on a stretcher by the local mountain rescue team, bundled into a waiting ambulance, undergo emergency surgery and then spend the rest of your holiday recovering in a hospital bed – Let’s face it – that’s not why we take holidays ! Unfortunately, however, that’s what happened to me over Easter this year.

Hobbling around the house on crutches and with my knee braced up, makes me reflect on how lucky I’ve been over the years to generally have avoided such calamities, especially in some remoter locations, where help is far away or possibly even unavailable. It also makes me aware of how luck can run out when we least expect it, when things are routine and easy. Life is precious and fragile – so just when we are taking everything for granted, we can so easily experience that unexpected “ouch” which literally brings us down to earth with a bump.

However this is no epic tale of survival against the odds – just a straightforward, rather silly case of misjudgement and lack of attention. That particular day in April had started well enough. The plan was for a simple and unambitious hike on an interesting, but straightforward path along the Finzbachklamm, an impressive gorge, tucked away in the hills near the village of KrĂŒn in the Karwendel region of Bavaria. Heading off into the woods, we followed a rough path along the bottom of the narrowing ravine, taking time to linger by some lovely and inviting aquamarine pools, where the river Finzbach flowed between rocky headlands. After that, the path wound more steeply upwards, zig-zagging up the steep side of the gorge and providing ever more impressive views of the valley, the surrounding forests and mountains. The trail then continued along the rim of the gorge, past some airy viewpoints, for another km or so before joining a larger forest track.

All this natural wonder is indeed the perfect inspiration for photos and that was my simple thought when I decided to step a bit nearer towards the edge, just to get a couple of nice snaps from an obvious lookout point; by that time my family were somewhat well out in front and I quickly weighed up the pros and cons of lingering to take in the view. That turned out to be a bad decision…

Focusing more upon the view than the easy terrain over which I was walking, proved my undoing. There were some projecting tree roots, a rough step down and a change of incline which didn’t really register. Without any warning I found myself suddenly hurtling to the ground (fortunately not over the drop which was a few metres further on). At that moment, there was a very loud and very ominous crack from my leg and I found myself literally lying in a heap on the ground; my leg pushed back and hurting like hell – a horrible cramping pain.

After the initial shock, I tried to move my leg, however it clearly wasn’t wanting to go anywhere and the pain was stabbing and unpleasant to say the least. I thought about dislocation of the knee as a possible scenario and wondered if I could push it back using the other leg, having heard urban myths about rugby players doing similar things and then getting on with the game. So in some ways this was helpful – the useless leg flopped out in front of me and the pain subsided immediately. However, unfortunately, it didn’t simply click back into place as a result of my makeshift DIY!

So Survival plan A, perhaps made some sense if being somewhat optimistic; Survival plan B, which involved trying to somehow stand and walk along the path, proved even more optimistic. Miraculously I made about 10m or so before collapsing in an unruly heap and great pain by a big pine tree and having to repeat the procedure of pushing my leg forward to ease the pain, which again provided some relief.

So it was clear I was going nowhere. Plan C was to accept unpleasant facts and to wait for help from my family, who were somewhere off in the distance in front. Surely they would notice that I wasn’t following sooner or later. After what seemed like an age, I heard the welcome sound of their distant voices up the trail; however despite my repeated calls, they then seemed to get no closer – my calls going unheard.

Eventually, just when I was giving up hope, my daughter came sauntering around the corner to check out the situation. I explained that I couldn’t walk any more and needed help to move. True to form, I received a quizzical look from Zoe and questions I hadn’t expected about why I’d decided to have a rest on the ground and put my feet up, whilst others were waiting ahead up the trail. I gave up trying to explain my predicament and bawled “Just get Mummy…!!!”.

Fortunately, this proved more successful, and a bemused “Mummy” soon appeared after she’d received the news from my daughter that I’d decided to have an Impromptu nap by the side of the trail for unknown reasons. However, this had sounded somewhat too out of character to be convincing in any way. So “Mummy” got on the phone and dialled the emergency services once we’d looked at the map to determine the location and best access – fortunately it was only 50m or so of rough path to the Jeep Track. After another half an hour or so, we heard the welcome sound of the the KrĂŒn Mountain Rescue Team vehicle approaching, to pick up the pieces and bring me back to “civilisation” (after first dragging out their own vehicle out of the mud, after it got bogged down trying to turn around).

