Wednesday, 12 July 2017


I’ve been quietly cultivating a teenage mate of my daughter’s in the art of proper punting. From an early age he showed promise. When our two families went to the races he steadfastly refused to bet on the basis of gaudy colours, alliteration, or some such impulsive nonsense. Even when the girls in our group were cleaning up at Newmarket because they liked the jockey named ‘Barzelona’. Mikael rode a hat trick that day. I told CB-D not to worry. It was all about the long game and shrewd punting would always win out. Eventually.

A recent blog on here noted the progress made by CB-D now he’s old enough to place his own bets (and buy his own beers) at Sandown. There was evidence of actual, proper form-based punting.

Our family trip to the Peaks the other week coincided with Royal Ascot. CB-D texted me on Day 1 to say that, in effect, he was going to have a right good go. He’d dedicated some quality time to study, weighing up all the factors and was in bullish mood. Confidence was not misplaced. CB-D landed a well worked bet on Ribchester, garnered from a freebie; and then found a place in the impossible Ascot Stakes with Endless Acres at 10/1. By Thursday the young man was experiencing the unbridled joy of smashing up the bookies with a place return on Roly Poly at 22/1 backed into 12/1. Then maturity was evident in a letter text message that read “Three days of betting on literally every race at Ascot and I am literally even and am very happy with it.” And by Friday, the crowning glory: “35 quid up today. Can’t complain.”

By comparison, I had landed Big Orange in the Gold Cup at Rascot and that was it. My other winner of the week was at distinctly non-Royal Ayr’s evening meeting. A case of the student becoming the master. But yes, I’m taking the credit.

I suspect I have further to go with my other protégés. Tom - that’s Daughter No 2’s boyfriend’s Dad - was taking advantage of a company jolly with his wife Marzia at Windsor. He asked for a couple of tips. I sent through a few thoughts on the handicaps because I’m trying out a new trends-based method. More on this later.

The last two won: Tahoo at 3/1 and C’est No Mour at 5/1. Admittedly, nothing there that was life-changing, but I was quietly pleased all the same. I didn’t hear anything from Tom for a couple of days. And then a text arrived to say he backed the first couple, which lost and he became irredeemably distracted by the free booty in his box. He was unaware of the missed the winners. An understandable mistake for, with the greatest of respect, a novice. Marzia, whilst not backing the horses, had at least noticed they won. That’s all the recognition I craved. We have agreed to go to the races together for a full scale practical session in the very near future.

Last year I talked about finding a formula for the flat season. A magic bullet.

In weaker moments, I know that I’m a sucker for a system. I’ll tell anyone who is remotely interested (and worse informed than me) that you can only make money on the horses through study, research and hard work. Yet I’m always vulnerable to an invitingly dangled short cut. When laziness takes over, I’ve capitulated with the odd website that offers tips based on various formulas and trends.

Most of them boast of massive points profits per year. Whenever I’ve subscribed to free trials - purely for information gathering purposes, of course - well, guess what, things don’t work out. Various factors come into play. Some are obviously scams looking for paid membership. Or the approach suddenly hits a flat spot miraculously coinciding with my arrival. Other times the methodology requires a massive number of bets to be placed each day in order to secure a minuscule profit.

Dabbling like this is good because it simply reinforces what I know that punting by numbers will never work.

Nevertheless, there’s something I’m keen to explore about using trends in the form of a horse to expose value. So I’m furiously punting up a system of my own. If you can’t beat ‘em, join em!

I’m deep into a trial which is focusing on horses who are running on underfoot conditions for which they have a clear preference versus their overall record. This is limited to 3yo+ flat handicaps where there is enough form to derive an opinion and the scope for horses to have dropped a few pounds.

The small sample of bets placed at the fag end of last season were encouraging. I’ve tweaked the qualifying criteria a bit for this season. So far the approach had been going well. I turned a healthy profit in the first half of the season and the Return On Investment, at least initislly, was through the roof.

Then, during Royal Ascot, I made the mistake of sharing this heady success with a mate. Now I’m running to stand still. Only three winners and a couple of disheartening losing sequences mean I’ve fallen away from the early season peak. I’ve turned into one of those bullshit tipping sites!

Well, not really. I believe the methodology has legs, though I need to work on interpreting the data. It’s a systems-based approach to identify a short list and then the application of traditional form analysis to inform the actual bet. Isolating one or two factors can never provide a perfect system. But as one of a number of tools, used selectively, it should have a value.

The sample needs to be larger. The next 10 days or so feature some fantastic handicap action up and down the country in really competitive races. This gives me chance to give the rules a full road test in amongst the thick of it, rather than gaff-track, small field Class 4s.

