TGOC 2014 #7: Braemar / Ballater to Ballochan

Someone calls Ballater their ‘secret weapon’ for the TGO. I’m not sure why, but it does seem counter-intuitive to head this way when wilder scenery of Lochnagar beckons to the south east. It is a pleasant town with a range of restaurants and other facilities and a campsite right by the centre.

Download file for GPS

The route from Braemar is straight forward – through the grounds of Balmoral. The woodland path emerges by fields populated by aristocratic cattle and then horses, with a team of young women in golf carts cleaning dung from the grass.

Balmoral Castle

Eventually the Castle comes into view, and suddenly tourists are milling about. A good spot for a cup of tea from the friendly folk at the Royal cafe.

Balmoral Castle

From Easter Balmoral a small road takes you to the Lochnagar Distillery where it is possible to taste something. Their whisky is only available in glass bottles, but they do stock something else in plastic miniatures –  handy to carry in the pack if you can manage with just a wee dram.

Road to Tom Bad a’Mhonaidh

A few hundred metres beyond the visitors’ carpark a long, straight track takes off to the right, heading to open country and the abandoned and atmospheric farmstead of Bovaglie.

Bovaglie House
Bovaglie Farm buildings

From here you look over the valley of Girnock Burn to the east, with rising ground beyond to a ridge of small hills. By following the track down to the river you reach the site of a bridge now destroyed.

Girnock Burn

Here it is possible to wade across then, marching up hill, trackless, you reach the small top of Meal Dubh. This spot provides a fine viewpoint looking northeast along the valley to Ballater and beyond.

View to Ballater

Below, the ground slopes to a large enclosure of conifer and once through the boundary and on the service road it is easy to navigate a route northeast and down to the road. From here there’s 5 km of tarmac to reach the bridge over the wide river Dee to the town.

Dee Bridge at Ballater

In the campsite is a sleepy looking Alan Hardy and his gang. They’ve had a day off to sunbathe and drink beer. As I’m setting up a voice calls ‘Paul, I recognise those feet!’. I scramble out from under my tent to meet a complete stranger. Kirsten Paterson was also surprised as she had quite a different body in mind.

I’ve almost set up my tent when it is time to join others at The Alexandra Hotel for dinner. I sit with Alan and David and Bernard and learn a little about walking in Essex. TGO girls monopolise another table with Kate who attended the spring gathering in Derbyshire.

The local Spar supermarket is well stocked and open late, here I meet the Pete Dixon gang who have foregone the Trailstars for a night in a hostel and Chris Peart who has yet to find a spot for his.

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The hills to the east of Ballater have a network of paths which join with those through the Forest of Glen Tanar. This is the route to take me east to the small settlement of Ballochan.

House of Glenmuick

I head up through the woods behind the House of Glenmuick to the open moor on Pannanich Hill.

Pannich Hill with Lochnagar behind

An easy track heads south then, over low ground as I am searching for the route to the east I find Kate travelling in the opposite direction.

Mount Keen – useful for keeping bearings
Kate powers across the rough
Turn right for Keen and left for Tamar

A lone signpost indicates the way and we walk together until the Tamar valley when she heads south to Mount Keen, and I in the opposite direction.

Forest hides the landscape for the next few kilometres and as I approach the junctions of the Tamar and Allachy waters more and more day trippers appear –  with dogs and bikes and children. Thirty minutes later they have all disappeared as I follow Allachy looking for the route upwards to the boundary of the forest and the moor.

Halfway Hut in Tamar Forest
Tamar Forest track
Halfway Hut in Tamar Forest
Tamar Forest track

Once on the Hill of Duchery I can see my camping spot in the valley below and the track leading up the far side which I will take tomorrow. The path down leads to Birse Castle. Here the owners have negotiated with the Scotland Rights of Way Society for some signs which urge you onto a rather uncomfortable path to the south of their land –  probably adding 1km to the natural route.

A long diversion around Birse Castle

I followed the advice of a local walker and headed for flat ground near a small church. I made a brew and pondered on the rights and wrongs of camping in a churchyard.

Church at Ballochan

I decided to put up my tent later to avoid offending anyone when along came two TGOers who immediately wanted to negotiate the pitch. They were not at all shy of camping on hallowed ground so we set-to making camp and then reconvened on the benches against the wall of the south transept for dinner.

Jackie and Tony, no spring chickens, honeymooned on the TGO in 2013. That was Tony’s first trip. Jackie’s first crossing was some years earlier to support her parents on her 80 year old father ‘final’ trip. She has done several more ‘final’ trips with them since then. Probably 2014 is the final final for the older couple as they had to drop out this time.

First Holy Pitch
First Holy PitchFirst Holy Pitch
There are two people plus luggage in this tent
There are two people plus luggage in this tentThere are two this tent
First Holy Pitch
There are two people plus luggage in this tent
First Holy Pitch
There are two people plus luggage in this tent

It was fun to sit with them and hear their story, but also because they had a strange cooking set-up. As I busied myself boiling water and rehydrating my meal-in-a-bag thay both just sat each with a plastic lunch box on their lap. After 15 minutes of chatting first one then the other box began to spout steam from the edges of the lid.

This system comes from a company called ‘Trekmate‘ and uses chemical sachets which generate enough heat for the task in hand. Small sachets for a hot drink, larger for a meal.

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