The rescue guys were clearly pros though and carefully loaded me into a stretcher, making sure not to bend the leg. After being wheeled over the section of rough path on their patent 4X4 stretcher (which featured a bike wheel underneath for all terrain use), I was loaded unceremoniously into the rescue vehicle and then bumped and jostled down the forest track. I was then transferred to an awaiting ambulance in KrĂŒn (where a few onlookers took the chance for a gawp at the victim), which took me to the Accident and Emergency unit in Garmisch. Although it was all a bit hazy, I have to say the emergency teams were great and provided wonderful support and encouragement. At Garmisch, I was wheeled along long corridors to be assessed by various specialists in low-lit and labyrinthine underground chambers, then x-rayed and ultra-sounded to determine what happed. Eventually a white robed doctor gave me the verdict – I’d completely ripped my patella tendon (that was the loud cracking noise !). This required urgent surgery to stitch the tendon back together.

So I had my operation the next day (no time wasted here in Germany, though that’s not always the case), which was successful and then spent the rest of the holiday recuperating in the hospital ward, billeted with a young German soldier who’d had a skiing accident and a Romanian chef with an unfeasible work-related foot injury. Both the inmates and the staff were fine and decent company, not that I was feeling so sociable. In fact we were treated well by everyone, though I have to admit an extended hospital stay was not quite my idea of a holiday by any means – worst of all was the daily stomach injection against thrombosis. It’s still part of the recovery plan 😩

At least the view was great though – overlooking the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain and the ski jumps of the infamous 1936 Winter Olympics, which was opened by a propaganda hungry Adolf Hitler to showcase the alleged might of the Third Reich. Some decades later, it was here that Eddie the Eagle was to train for his epic performances in Calgary. It has to be said that I was lucky to enjoy such a fine view from a hospital bed and a work colleague even, encouragingly, sent me an article about how nice views of nature aid recovery of hospitalised patients.

Obviously, there was some truth in this. After several days I was deemed fit for release and my family duly appeared to collect me for the long drive home – they’d had to extend the holiday especially and book accommodation for an extra few nights; the kids obviously being devastated about missing school.

So now I’m recuperating at home – it’s a slow road to full recovery and I hobble around the house with crutches and a knee brace, moaning about mysterious aches and pains; expecting sympathy, but not really getting much. After all, it was my fault for being such an idiot in the first place surely (just to avoid household chores or something). Occasional trips out to visit doctors and physios livens up the routine somewhat.

All in all, I do feel very grateful though that, I have been looked after by so many kind people and to live in a “civilised” country which can provide such an infrastructure and care – We do take a lot for granted. Who knows when life can change in ways which are quite unexpected and less pleasant than our normal cosy routines – SHIT HAPPENS I guess, but at least I’m here to fight another day ! Strangely enough though, mountain hikes are not on the wish list right at this moment.

And I did enjoy the Easter holiday for a couple of days at least. Here’s a few photos of those first few blissful days.

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Around the “Nagelfluhkette”

The chances are that you’ve never heard of the Nagelfluhkette – at least I’d be somewhat surprised if you have ! The unusual name refers to a compact mountain range at the northern edge of the AllgĂ€u Alps in South Eastern Bavaria. These mountains reach their highest point at the peak of “Hochgrat”, 1,834m above sea level – located at the western end of the highest ridge and overlooking the pretty spa resort of Oberstaufen. The Nagelfluhkette as a whole, comprise of a series of parallel ridges which run to the south west of the Illertal, the main valley of the AllgĂ€u Region, where the settlements of Sonthofen and Immenstadt lie.

So how exactly did the Nagelfluhkette get it’s curious sounding name ? Well, in Scotland, where I come from, we have the rather more fun (and appetising) sounding “pudding stone”; a soft conglomerate rock made from many smaller, rounded stones which have been compacted together under huge geological pressure. Indeed, this type of stone is quite common along the edge of the Highland Boundary Fault in Central Scotland, particularly around the Aberfoyle and the Trossachs area. In short, “Nagelfluh”, equates to “pudding stone”; the German name deriving from the rounded pebbles which are visible in the rock and which are said to resemble the heads of nails which have been hammered into the stone.