If it holds up, I’ll post some selections on here and shake off the after-timing tag.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Hot dog

The northern, dog–friendly, log-cabin-with-hot-tub, mid-week break with Grandad and Bruv is becoming a bit of a feature of our Summers.  This year, we bagged some decent weather as well. Even in the Peak District.

Travelling up the M1 in 32-degree heat was no joke though, especially with my hairy dog twitching between my legs.


Nuca is a Tibetan terrier (mostly), more accustomed to biting winds channelled through Himalayan passes than a super-heated asphalt motorway. She doesn’t like car journeys at the best of times. In that heat, we were reluctant to put her in the back with all the luggage. Hence her nominal berth in the footwell on my side of the charabanc. I say nominal because she spent most of the time on my lap with her head out the window and tongue lolling into the hard shoulder. Drool and sticky dribble everywhere.

The dog’s reluctance to travel in the car at all – any part of it - had found a new manifestation only the day before. We had all met up with Mrs A’s family in MK for Fathers Day, leaving Nuca in the dining room. Or so we thought. When we returned several hours later, we found the animal in the garden, tail spinning like a child’s windmill, ridiculously delighted to see us. A screaming hot day and we’d left her outside. We felt terrible. Bad doggie parents. She did have water and shade, I should add.

Packing up the car for the Peak District trip, she spotted the keys coming out again. In a flash she turned tail and headed for the same spot under the bistro table (dahlings…) where she dodged a bullet the day before. Curious canine psychology. Searing heat or no, she was prepared to play the same card again rather than face a car journey.

I say having the hot dog in the front seat was no joke. At one point it actually was. We overtook a dirty white Transit somewhere near Leicester, only for him to undertake us in a 80mph manoeuvre up the inside lane and then slow down to our pace.

“What the hell is he playing at?” screamed Mrs A.

I was about to dish out one of my best non-driver low eye-brow scowls when White Van Man met my face with a beaming grin, leering in at the car. His little Jack Russell terrier was on the dashboard doing giddy jumps and yapping away at Nuca on my lap.  The driver thought this was hilarious and kept pointing at the pair of them. He must be a barrel of road-rage laughs on a long distance journey.

Enough about the dog. Oh, not quite. The park, about which were scattered the 30 or so  Scandinavian-inspired cabins, was extensive enough (just) for a woodland walk. Perfect for an amble with the dog. Had I been paying attention to underfoot conditions rather than reading a charming biography of a Californian Redwood posted by its trunk, I would have prevented Nuca dragging me into a mound of nettles in pursuit of a squirrel. Instead, a cloud of mosquitos rose from the vegetation to silently sink their probes into my bloodstream, condemning me to days of itchy grief the like of which I have never experienced in England. They think I’m tasty, the little bastards.

On that walk there was a wishing tree where visitors had hung up home made offerings and gifts so that the fates might smile kindly on them. Amongst the dream catchers, twisted ribbons and paper hearts, someone had hung up a dog poo bag. I ask you.

The park was just outside Ashbourne. The town is a good solid, medieval shape built of millstone grit into the surrounding hills. The old town has a couple of cobbled public squares at its heart and there remain plenty of signs of affluence from previous centuries in the proud public buildings, handsome town houses and attractive shops.

It is dealing less well with a 21st century problem: choking heavy industrial road traffic. A local cab driver told us that the town has been waiting for a bypass for 40 years. There are four quarries nearby which mean the narrow streets are rocked by 26-tonnes lorries carting roadstone down south. We also noticed loads of bulk haul milk lorries and refuse skip hauliers. The trucks absolutely thundered past the entrance to the park down the A515 into the town, making the more prosaic agricultural traffic seem like light relief.

One of the best walks in the area is the Tissington Trail, following the approximate route of the A515 between Ashbourne and Buxton. 

As we ambled along the track I mused how ironic it used to be a railway to Buxton until 1962, and could, if still open, be taking some of the freight strain off the nearby death-road.

“Yes”, said Mrs A, “but we wouldn’t be able to enjoy this lovely walk would we?”

Damn. There’s more to this environmental stuff than meets the eye.

On that particular day we looped around the village of Tissington itself and back via the pub in Thorpe for a beer and a burger. Tissington is an estate village of the FitzHerbert family, residing in Tissington Hall since 1609. The village is pristine, with all the houses constructed in the same style dating from a rebuild in the 19th century. Cables, aeriels and satellite dishes are all discreetly tucked away round the back. The Lord of the manor probably has half an eye on lucrative contracts for period TV shoots.

