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Dartmoor Book

My next book, a walking guide to visit lesser known places on Dartmoor, is progressing.

It’s taking longer than the Essex coast guide as walking on Dartmoor is often far less straightforward. Many paths are less defined and I will probably need to do each walk about half a dozen times at different times of the year to ensure that I’ve chosen and documented the best route.

There are obviously other walking guides to Dartmoor but I am aiming for this one to be different:

  • It takes the walker to lesser known places of interest.
  • It will have more information on the places seen on the walk than most guides.
  • It will have clearer instructions than many guides, with these separated from background information.

I did a couple of walks between Christmas and New Year, both in misty conditions, which aren’t the best for clear photography but shows the moor in one of her most evocative moods.

The first was from Okehampton, climbing to Black Down Military Railway, a ‘target railway’ used by the army on the moor. Targets were pulled along a track by pulleys powered by static engines.

Return to Okehampton was through the Red-a-ven valley, beside of Dartmoor’s picturesque streams, especially with so much water from recent rain.

The second was from near Buckfastleigh, initially along a lane, passing this George VI post box, which is no longer in use but was decorated for Christmas with a lighted candle inside.

I love the moor gates that lead to freedom on the open moor, the Lud Gate at the end a track enclosed by tall granite walls, being one of my favourites.

Dartmoor has many legends, some more believable than others. This standing stone, ‘Little Man’, is apparently a lone piper who was turned to stone for playing on a Sunday.

Huntingdon Warren is was of the remote warren houses on Dartmoor where rabbits were farmed for fur and meat. Sadly the house was burned down some time ago. The last warreners moved out in 1939 – to the house next door 1½ miles away. My father and I once met the warrener’s daughter here. She had been brought up at the warren and used to ride a pony to school.

The mist cleared as I walked back, allowing a clearer view of the clapper bridge that crosses the Walla Brook below the warren.

A Day Trip to Mallaig

Maybe it wasn’t right to feel a tinge of smugness as I looked down on Euston’s concourse packed with commuters waiting for their delayed trains home. Maybe though it was forgivable, as unlike most this evening, my train was on time and rather than taking tired workers home to a late dinner, it was waiting to deliver passengers to the Scottish Highlands by morning.

A spare sleeper ticket expiring at Christmas allowed a bonus trip to Scotland and I’d chosen my favourite route, the West Highland Line to Fort William. With en suite toilet and shower, Caledonian Sleeper’s new Mark 5 coaches allow a comfortable journey in their ‘hotel on wheels’.

As usual on the Fort William sleeper I awoke as the train ran above Gare Loch but in mid-winter the deep loch below was invisible in darkness. Loch Lomond and the snow-capped Ben Lomond could just be made out as we travelled north but it was still dark as I made my way to the lounge car. After a little confusion resulting from me giving the wrong berth number (the early hour provided an excuse as opposed to my general forgetfulness), I was seated at a table laid for breakfast. Soon toast and a remarkably well filled bacon roll arrived. It was excellent, putting to shame some of the soggy microwaved offerings served up on some trains.

As dawn rose snow covered mountains were revealed in all directions. Snow lay on the platform at Rannoch where we passed a southbound train. Approaching the station there was an excellent view of the Moor of Rannoch Hotel, where I’d stayed when visiting Rannoch when writing Remote Stations. Once again I vowed to return.

Rannoch Moor was wild as ever. The Victorian engineers floated the line on brushwood to take it across the bogs of this desolate but endearing landscape and the amazing views are never the same. Today a carpet of snow covered the moor and pools were frozen. A small herd of deer watched us pass, magnificent with their antlers and unperturbed by a train crossing what is their home not ours. A young boy at the next table asked if they were Santa’s reindeer. Maybe they were. If much more snow fell this could have been the North Pole.

Two walkers alighted at Corrour, the highest station in the UK. Both carried double packs and looked set for a few days in this wild and remote country. I’d thought of getting off here too, just for a short walk, but with snow on the ground considered myself ill-equipped even for this. As arguably our most lonely railway station I had of course visited Corrour for Remote Stations and will certainly return in better weather for the experience of travelling from London by sleeper to be walking next morning in such a wild yet beautiful place.