Coming back to Bavaria; the whole of the Nagelfluhkette area is now designated as a Nature Park and it was the first cross-border Nature Park created between Germany and Austria. The primary objective is the protection, care and development of nature and landscape. Nature parks generally aim to integrate nature conservation objectives with the promotion of local tourism and sustainable development. In that respect they differ from National Parks in Central Europe, which normally give a greater overall priority to strict nature conservation.

We visited the area in the autumn holidays in 2021 and despite predicted bed weather (which fortunately only actually materialised for one day) and the ongoing Corona Pandemic restrictions, we had a great time. The highlight must surely have been the view from the Hochgrat ridge itself, which is accessible by characterful vintage gondola, followed by brief a 20 minute hike to the summit. Like some Scottish peaks, the view, in all directions, is surely out of all proportion to the height of the peak itself. On this occassion, it was further enhanced by an unseasonably early fall of autumn snowfall.

What a great vantage point !! The scenery round about is just beautiful; alpine – but not in any kind of threatening “North Wall of the Eiger” way (maybe more like softer “Sound of Music” terrain; though we never actually caught a glimpse of Julie Andrews this time). From the Hochgrat, it’s possible to undertake a long panoramic hike, right along the undulating spine of the Nagelfluhkette, in the direction of Immenstadt; with optional overnight breaks in characterful mountain huts to enjoy Kaiserschmarrn, Apfel Strudel and Rösti (of course washed down with some local AllgĂ€u beer or “Almdudler”) – sounds good to me – bring me my Lederhosen immediately !

See the gallery photos below for a few highlights from a very pleasant week; we’ll be back there soon…

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Rothenburg ob der Tauber

The ancient hilltop town of Rothenburg is famed far and wide as being the quintessential medieval town, with perfectly preserved timber framed houses, winding closes, soaring spires and ancient town walls. In fact, Rothenburg could be straight out of a Germanic fairly tale of Brother’s Grimm vintage. It is located along Bavaria’s famous, and much travelled, “Romantic Road”. Along with lesser known DinkelsbĂŒhl and Nördlingen, it is one of three amazingly intact walled cities on the route.

Not surprisingly, Rothenburg is popular with visitors from around the World. We went there on a weekend in late October, and expected to find the place somewhat overflowing with tourists; however we were pleasantly surprised. We decided to stay overnight in one of the many old inns around the town. That proved to be a great decision as, in the evening and morning (up until about midday), the winding closes and squares were really pretty quiet, allowing us ample opportunity to just soak up the atmosphere.

Overall, despite its rather touristy reputation, it’s hard not to to fall in love with fairy tale Rothenburg; it’s just a beautiful old place, set in a gorgeous landscape overlooking the Tauber Valley. You can easily pass a few interesting days there; just exploring the maze of narrow closes, walking the town walls, exploring the many small museums and quirky shops or accompanying the night watchmen on his evening rounds (quite a theatrical performance indeed).

Treats and visual delights abound around every corner. In particular there are some items of special interest, including the amazing “Holy Blood Altar” carved by medieval master craftsman, Tilman Riemenschneider and the spectacular and beautiful Altar of the Twelve Apostles by Friedrich Herlin. Both are to be found in the impressive, gothic St. Jacobs church. Other treats include the gory, but fascinating Medieval Crime Museum and the impressive Town Hall.

Rothenburg remarkably survived the Thirty Years War, and in part the decline in economic activity following this catastrophic period of European history was partly responsible for the towns stagnation and ultimate preservation. The town was less lucky during World War II however, when allied bombing destroyed a large part of the City. Fortunately the town was lovingly restored after the war through generous contributions received from all around the globe. For that we should be extremely grateful that the unique treasure of Rothenburg was saved for us all to enjoy and appreciate.

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Wine Villages of Alsace

The glories of autumn are only just starting to fade now as we head into the more changeable and darker days of November; nevertheless, when the sun shines it can still look wonderful at this time of year. Vineyards in particular are looking gorgeous during this season, especially when the morning or evening sun illuminates their full splendour in glorious technicolour. Although we’re not in a wine area here, the grape harvest is never very far away in this part of Europe.