The pub in Thorpe was an altogether more informal experience. The Old Dog, it was called. No jokes please. There were certainly none for me. No matter how much I cajoled, I couldn’t get Mrs A and the hound to stand under the pub sign for a pic.

Much as we liked the cabin, with its uninterrupted view over the fields and the hot tub on the balcony, it appeared to be built for giants. We couldn’t get a cup of tea or a glass of beer without standing on a chair to reach the cupboards over the sink. Someone eventually had the bright idea of taking all the crockery and glassware out and lining them up on the worktop to enable easier access. Genius.

This height-ist guff was a bit of a feature of the park, come to think of it. Bruv, the girls and I booked an archery session during which we were subjected to flagrant abuse.

“If you find the top of the bow is catching on this roof beam”, said our instructor Aaron, caressing said beam, “you can stand back there instead”.

He glanced at the four of us, grinning at him from our frames that did not breach a five-foot-five-inch threshold between us. The beam would not be an issue.

The archery was a right laugh. I was staggered how good the girls were, given that they had previously shown no aptitude for any other sport ever invented. In fact daughter No 1’s hapless slapping when attempting to catch balls of any description could almost be a new sport. And yet here were the both of them fizzing arrows into the bullseye from 30 feet away after only the most rudimentary coaching. Bruv was even better.

At the end of the session, Aaron invited us to fire off ten arrows to accumulate our best haul. The top score at the park was 98. We were incredulous. Then Aaron said that this had actually been recorded by a medalling Olympic archer, there on holiday a couple of years ago. “He only told me afterwards.”

We revised our view. Only 98? How did the he miss out on two? So the real top score, for mere mortals was 84. Brave promptly knocked that off the leader board with a blitzing 86.

Pretty impressive, given that he was carrying an injury. The shower head had fallen off its hook earlier that morning and smashed into Bruv's foot, raising a lump the size of a golf ball in double quick time.

He also managed a 6 mile walk with Mrs A, the dog and I over to Dovedale, with only minimal limping. Tough as teak.

Dovedale is splendid limestone gorge north west of Ashbourne, where steep cliffs flank the twisting river. I’ve been there before but not for about twenty years. The stepping stones at the valley bottom are a bit of a visitor honeypot. However, we tramped over Lindale from Thorpe and didn’t see a soul. The path followed the Lin, no more than a stream at this point festooned with attractive clumps of Monkeyflower. These are yellow, antirrhinum-like flowers with contrasting red blotches on the petals. Dovedale is one of the few spots they are found.

Only when we emerged at the confluence of the two waterways did we meet groups of people who had walked from the car parks downstream. Our circular route rounded Thorpe Cloud on our left and the main path on the opposite bank where we saw consecutive snakes of primary school kids on outings from the coach park to the stones and back again.

We engineered enough time for a scrambled pint and burger in the Old Dog, almost our second home in these parts, on the way back. It would have been less of a scramble if I hadn’t missed the turning at the top of the village and instead sent us plunging on a mile (or so!) detour down to the River Dove again. Still, it was nice and cool under the trees.

Dinner on the last night was in a fancy brasserie called Whites. Easily the best place we ate all week. They looked after us really well in there and I like it when the owner makes an effort to come over and speak to new customers. The girls were sampling cocktails.

“Ever tried a Tom Collins?” I asked Daughter No 2.

“I went to school with someone called that. And he dribbled. So it puts me right off, to be honest.”

Fair enough.

Waiting for the taxi home, the girls decided to re-enact the Werthers Originals telly advert with Grandad and the sweets handed out by the restaurant. Grandad needed some coaching, claiming to have never seen the white-haired gentleman in his high backed chair handing out boiled goodies to his grandchildren. The ensuing pseudo-mugging that played out on the steps of the restaurant had the owner raising an eyebrow from the other side of the glass door and wondering if he really should have made such hooligans as welcome as he did.

Same again next year?

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Lonsdale Boys

Ladies Day at Epsom Downs, otherwise known as Oaks Day, dawned bright and hot. I toyed with the idea of wearing my straw trilby, until I saw the forecast for thunder storms. "Do not expose to water", screamed the label in the hat band. So I left it at home, adopting a sunglasses and suncream combination instead. 

Oh, and a pink shirt that resembled the colour of my forehead by the end of the day. 
Nicked from Bacchy's FB timeline 
We were the Lonsdale Boys on Ladies Day: the Lonsdale Pedestrians is a £25 enclosure on the downslope of the camber opposite the Grandstand. Nev and I arrived together and found Bacchy sprawled by the ½ furlong pole with an overstuffed cool bag at his feet. Rather than minesweeping the corporate provisions like last year, Bacchy had brought his own goodies. 

