The fuel on the hill


When TAC73 came out in the spring, a litre of unleaded petrol cost just over £1. It subsequently rose by 15p or more, and although there has recently been a slight retreat, the overall trend surely remains upward. The price of diesel made a similar startling leap, so various TAC readers were asked if this was causing them and their friends to modify the way they go to the hills, be it in terms of less frequently, roughly the same frequency but longer trips to make them more cost-effective, or cutting down the day-trip mileage and climbing more hills closer to home. Or are people continuing much as before, offsetting the increased cost against the ongoing pleasure that the hills bring?

Tom Waghorn, Manchester

One summer morning in 1917, John Rooke Corbett mounted his loaded bicycle in Manchester and pedalled north. He spent “a whole day loafing in a garden at Carnforth”, then rode on to climb Corserine, Ben More and Stob Binnein, then Lochnagar and the Glas Maol group before finishing his hill days on Mount Battock. Back in Manchester, he calculated that he’d ridden 961 miles in 17 days and ticked off 17 Munros and two Corbetts.

Corbett was an original member of Manchester’s Rucksack Club and his photograph, with that splendid black beard, stares down gravely on club members in the dining-room of their hut, Craigallan, near Ballachulish. The creator of that iconic list would surely today have been pondering on whether it was necessary for hillgoers to clock up huge car-mileages and spew vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Like splashing out on expensive entertainment such as golf and Glastonbury, many of my friends in the club continue to take their pleasure in the hills despite the cost. But there has been a notable increase in lift-sharing, both on the 600-mile round trip from the suburbs of the Rainy City to Craigallan, and on the thriving Wednesday Club outings in the Peak.

One interesting trend is that since our annual dinner has been switched from the Lakes or Snowdonia to the near Peak, attendances have improved dramatically. Saving on petrol or diesel is one of the main reasons.

The city’s Karabiner Mountaineering Club recently cancelled a meet at Tyndrum because of high fuel costs, and there has been a slight fall in bednights at their club hut in Snowdonia. One member rues the considerable expense involved even for the 200-mile round trip for a mandatory midweek safety inspection by the fire brigade.

The long-established Manchester Pedestrian Club, who enjoy regular car outings in the Peak, Pennines and Yorkshire Dales, have noticed slightly smaller attendances on day-meets involving longer journeys.

Meanwhile, the city’s Ramblers’ Association and Associates’ Club both continue their long traditions of coach outings. The only snag, I’m told, is that both have difficulty in finding coach organisers and meet leaders.

Me? I’ve had to curtail my hill days as a result of the brake of age rather than petrol prices. But I now have a national bus pass which gives free off-peak and weekend travel in England. Scotland and Wales have similar schemes for wrinklies. I’m down to sub-Marilyns rather than Munros. Maybe, like John Rooke Corbett, we had all better get on our bikes…

Mike Smith, Selkirk

The last weekend of April saw the shortages due to the dispute at Grangemouth refinery, and this happened just before I was due to head to the Highlands, by car, for a week or so. I did have some concerns as to (a) whether I would have any difficulties (I didn’t — only once, at Shiel Bridge, did I find a garage without fuel), and (b) whether I was being socially responsible by using up precious fuel for something as frivolous as travelling around the Highlands, not that minor feelings of guilt dissuaded me — I’m too selfish for that (so far). It seemed to make no obvious difference to the level of use of the hills and the facilities.

The shortages were resolved, but the price of fuel continues to escalate, and in years to come the oil will eventually run out. So: is it sensible to waste fuel in travelling unnecessarily for our own gratification? Probably not. Will we still do it? Yes — at least until it becomes a lot more expensive than at present. (I believe that in real terms and as a proportion of disposable income, the amount spent on motoring has been declining for decades, if not for the past few years. I’m not sure of the statistics on this: does anybody else know?)

Are there alternatives? Most of us are addicted to hillwalking in some shape or form, and need our fix. There are always hills closer to home — but, for many of us, one of the joys of hillwalking is finding new areas and new hills, which inevitably means travelling greater distances at some point.

Using public transport is widely recommended as a green alternative to driving — indeed, I would claim to be an enthusiast for this means of travel; some of my more enjoyable trips in the Highlands have involved multi-day walks from one bus stop to another in a glen on the other side of the hills. However, the Highlands being by definition a sparsely populated rural area, bus and rail services are inevitably limited. For some of us, the duration of journey times on the bus means that quick two-day trips to the Highlands are not feasible and driving remains cheaper, even now. I could, and sometimes do, bus it to some of the Borders hills and even to the Lakes (change at Carlisle).

So, for now, I will continue to drive to the Highlands periodically and contain my feelings of guilt, until the cost of motoring becomes prohibitive.