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One area that is particularly beautiful in the autumn is the Alsace Wine Route. This winding trail along the foothills of the Vosges Mountains in eastern France, stretches for 170km from Thann in the South, near Colmar, to Cleebourg in the north, located not far from Strasbourg. The Trail passes through countless and unfeasibly picturesque, flower-bedecked villages and walled towns, of ancient, half timbered houses. Alsace is a fascinating fusion of French and Germanic culture, although these days, French is the most widely spoken language of the inhabitants.

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Wine making is an long established tradition in these areas, dating back to Roman times, with Riesling being the king of Alsace vintages. Other notable wines from the area include Sylvaner, Pino Blanc, Pinot Noir and the rich GewĂŒrztraminer.

We spent an autumn week around the towns of Kaysersberg and Kientzheim. Back in the mists of time, I’d been dumped there for a day as an undergraduate Geography student to carry out a day’s fieldwork – I never thought that nearly 35 years later, that I’d be back again with my own family in tow. We had a great few days exploring the pleasant uncrowded surroundings of the old Alsace wine villages and surrounding countryside. I love the sense of history in this Region and the picture postcard setting of the villages – a scene seemingly straight from the Middle Ages.

Not far away from Kaysersberg, the crest of the Vosges mountains, provides a superb vantage point to survey the landscape, with extensive views out over the Rhine Valley to the distant ranges of the Black Forest and the Alps. Here, it’s possible to climb out above the mists of the lower valleys and to enjoy some fine autumn sunshine and the bright colours of the heathlands, particularly the orangey-red tints of the blueberries (or the blaeberries for you Scottish folk). The view, looking out over the cloud inversion was really quite spectacular and reminded me of Casper David Friederichs iconic romantic masterpiece “Wanderer above a Sea of Cloud”. My son even posed as a Casper David silhouette just for the occasion.

One destination not to be missed in the area is the spectacular Chateau Haut Koenigsbourg. This spectacularly located stronghold, perched high on a hilltop overlooking the Rhine Valley was occupied during the Middle Ages, before being abandoned during the Thirty Years War. Around 1900 it was lovingly restored at the request of Kaiser Wilhelm II, to be the embodiment of a romantic medieval castle from the High Middle Ages. Although the restoration was somewhat fanciful to say the least, it does somehow capture the spirt of the time. In that respect Haut Koenigsbourg will fulfil every child’s dream of how a medieval castle really should be, even if that’s not entirely accurate.

With half a million visitors annually, don’t necessarily expect to have the place to yourselves. However, we were lucky to find it relatively quiet on such a fine autumn day. The view from the battlements over the golden vineyards of the Vosges foothills to the distant Black Forest was really quite breathtaking – easy then, to transport yourself back in time to those heady days of knights, dragons and maidens in distress…

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Above the treetops: In the Bayerischer Wald

I always love to find ways of exploring, appreciating and experiencing nature and forests from new perspectives. One of the best places I’ve been to recently in this respect, must surely be the “Baumwipfelpfad” (Treetop Walkway) at the Lusen National Park Centre in the Bayerischer Wald, which is located in the south east of Germany on the border between Bavaria and the Czech Republic.

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The Baumwipfelpfad is one of the longest treetop trails in the world and winds for around 1,300 m through the forest canopy, at a height of between 8 to 25 meters above the ground. En route there are numerous interpretation panel, kids activities, wood sculptures, picnic stops, view points and places for visitors to simply “chill out” and immerse themselves in the wonderful forest environment – or “forest bathing” as it’s known in today’s hipster speak.

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The real highlight though, must surely be the “Baumei” (the Tree Egg), a marvel of engineering and timber construction, which is located near the end of the trail. A broad and gently ascending gallery slowly winds it’s way gently upward to the exposed top of the Baumei itself. From there, visitors can enjoy unique sweeping views out across the unspoiled natural and cultural landscapes of the Bavarian Forest, with its beautiful valleys and mountains – on clear days these views extend as far away as the Alps to the south.

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The Bayerischer Wald is indeed one of Germany’s most extensive nature areas, but remains largely off the radar for visitors from outside the country. It is an area of extensive forests, rolling uplands, colourful meadows, hidden valleys and scattered rural communities. Much of the area is protected as the Bayerischer Wald National Park; the country’s first and one of its most extensive. Here, nature has largely been left to follow its own course, through the result of deliberately non-interventionist conservation and forest management policies.