Top class berth. There was none of the rubbish PA nonsense you get in the cheap seats at Cheltenham, where one speaker per 2,000 punters means a struggle to hear the race call. Here there was a white pole laden with high-tech sub-woofers every few yards. Nothing wrong with the output, as Nev discovered during a phone call to his better half. 

Clouds gathered over the open top buses and above the fair on the Downs. Just like Tomasz Shafernacker had predicted earlier that morning. 

The Downs have hosted the proles for a free day out since Diomed won the first Derby in 1780. By 1793, The Times was reporting that “The road to Epsom was crowded with all descriptions of people hurrying to the races; some to plunder and some to be plundered. Horses, gigs, curricles, coaches, chaises, carts and pedestrians covered with dust crowded the Downs." 

For the first time in the meeting's 237 year history, 2017 saw the sponsorship of this historic area on the Downs. It is now known as Poundland Hill. "Just imagining the meeting where a bunch of posh dudes decided it was a good idea to call the free entry bit of Epsom the 'Poundland Hill' " tweeted the Racing Post's Tom Kerr, keen to highlight the Jockey Club's snobbery.

There I was trying to take a pretty picture down the track only for Nev to ruin it by trying to lick the crust off a piece of seagull crap. He didn't expect his dubious act to be photobombed by one of the girls in the group next to us though. And with such style too. 

The rains finally arrived, just in time to hinder the Oaks build up. Thunder and lightning. Very, very frightening. 

So much so that Daddys Lil Darling bolted on the way to the start. The horse was properly spooked by the storm and she was screaming straight towards the stalls. Jockey Olivier Peslier had no option but to bale out. He coolly reached down, popped his foot out of the stirrups and rolled out of the saddle onto the sodden turf. First time I'd ever seen that.

A scary moment. The filly pulled up without incurring any damage, but she had to be withdrawn from the race. This was a galling moment for the anglophile owners of the American filly who had flown her over the Atlantic for the race and were in the stands watching the desperate events unfold.  

The rain was belting down during the race. Frankie Dettori grabbed the rail on Enable and saw out a strong finish. Odds-on shot Rhododendron didn't stay the trip and currently provides the only blot on Aiden O'Brien's British and Irish 2017 Classic collection. 5 out of 6 and counting.
That's us by the 1/2f pole. Near the brolly. You have to squint.
(Credit - Racing Post)

By the sixth race, Bacchy had emptied his cool bag and was in the process of doing the same to his hip flask. Meanwhile, Nev was emptying the bookies satchels with equal alacrity. He had a winner in the opener, the mile handicap and then again in the Surrey Stakes. Collecting his fat wedge after Solomon's Bay romped home, his moment of glory was once again interrupted by the girl in the green dress.

She was having a good day. 

So were we. 

The sun reappeared after racing, just as we were heading to the curry house, where we were a little better behaved than last year. 

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Brigadier Gerard

“What even is brown sauce?”

CB-D is curious. Me, Daughter No 1 and he are on the way to Sandown races. The conversation has turned to the best condiment to put on your chips.

“Well, it’s tomatoes and spices and vinegar, mainly. Brings a meal to life. And molasses. “

DN1 and CB-D claim never to have tried it.

“Molasses? What are they?”

I’m on dodgy ground here.

“It’s a type of spice I think. Or maybe it’s a bean. Could be one of those things you find under a rock at the beach.”

“No, that’s a mollusc”, chimed DN1.

“Oh yeah.”

The bloke next to CB-D desperately tried to avert his eyes to avoid blurting out laughing. His screwed up, tortured face reminded me of the centurion in ‘Life of Brian’ trying not to corpse when Palin’s Pontius Pilate says “Anybody else feel like a little... giggle... when I mention my fwiend...Biggus...Dickus?”

CB-D googled molasses.

“Urgh. It’s like the bits of sugar left over from when they are refining it that they can’t use in anything else”.

There was precious little brown sauce consumption done at the track. Both teenagers are vegetarian and the famous tangy pottage was not applied to either their falafel wrap or their halloumi burger.

Sandown racecourse on Brigadier Gerard evening is not really HP Sauce territory. The place, bedecked with geraniums and marigolds, is more your Pimms No 1 venue, of which there were many purveyors. DN1 availed herself of at least two servings of ‘summer in a glass’, with a good half bunch of mint leaves jammed in the top. Classy.  CB-D and I were on cider and bitter, respectively and three of us set up base on the open top tier of the stands around the parade ring, bathed in evening sun.