Simon Blackett, Braemar

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are fewer cars, caravans (hurrah!) and campervans on the go and fewer visitors in the shops. This is borne out by Braemar Service Station which reports fuel sales down by 15% on 2007, with drivers frequently only buying enough to get back to their local cheapo supermarket pump. Numbers on National Trust for Scotland guided walks are down. There are fewer coaches on the road and they are all running on full loads, whereas half-full was not unusual a few years ago. Conversely, our own Keiloch car park shows exactly the same spent on tickets as per the same period in 2007 and Braemar Mountain Sports report almost identical sales to 2007 as well.

Weather is an important factor, particularly for day/weekend visitors. 2007 was not a great summer, with damp overcast being the norm, whereas 2008 has turned out to be much sunnier and more tempting for those extra days on the hill.

I visited Cawdor Castle with the family recently and they report increased numbers on last year, but with no particular explanation. At present the price of fuel is not stopping the stalking/fishing/shooting visitors, but some of the pheasant breeders are really suffering from increased costs. Visitors from “down south” report a “proper recession”, so who knows what will happen in the rarefied air of upper Deeside over the next few months? Best escape to the hills to clear the head! But not to the Secret Howff, as there is a queue to enter now most days!

Charlie Campbell, Glasgow

If I was hitting the hills every weekend (which I’m not, just now), I would offset the increased fuel price against other things, eg that trip to the flicks would be dropped, or I’d forget the curry and beers. It would also make me drive more slowly so that I could maximise the mileage. I’m fortunate that my car is a 1.9TDI, so I can get over 60mpg, but if I was the owner of a more gluggy petrol variant and was regularly heading north, then I would seriously be thinking of changing vehicles. One other change would be to start sharing with hillwalking mates more often again, rather than making solo sorties, thereby splitting the fuel bill.

I checked the approximate fuel stats for my 48-day Munro run in June/July 2000 and it was about £500, whereas it would be about £800 today, depending on the garages used. £300 isn’t that large an amount in the whole scheme of things, and I would gladly pay that for the enjoyment that the Munro run brought.

Dewi Jones, Porthmadog

I am fortunate to live on the western fringe of Snowdonia and a drive of 25 miles maximum will get me to most of the hills I’d want to visit regularly. Also, we are reasonably well served by buses and trains (both standard and narrow gauge), which means that there is often no need to take the car out at all. So, speaking personally, the cost of petrol has not caused any change in where and when I go to the hills, because I do not use much anyway.

But this is not just about me, so I conducted a quick (non-scientific) survey. One friend said that higher prices caused him to give consideration to car-use, another said he never went alone anyway, but most people I have spoken to say that the cost of fuel has not led to any change in how they go to the hills or where they go. Interestingly, one couple told me that they had been to Scotland twice this year. On the first trip they drove at what they called “normal motorway speeds” and spent £130 on fuel. By the time they went again the price shock had hit and they kept to 60mph on motorways and 50mph on other roads and found that they had spent £30 less. Perhaps the Spanish with their talk of a 50mph national speed limit have got the right idea.

As to the general situation on the hills of North Wales, I have to give a resounding “don’t know”. I suspect that the weather has more effect on numbers than anything else and I do tend to stay away from the more popular areas. Fortunately there are still places hereabouts where one can walk all day and not see another soul, and that is where I tend to be.

Ed. — Two other anecdotal observations. The weekend of the Grangemouth refinery shutdown (26–27 April) saw the year’s first dose of warm summer weather in the Highlands. I had a full tank plus a spare can in the boot, but didn’t want to go far, so did the Tarmachan-Oighreag-Ghaordaidh round from Glen Lochay. It was remarkably quiet, both on the roads and on the hill. The first walkers seen were on the col just west of Meall nan Tarmachan at midday, after I’d been walking for two hours 30 minutes in glorious conditions. Looking down from the summit, the Ben Lawers Starship Enterprise car park was no more than a quarter full, and only six more walkers were met during the remaining five hours: four on the Beinn a’Bhuic spur, two on Meall Ghaordaidh. (The year’s first swallow, incidentally, was seen on the short road stretch at the end.)

Then in early May, again in tremendous weather, I spent two nights camping with a friend at the rather fine Roy Bridge site. On being asked if trade was down, the campsite owner said it seemed to be, although it was early season and things might improve. Certainly the site was very quiet: just a few tents along with half a dozen caravans.


More letters on pp17–19

Dear TAC,

Thought TAC might be interested in the surprise we had on reaching the cairn on Meall a’Chaorainn, just north of Loch Vaich. A full bottle of whisky. The labels had long gone with the rain, but it smelt like the real thing and tasted reasonable too, but not a malt unfortunately. It would be interesting to know who left the bottle sitting in the stones of the cairn, and why.

In the interests of the environment the bottle was removed to a safer place and the contents rendered harmless.

Yours, Gerry Knight, Leicester

Ed. — Sounds like detritus from a Graham-completion party, but the records ( don’t show any finishes on Meall a’Chaorainn (which doesn’t of course mean that there haven’t been any).


Dear TAC,

Thought you might enjoy this photo. Spotted in Brooklyn Heights, New York City.

After the best part of a week eating American style, it would be true to say that my ducts probably did need cleaned.

Cheers, Callum Black, Edinburgh