The railway soon descends, running above the spectacular Loch Treig before following the River Spean towards Fort William.

Here the sun was shining and I walked along Loche Linnhe with more wonderful views.

The tide was high and An Caol, an island I’d walked to for No Boat Required, only just peeped above the water.

The mighty Ben Nevis was just out of the cloud, a classic view from the River Nevis Bridge.

Soon my walk was thwarted by the high tide, water over-topping a footbridge, either side of which mounting posts enabled riders to dismount and lead their horses across. I thought of paddling but then realised the tide was still flowing in and it may have been more than a paddle to return.

Next was a trip to Mallaig along the Highland Line Extension, which many claim to be the most scenic of all Scotland’s railways. In summers trains are packed and the Jacobite steam services often booked out months in advance, but today passengers were few. Unlike in summer I was the only one to photograph the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, which isn’t easily done with non-opening train windows, but the view from the bridge to Loch Shiel made an atmospheric winter photo.

Some of the most spectacular views are of Loch Eilt, where to railway passes to the south and the road to the north.

Beasdale, which I’d walked to from Arisaig, was passed without stopping and by Mallaig the sun was shining. The railway was originally constructed to provide access to the rich west coast fishing grounds and the village of Mallaig built at the line’s terminus as a fishing port. The harbour is still busy with both fishing boats and ferries but as a still active port it’s not all picture postcard views.

I found a walk along the valley behind the village, coming out opposite the isolated Knoydart peninsular, where the only links to the outside world are the ferry to Mallaig or a two day walk across wild country. Skye with its snow-topped Cullin Mountains, the steepest in Britain, soon came into view and as I walked back into the village the Small Isles of Rhum and Eigg could be seen.

All of Mallaig’s cafes were shut. The village is busy in summer, especially when the steam train arrives, but with few tourists today (just me?) it was very much a working port for local people. I sat on a cold rock for a while watching dusk fall towards the unmistakable outline of Eigg and the gently sloping Ardnamurchan Peninsular, the most westerly point on the British mainland.

As the train took me south once more the sun was setting over Eigg, a final amazing view from the magnificent West Highland Line.

After an excellent dinner in Fort William I boarded the Highland Sleeper once again, enjoying my desert in a quiet lounge car. We trundled through the Highlands, stopping at eerily lit little stations to pick up the odd passenger. After Tyndrum I reverted to my berth, comfortable bed and sleep. A knock on the door at 7am woke me, the steward bringing another bacon roll.

The Highland Sleeper and West Highland Line are one of the world’s great railway journeys. It’s a journey that people would travel far to experience yet it’s in our own country. It’s a journey that everyone should try to do at least once in their lifetime.

Peter Caton Dec19

Caledonian Sleeper – Making the Most of Scotland

Since 2002, about four times a year I’ve visited Scotland for work, always travelling at least one way on the wonderful Caledonian Sleeper. At first I’d get a day train home, or spend the evening in Glasgow waiting for the sleeper back to London, but then I realised this was an opportunity to explore more of the country. Now I finish my meetings, leave work behind and jump on a train to enjoy Scotland’s scenery, cities and walking. With so many scenic routes, the train journey is part of the enjoyment.

The first trip took me to Balloch and an evening by Loch Lomond. Maid of the Loch, the paddle steamer on which we’d sailed back in 1970, was moored by the quay. This magnificent vessel is under restoration and hopefully will one day sail across the loch once more.

Another holiday revisited was to Troon where we’d stayed in 1970. Then it was a holiday resort but habits have changed and with people flying to find hotter weather Troon is now a quiet but pleasant seaside town, visited by day trippers and golfers.

Afternoons were spent in the historic cities of Stirling and Perth before a short morning meeting gave me the opportunity to visit Corrour on the West Highland Line to Fort William, arguably Britain’s most remote station. It’s an amazing place on the edge of Rannoch Moor. As the train headed off to Fort William I was on my own in this remote spot amongst lochs and mountains. I was to return here a few years later, choosing Corrour as the first of forty lonely stations visited for Remote Stations.