I tried to identify particularly interesting traits about the horses being led around the lush lawns for the benefit of the two novice teenage punters in my charge. I tried. I failed. Most of my observations were of a lowly “look at the size of that monster,” “he’s just done a dump”, and “oh look, there’s Frankie Dettori”.

Nevertheless, it would be hard to imagine more pleasant scenes than those between-race interludes on the sun decks. Such moments, of course, needed selfies to make them complete. They are never my strong points, selfies. Short arms and overactive face muscles are to blame. I delegated the shooting to CB-D. The initial results were mixed…
"Let me in! It's my phone!"

"Daddy, can you try to look normal on a photo just once?" 
DN1 had casually said on the way to the track that her punting strategy involved clearing “…about £700. That would be nice”.  After three races that had steadfastedly refused to offer up runners (let alone winners) at the average odds of 35/1 required to turn her £4 stake per race into the targeted sum, she said that the new plan was to scour the floor for discarded winning betting slips or perhaps vouchers for High Street stores. Interesting approach.

It didn’t come to that, because in the lucky, lucky last, she found Laidback Romeo who came with a perfectly timed run from out of the pack and up the hill to land her £45. It struck me as a long way short of the aspired £700, but she seemed to be ridiculously happy all the same.

Just before the final heat, CB-D was keen to get his bet down and said something about there being two minutes to the off.

“Two Minutes to Midnight!” I blurted, quick as a flash. “Maiden song. I’m off to see them on Saturday!”

CB-D looked at me blankly. But not so the bald, thick-set bloke in front of us who turned round to reveal his battered, fading Iron Maiden tour t-shirt, circa 1986. Worn as a badge of honour.

“So am I!” he beamed.

We were immediately off on a heavy metal banter-trail taking in landmark gigs across the years, only mildly distracted by the tittering of the youngsters at my side.

“See? Metal is a universal language”, I told them.

This just prompted more mirthful giggling. Yes, giggling. 

CB-D’s moment of glory had come much earlier. He played the sort of casual, sustainability-driven punt in the 2nd heat that really had no right to work. Having met us at the station straight from his teaching assistant job at a school of hard knocks in Aylesbury, he had not found chance to get his hands on any cold hard cash. This meant his first ever right-of-passage-real-live-bet at the Tote booth involved emptying the shrapnel from his pockets on to the counter with an ostentatious clinker.

It was all staked on Havana Grey - the bet came to a few coppers short of £4 – who blasted down the 5f course, smashing up the juvenile sprint without seeing another horse. Arguably one of the performances of the night. The winnings kept CB-D in bets and food until he located the cash point in the bowels of the betting hall.

This was actually the first race we saw. Thanks to a signalling failure, we were late. I didn’t see my winner – the three of us managed one each – Boycie in the opener. I heard him though. The bet was struck on the train and walking from Esher station down the lane adjacent to the course, the clatter of hooves bouncing off the good-to-firm was loud and clear, just the other side of the green ship-lap fence. I gathered later that the last set of rumbling hooves was probably my boy’s. He was held up until late by his jockey who despite dropping the whip in the last few strides, still got Boycie home by a half-length.

I was keen that the youngsters struck their own bets so that they became ingratiated with unique language of betting; and with the ebbs, flows and thrills that go with finding the right horse at the right price. However, after protracted checking and scanning of id cards each time to verify their ages, it became clear that this was adding very little fun value to the overall experience. The same trials happened at the bar. Inevitably, I ended up placing the bets and fetching the drinks whilst the pair had a well-earned rest in the comfy wicker garden sofas on the upstairs terrace. Bless.

This meeting is the richest evening card in Britain. Two Group 2s and two listed races attract decent prize money. The field sizes were only OK though. And I was surprised that on such a glorious night that the attendance wasn’t greater. Whilst a decent crowd had pitched up, it was nothing compared to the hordes that descended on the track in the cold midwinter for Tingle Creek Saturday. Midweek racing is still not that attractive compared to the weekend offerings.

Nothing wrong with the quality of the racing though. Big Orange was irresistible in the Henry II Stakes under Frankie Dettori, who judged a perfect ride from the front. Next stop, the Royal Ascot Gold Cup for him. Not to be out done, Ryan Moore brought Autocratic to the boil in a beautiful sweeping move to land the Brigadier Gerard. The country’s best two riders on current form taking the best two races of the night. Moor went on to bag a double with Khafoo Shememi beating CB-D’s shout, Escobar in the Heron Stakes.