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As a whole, the region offers endless potential for outdoor exploration, hiking and mountain biking – including excursions to the higher peaks of the Großer Falkenstein, Lusen, and the Großer Rachel. Due to the unexpected intervention of the Corona pandemic last summer, we ended up visiting the region more or less by chance, after cancelling our planned trip to Scandinavia.

We were not certainly not disappointed and loved exploring the natural sights and hidden corners of this relatively unknown and unfrequented part of Bavaria. We spent our time walking, mountain biking, canoeing and exploring some of the area’s many historic and cultural attractions. We had a ball – It is certainly on our list of places to go back to…

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In Alpine Meadows

We tend to associate biodiversity with some of our great, undisturbed wilderness areas of the Earth like the Amazon Rainforest or the Rockies. In Europe, however, many of our most species rich habitats are cultural landscapes which have arisen as a complex symbiosis of man and nature over millennia, achieving a healthy balance between the needs of both.

Nothing typifies these cultural landscapes more than the splendor and colours of alpine meadows. Living on the Continent over the last 10 years or so, I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to visit many of the high mountain ranges of Europe; from the Picos de Europa and the Pyrenees in Northern Spain and Southern France, to the Eastern Alps and the Tyrol.

In no particular order, this collection of photos gives an idea of the natural and cultural diversity to be encountered across Europe’s mountains – I love exploring these places, whatever the season:

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Trees and People in the City:

Normally when you think about the cultural heritage of a city you tend to think about famous buildings, public squares and streets rather than about greenspaces and trees. However this needn’t be the case. Trees in urban areas are increasingly gaining significance for the ecosystem services that they provide. These include softening the impact of development, filtering pollutants, noise reduction, providing shade and protection from floods and excessive summer heat.

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Some years ago, I worked in the City of Dundee in Scotland as the City’s “Woodland and Greenspace Officer”. This was an interesting job which got me out of the office regularly and out and about into the City’s Greenspaces.

However, trying to protect the City’s trees could also be frustrating at times. Often it seemed that many people in the City of Dundee (including political leaders and senior council officials) didn’t really value their trees as much as they should – sometimes even regarding them as obstacles to progress that needed to be removed for new infrastructure development. There was often also a lack of knowledge about how the trees and woodlands contributed to Dundee’s environmental and heritage.

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To counter this issue, we came up with the idea of a project to explain Dundee’s rich arboricultural heritage to residents and visitors alike and to create more of a sense of pride in the City’s trees by local people. Central to this was the production of a small book entitled “Dundee’s Tree and Woodland Heritage”.

The guidebook looked at how the present distribution of trees and woodlands in the City closely mirrored the main phases of Dundee’s historical development and social history. It went on to show how much there was to discover within Dundee’s woods and provided some background knowledge as to why they are as we see them today.

P1000027It was a really interesting project and involved a lot of work in different parts of the City; collecting information, photographs and anecdotes from local residents. Dundee’s woodland story is indeed a fascinating one; it is as much a story about people almost as much as it is of trees.

In the eighteenth century, for example, there was the highly unpopular Lord Provost Riddoch who was ‘encouraged’ to dance around the ‘Tree of Liberty’ by an angry mob of disenchanted local citizens. Later came Admiral Adam Duncan of Camperdown House. Camperdown Estate is the home of Dundee’s greatest claim to fame in terms of trees; the Camperdown Elm. This naturally mutated form of Wych Elm was first discovered growing wild near to Camperdown House by estate forester, David Taylor.

P1000022The original Camperdown Elm tree still survives, grafts from which have been cultivated in gardens and botanical collections all around the world – indeed we frequently received calls and emails from as far apart as New Zealand and Chile, reporting discoveries of Camperdown Elm cultivars.

Some wonderful living examples of this iconic tree could also be found nearer by in the ancient “Howff” cemetery, tucked away within the City Centre of Dundee. These gnarled and otherworldly specimens contribute to the special gothic atmosphere of the City’s ancient burial ground.

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During the Industrial Revolution, Dundee became a major center for textile production and particularly for the jute industry. Mill owners like the Cox brothers imported and planted exotic tree species, such as giant sequoias and monkey puzzle trees, from around the World as a backdrop for their grand houses or so-called ‘jute palaces’. Meanwhile successful entrepreneurs such as Caird, Baxter and Dawson gifted parks and greenspaces to the people of the City, many of which have remained treasured resources to this day.