Crazy kids
There was time for a last drink by the parade ring as the sun went down. I think the alcohol was starting to get to DN1 and CB-D who invented a potential new end-of-meeting race where punters would be picked at random to line up by the half-furlong pole and sprint for the line. I think this was inspired by seeing a couple of suited-and-booted lads who were carrying a fair bit of condition staggering around the lawns after a few too many sherberts. The youngsters even suggested that entrance tickets should state that participation was obligatory if picked. I told them that I liked idea as a fresh take on the occasional charity race at the end of big meetings. I undertook to promote the concept on this blog. It conjures up some hilarious images, though on reflection I can’t see it getting past the BHA, tbh. ROFL.
G'night all. 

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Short tales about long odds

This is just another shameless post of self promotion. 

Mug Punting and Smug Punting have both been republished and relaunched on Amazon at a new special price. Available in paperback and e-book formats.

"Horseracing is a sport of passion, opinions and failed bets on the whole - and all of these aspects are excellently captured and conveyed by author David Atkinson in his latest set of punting ramblings." 
Racing Post review of Smug Punting, July 2016.

"An eloquent, funny, well-written affair that will ring true and sound familiar to so many who spend their time trying to unravel the intricacies of horse racing."
Peter Scargill, Racing Post

Monday, 17 April 2017

Pains in the Trossachs

Picture the scene. Three innocent chaps up from the big city, gazing out hopefully from a remote bank on Loch Lomond. They are scanning the steely grey surface for signs of an approaching ferry from the opposite shore.
I see no ships...
Those three guileless blokes were me, Ben and Bryn. We looked again at the map. ‘Ferry P (summer)’ declared the text below the dotted line from an unmarked, unpopulated spot on the eastern shore (our location) to Ardlui (our aspired destination). This was a cool day streaked with rain in early April. A poor ‘Summer’ offering by anyone’s definition.

We had initially been reassured by Ben’s research that morning, over a fine Scottish breakfast, that suggested The Ardlui Hotel – the ferry operators – believed Summer in these parts began on 1st April. And that the afternoon service ran from 3.30pm. Stood there by the rickety landing stage in the middle of nowhere and with only an inflatable bollard on a flagpole to communicate with the far bank, it was easy for doubts to creep in.
mobile phone anyone?
Nevertheless, optimistic types that we are, the chipped orange bollard – it would remind you of something that had fallen off the hull of a fishing smack in about 1972 - was raised up the flag pole by means of a frayed length of sail twine and tied off in my best double-hitch. And we waited with an air of mirthful scepticism.  

It seemed improbable that such a low-tech solution could work. Where was the Facetime connection? Or at the very least a two-way radio? Was the ferryman really sat in his boat, waiting for the flagpole to twitch into life? Or – even if he existed – was it not more likely that he was in the hotel bar knocking back a dram of warming single malt on a quiet Thursday afternoon…

And yet after 6 minutes – Bryn had timed the wait – we spotted a small white launch sliding through the water towards us. I swear my heart jumped a little at the prospect. I lowered the bollard (only after being certain that the boat was really heading towards us and not just out for a pleasure trip around the headwaters) and we climbed aboard with big grins. We had caught the ferry by the slender margin of 6 days and one hour. Simple pleasures.

Loch Greg LeMond
More simple pleasures were on offer in the bar of the Ardlui Hotel, overlooking the calm waters and sun-dappled hills. We deserved a couple of beers on completion of our outward expedition from Crianlarich. The walk had initially followed the western side of Glen Falloch on the old military road on the downslopes of Breadalbane, where we ploughed and slopped through enough Highland cattle crap to fuel a small methane power plant.

Later, we ran in to a small herd of tough looking goats. They were sprawled over the path and were tucking into grass as wiry and unappealing as themselves. We got eye-balled a couple of times and they seemed unperturbed by our presence, necessitating a wide berth around them. I noticed that Bryn and Ben had were happy to let me take the lead.

The valley had broadened out and we crossed over the West Highland Railway and then the River Falloch to follow the eastern side of the glen towards Loch Lomond. The landscape around us changed from epic screes to undulating upland with more vegetation. The river gurgled by our left hand side overhung with bare birchwoods coated in moss and lichens. Gorse was just about coming into flower.

These had been the best views of the day. We had ascended and then rounded Cnap Mor to be rewarded with a dramatic reveal of the loch. The aspect had summed up our trip in one sweeping image. Bright sunshine picking out ridges in the rock and ripples on the water, either side of a backlit rain shower blowing in from the north west falling from a big sky of blanket cloud vented by light blue and blinding white.

Back in the pub, we were contemplating our next move. Walking home seemed like an effort too far after the day’s leisurely, but sufficiently taxing 10 mile hike. The rail link up to Crianlarich was broken because of a landslip outside Glasgow two days before. There followed some web-based double-checking, firstly to make sure our return sleeper service was running that night and secondly to find the time of the rail replacement bus service.

Internet connections were mostly OK on this trip, despite the well-publicised problems in rural UK. I managed to send in my Fantasy Cricket team to Danny in Whitehall two hours before the deadline, despite an intermittent signal, an un-navigable database and a phone with a smashed screen. My first attempt only had ten players. Apart from that small glitch, I thought I did pretty well. Later, Ben paid his child minder via electronic banking from a bleak spot five miles from civilisation in the lee of Derrydorach’s sheepfold. We have the technology.

Waiting for an Uber
Stood in the lay-by outside Ardlui station – no more than a raised platform with a small shelter and a bike rack – it occurred to us that if the train service had resumed, we would have no way of knowing. The station had a total absence of any current train service information, either electronic or personal. And there was no wifi out here. So Ben posted himself at the entrance ready to leap up the stairs and hold up any train that should decide to arrive on the up-line.

Then a bus lumbered in to view. The driver saw Ben and flashed lights at him in various combinations. The bus pulled up in the road at the front of the station. Not, of course, in the lay-by where there was a proper bus stop.

We gathered at the door. It didn’t open. Ben could see the driver gesticulating and flapping in animated fashion. Eventually the door swung open and we were blasted by ‘Edelweiss’ from the PA at a goodly volume. He quickly turned it down and pointed to knobs, buttons and dials on his console.

“I could-nae find the door opener! It’s like the Starship Enterprise here!”

“Best buckle up”, said Ben. "I don’t think he’s ever driven a coach before!”

He managed to find the CD knob again though. Soon we were swinging through the glen on a crooning wave of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and other popular classics. We were the only passengers and he dropped us right outside the hotel.

“Are you going all the way to Fort William?” I enquired.

“Am I buggery!”

Chortles all round.  

“Dalmally. That’s me!”

The Crianlarich Hotel had served us well. Arriving off the sleeper on Wednesday morning, we had abluted in the loos, stored our kit in the drying room and scoffed mountainous breakfasts, replete with haggis, black pudding and potato scone. Deeply conscious of high running Indyref2 feelings I had blurted out ‘cooked breakfast’ for my order, narrowly avoiding a ‘Full English’ diplomatic incident. Of course, ‘Full Scottish’ would have been more accurate and I was better prepared the next morning. 

Bryn had been initially hesitant about piling in to the fry up. Whilst Ben and I were awoken early in our berths by a stirring strong black coffee, it became apparent that Bryn had already been up and pacing the corridors. By then he was back on his bunk and unmoving. The whisky sweats had descended.

The previous evening had seen us celebrating the journey with a few beers in the buffet car. As we sped through the Midlands and lumbered through the industrial North-West we had gradually outstayed the other passengers. It was time for a nightcap and the extensive malt whisky menu was consulted.

It had been tricky to make selections. Whether the Auchentoshan 12 year with its “nose of still-warm Christmas pudding”; the Balblair 2003 Vintage “with the enticing pull of apricots, butterscotch, honey and citrus luring you in for further inspection”; or the Bowmore 18 year’s “freshly split oranges, damp wood and a hint of warm, sticky lemon”.  Who writes this stuff?

In the end I went for a Dalwhinnie 15 year which seduced me with hints of fruit salad and custard that gave way to flavours of “manuka honey and vanilla sponge”. Not any common or garden honey, you understand…

However, it was the Old Pulteney 12 year, matured in old bourbon casks, that did for Bryn. The medium finish evoked fewer of the “memories of a coastal fire with hints of burning oak and spice” and more of the spinning-sleeper-compartment and thumping-frontal-lobe sensations.

Nothing that the brekkie and walk up Strath Fillan didn’t easily sort out. Though the first map crisis of the day can’t have helped. We hadn’t even found the West Highland Way before we were looking at a roundabout that refused to be correlated with Explorer Sheet 364. In the end, we decided it was a new relief road around Crianlarich that the OS hadn’t yet caught up with. We ignored it and headed for the hills.

The first part of the walk was through upland pine woods with glimpses north-east of the dominating hulk of Ben More, together with his brothers and sisters.  The path was cut through with lively streams before we crossed over the more substantial River Fillan, past the ruined Kirkton Priory and then on to a coffee-and-cake pit stop at the Auchtertyre campsite.

All the while, at least it seemed that way, Ben had been relating the grisly details of his recent vasectomy.