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Nowadays, Dundee’s residents continue to participate in the development of the city’s woodlands by being involved with community woodland groups, by joining ‘friends of’ organisations and by identifying and assisting in woodland improvement projects. Dundee’s rich green legacy lives on.

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All in all, the project was a good way to focus attention on the City’s trees and to get Dundonians to appreciate the woodlands, that were previously merely taken for granted. If something is valued and local people have a sense of ownership, then it will be more likely to be protected in the future. More than ten years later, it’s good to see that the guide still features on the Dundee City Council website and that it’s doing it’s job to make more people aware of the Heritage value of the City’s Trees.

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To view and download the guide visit the Dundee Council Website: https://www.dundeecity.gov.uk/service-area/neighbourhood-services/environment/dundee-twig/dundees-tree-and-woodland-heritage

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Dedicated to the memory of Eric Hamilton, Dundee’s Forestry Officer for many decades. Nobody possessed more knowledge, or cared more about Dundee’s trees and woodlands than Eric; a veritable legend of his time: https://www.trees.org.uk/News-Blog/Branch-News/Scotland/An-appreciation-of-Eric-Hamilton

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Posted in History & Culture, In Scotland, Trees & Greenspaces, Uncategorized, Urbanism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Green Shoots from Old Roots – Reimagining Eifel cultural landscapes

Given its proximity to where we live, the upland plateau of the Eifel, located to the South of Aachen is one of our most popular choices for day trips. In recent years it has become increasingly frequented as a tourist destination, particularly since the recent creation of the Eifel National Park. However this wasn’t always the case; even in relatively recent history, the Eifel was best known for its long harsh winters, biting winds, high rainfall and featureless misty moorlands. Known locally as the “Venn”, parts of the Eifel, therefore acquired a dark and sinister reputation, making it the favourite haunt and setting for crime writers.

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However, these same harsh conditions have been responsible for the creation of a fascinating and unique cultural landscape, which has endured for the last 300 years or so. Desperate to protect their fields, homes and livestock from freezing winds and winter snows, local people, planted a dense network of hedges, thereby creating the distinctive “Monschauer Heckenlandschaft”. Following many years of neglect, the inhabitants of the region are now once again beginning to see the potential of the “Heckenlandschaft” as a valuable resource for sustainable development – including for woodfuel, ecotourism, biodiversity and environmental education.

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One of the best places to appreciate the characteristic landscape of the “Monschauer Heckenlandschaft” is the small village of Eicherscheid,  which is situated at 550m on an upland plateau, close to the regional center of Simmerath. In many respects, Eicherscheid typifies the characteristic cultural landscape of the region, with half timbered houses which are protected by high beech hedges, known as “Haushecken”. In addition there are numerous small fields surrounded by beech boundary hedges, or “Flurhecken”. These include many hedgerow trees which were managed to provide shelter and protection for livestock and as a source of raw materials. Within the community there are over 70 high hedges around the village dwellings and over 100km of field boundary hedges, many of which go back hundreds of years.

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Eicherscheid is well known for its active community. In 2007, the Community was awarded the “European Village Renewal Award” in the competition “Our Village has a Future”. Since then, the village has also frequently been a competition winner in State and National competitions. The unique conservation status of the landscape has contributed significantly to the area. The hedges providing a valuable cultural asset and an attractive backdrop for hiking, cycling and green tourism related activities. The community were fortunate enough to recognised this unique landscape as an underdeveloped resource for education, sustainable development and for the promotion of green and cultural heritage tourism. Consequently, it was decided to develop a project with the aim of promoting and enhancing the cultural landscape.

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The community therefore developed a plan to create an 8km interpretive trail to promote the cultural and natural heritage of the “Heckenlanschaft” to visitors. The resultant “Flurheckenweg” provides a series of interpretive “stations” with information about landscape history, land management, natural heritage and human activities. The aim was also to create an interactive learning experience for kids and families which would encourage children to explore the landscape through creative play. For this reason the route includes an “outdoor classroom” area and special themed child-friendly interpretation panels.