At first I thought our hero of the snip was using Bryn and I as a kind of therapeutic intervention. Unloading his pain – of which there was quite a lot – in order to staunch the flow (as it were) and move on. Certainly, graphic analysis of the procedure – pubic shaving, elastic bands, distracting holiday conversation, tube incisions, burning cauterisation and subsequent bruising - had a cathartic quality about it. But the level of interest shown by Bryn went beyond casual interest or sympathetic understanding. Whilst Ben had introduced the subject over those single malts on the train the previous evening, by the next afternoon it was Bryn who was again keen to pick over the minutiae. He’s next I reckon.

Anyway, it made us vividly aware of any strenuous effort Ben made in ascending the various peaks in our path. “Do you need to give your nads a rest, Ben?”, “Don’t strain over that boulder”, “Are you wearing the right waps?” and other supportive comments were freely and regularly offered. Indeed our buttressing went beyond mere words. At one point (and I even I hesitate to relate this), Ben made use of my ‘Glide’ anti-blister stick on his chafing bollocks to ease his passage up a sheer slope. The stick had last been used on my fomenting feet a few months previously, so I couldn’t see what real harm it would do…

We had chosen a peak above Tyndrum as our off-piste climb. The hitherto nameless mound became known as hill 534 in respect of its metreage. It swiftly became known as many other, less-printable names too, as ridge upon successive, boggy ridge gave way to yet more false summits. The view from the top back down the valley, ultimately, was worth it. We took many top-of-the-hill pics, Ben re-arranged his sack and then we struck westerly to find sheltered spot in which to scoff our sarnies.

Less fun was had getting down the hill into Tyndrum. Barbed wire seemed to be hemming in our descent at every turn. Trying to find a crossing point from a Forestry Commission plantation over the West Highland Line proved challenging. Eventually – and this time the map proved to be accurate – we found and made use of a disused iron footbridge. Like the goat herd the next day (and indeed the raising of the ferry bollard) I noticed the boys hanging back a little as we surveyed the decrepit construction before us. So I blundered onwards. The bridge was fine, though the rail tracks could clearly be seen between its creaking, moss-covered iron ribs under our feet. We had more wire to negotiate at the other side and one wonders why the bridge was still there. Lucky for us that it was.

Tyndrum wouldn’t be the most picturesque stop off in the Highlands. But it just might be the smallest village with two railway stations. Neither of them could help us get back to Crianlarich, though. Trains seemed sporadic in the late afternoon and as we enjoyed a couple of pints in the Tyndrum Inn, I had thought I’d found bus to get us back. Off we toddled to the bus stop. And waited. And waited a bit more. There was no bus.

We asked at the café about a taxi. The waitress said,

“Och, the taxi is coming for me at 5 o’clock when I finish here.”

That’s THE taxi, then.

“But I’ll see if he’ll take ye as well. Are ye three?”

So that’s what we did.

The trip back home on the Sleeper was as efficient as on the way north. Although we had travelled in the Easter holidays, the trains were not too busy. On the journey out of Euston, the train manager had put the three of us in two adjacent cabins with the door wedged open. A sort of sleeper knock-through. Ben and Bryn had one set of berths and I shared the other with Bryn's giant red, wheeled-suitcase had the other.  Ben’s little hard shell suitcase with plastic wheels wasn’t much better. I felt very smug with my pukka rucksack swinging from my shoulders as they rattled and clattered their suitcases through the quiet streets of Crianlarich at 7.45am. Tourists. Little did they know I’d had to let out the waist strap to the loosest possible setting just to get the thing round my expanding girth.

On the way home, the train manager again sorted us out. We had taken the cheap-skate option and booked seats instead of cabins. We boarded the train and made our way through the buffet to the seated carriage.

“Coach S?” we enquired.

“Sorry, it was too cold in there and we’ve had to close it”

We looked at each other in some confusion and the train manager paused.

“I’ll see if we can find you some berths”, she eventually said.

And she did. She found us adjacent cabins, as on the journey two days earlier, but the connecting door was locked this time. This deprived me of the chance to read excerpts to the boys from my book, ‘Greatest Train Journeys of the World”. 

So I’m taking my revenge here with some choice cuts about the West Highland Railway, which pretty much sums up the majesty of the trip we were about to complete:

“The 100 mile West Highland Railway begins at Craigendoan Junction where the train turns abruptly north along a ledge with broadening views over Gare Loch. The diesel engines growl up the bank through leafy Helensburgh, while ships ride at anchor in the estuary, before disappearing behind loch-side woods.

The views along Loch Lomond are some of the finest of the journey , the railway running along a shelf cut into the hillside above a dense canopy of trees. The country becomes wilder as the train starts the climb up Glen Falloch. After heavy rain, not unusual hereabouts, waterfalls can be seen scoring a ribbon of white against the dark rock.”

Same time next year, boys?