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The project is part of a wider initiative looking at the sustainability of the landscape, with consideration of how the Heckenlandschaft might provide, for example, renewable energy through provision of biomass and also community growing space for organic production and cultivation of traditional, local fruit tree varieties. Attention has also focused on retaining the traditional landscape character and features of the urban area through the management of the high “Haushecken” around dwellings which is quite labour intensive in itself (woe betide the incomer or local resident that wants to plant a Laurel or Thuia hedge).

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The cultural landscape is not just restricted to the hedges themselves. The community of Eicherscheid also contains many other interesting heritage features associated with the natural environment. Most notably, in front of the Parish Church of St. Lucia, near the centre of Eicherscheid, is a 400 year old lime tree which forms a distinctive and much loved local landmark within the village. The three stemmed tree is one of the oldest trees in the Aachen area and is known to the Eicherscheid locals as “Ar-Lengd”. There are also many old traditional orchards in the area with distinctive local fruit varieties which are characteristic of the region. In addition to maintaining the hedges, the community are also trying to restore and promote the use of these old fruit trees to maintain cultural traditions and preserve local agro-diversity.

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In addition, cultural landscape elements include species-rich meadows, small broadleaved woodlands and copses, landmark trees and ancient trackways or “hollow ways”. These have been worn down by countless generations of travelers, peddlers, soldiers and pilgrims through the  millennia and have provided important routes between towns and villages long before the invention of motorised transport. Along these ancient routes, there is also a rich human heritage including many wayside crosses and shrines, old mills, dams and historic healing wells. Many of these features have been restored by the community as part of the larger project to interpret and promote the historic cultural landscape as a whole to visitors. There are also many interesting old folk tales and legends associated with these routes, which the locals are bringing to life for new generations to enjoy.

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Although many of the hedges themselves are the responsibility of individual owners, there is also now a concerted effort underway to restore these and bring them back into active management. Left unmanaged for too long, the ancient trees would start to deteriorate and the hedges themselves would no longer provide benefits for the protection of livestock or for sheltering unique local plant and invertebrate communities. The proactive management of the hedges also provides a steady source of timber which can be used for small construction projects and for firewood. The community have been looking at the from the perspective of providing biomass energy on a larger scale.

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The plateau areas of the “Heckenlandschaft” are incised by several deep river gorges of the River Rur and its tributaries. These are characterised by extensive tracts of regenerating semi natural beech and oak gorge woodlands, although some of these were replaced by conifers, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries.

Many of these unique woodland areas on the steeper slopes are of high nature conservation significance and are consequently designated as Natura 2000 sites, forming part of a Europe wider network of important conservation areas. By comparison with the more exposed uplands, these ancient woodlands provide sheltered and secluded microclimates suitable for a whole range of specialist species to thrive.

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IMG_0031In other parts of the Monschauer Heckenlandschaft, localised rewilding initiatives are under way, through the felling and clearance of non-native conifer trees and the damming of previously planted areas to create new extensive zones of wet moorland suitable for colonisation by damp loving species.

These initiatives are being given a helping hand by the growing population of European beavers found across the area. Although small in size, these creatures can exert a huge impact and effectively engineer the whole landscape through construction of dams – thereby raising water tables and creating new types of habitat. Usually the beavers are most active in the morning and evening which makes that the best time to spot them going about their business.

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Beaver: Per Harald Olsen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

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All in all, the best way to enjoy the hidden delights of the Monschauer Heckenlandschaft is to get out and about on foot. In addition to the ever popular Flurheckenweg, which circumnavigates the village of Eicherscheid itself, a whole series of routes have been developed as part of a partnership initiative between the local community and the tourist authority.

Many of these routes are more testing in nature with significant changes in elevation and will take walkers into hidden gorges, past waterfalls and through native woodlands; well away from the more frequented routes close to the village. The dramatic contrast between the steeper gorges and the network of small fields and hedges on the plateau makes these walks all the more fascinating and enjoyable.

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A great time to explore the Heckenlandschaft is in April when days are warming, the woods are filled with bird song and a carpet of spring flowers brings life and colour to the landscape after the dreary monochrome months of winter.

Just last weekend (over Easter), in nearby MĂŒtzenich, we enjoyed walking through superb meadows filled with brilliant, wild daffodils; so characteristic of undisturbed parts of the Eifel region. Later this month, the vibrant green leaves of the beach trees will come bursting out, in a veritable explosion of life.

Now, who said that the Eifel was a dark, sinister and barren wasteland ?

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