From Corrour I’d returned to Glasgow but then realised that I could use the Highland Sleeper back to London providing a multitude of options for long evenings in Scotland.

Another ride up the West Highland Line took me to Fort William, a walk by Loch Linnhe and the unforgettable experience of some of Scotland’s best scenery passing by as I enjoyed dinner in the sleeper lounge car. Another time I alighted at Bridge of Orchy and took a walk on the West Highland Way before catching the sleeper home.

I’ve made numerous trips up the Highland Mainline, sometimes all the way to Inverness, once enjoying dinner on the Highland Chieftain before the restaurant cars were sadly scrapped and always taking my favourite city walk along the river and across the Ness islands.

Pitlochry has been my most visited destination. Five times I’ve spent late afternoon and evening here, walking on Ben Vrackie, the 2,759 foot mountain that overlooks the town, before catching the sleeper home just before 11pm. Four times I reached the loch beneath the summit, a steady but easy climb from the town. Finally last summer time and weather permitted me to complete the remaining and steep ascent to the summit. What a view and all a few hours after I’d been sitting in meetings in Glasgow.

The East Coast hasn’t been left out. Aberdeen was visited on a freezing winter afternoon when snow lay on the beach and Stonehaven in rather warmer summer weather. A shorter trip took me to the lovely coastal town of North Berwick, returning home from Edinburgh. A meeting in Dundee gave the opportunity to view the Tay Bridge before travelling north for dinner in the Granite City.

On three occasions I’ve finished work in Glasgow, caught a train to the coast, then a ferry. Once to Dunoon, once to Cumbrae Island and once to the Isle of Bute, when porpoises were spotted from the ferry. Each time I’ve returned to Glasgow in time to catch the sleeper back to London, having turned a routine business trip into a memorable Scottish experience.

Sometimes I’ve stopped a night or two extra, usually when writing books. I stayed at the sadly now closed Forsinard Hotel, built by the Duke of Sutherland for his men to use while collecting rents, and enjoyed a walk in the remarkable Flow Country. Nearby Altnabreac on the Far North Line was visited for Remote Stations after a night in Thurso.

Most of my trips to Scottish tidal islands for No Boat Required followed work meetings around Glasgow, using the sleeper to travel north then home again after safely negotiating tides and mud to the islands. Crammond Island in the Firth of Forth, with many relics of military defences and concrete anti-submarine ‘dragon’s teeth’ line the causeway, was just a short bus ride from Edinburgh.

For environmental reasons I would never fly to Scotland but why would I even want to when the Caledonian Sleeper allows me to make the journey as I sleep – effectively in no time at all. With the new trains I can even shower on board and arrive ready for work having enjoyed breakfast in the lounge car, but more importantly explore Scotland once business has been completed.

Those who fly, drive to a meeting, back to the airport and travel straight home are missing so much more that can be achieved by using the sleeper. I’ve said it many times but will say it again, there’s no better way to travel to Scotland than the Caledonian Sleeper.

A Walk by the Crouch

A windy, muddy but most enjoyable walk from South Woodham Ferrers this afternoon.

Commencement was somewhat delayed by a bit of trouble with the train. Just outside Billericay there was a lot of noise and a sudden stop. A tree had fallen onto the third coach and caught fire on the power lines. Fortunately it soon extinguished itself but after a while four firemen appeared having made their way to the track through someone’s garden. What looked like being a long wait and transfer to another train was avoided when we managed to coast free of the tree and the best part of a mile almost to Wickford. Here there was another problem, the train coming to a sudden stop once more, this time because the air reservoirs had emptied and the brakes come on. Having now just reached a powered section the air could soon be replenished and on our way we went.

Fortunately it wasn’t necessary to break into my emergency KitKat but after all the excitement on arrival at South Woodham Ferrers a number three breakfast from the local café (for lunch) seemed to be in order.

I was checking Walk 31 in 50 Walks on the Essex Coast, in case anything has changed prior to the next reprint (probably during 2020.) It’s a pleasant walk, initially along Clementsgreen Creek, where the remains of quays show where sailing barges once called.

Turing left after a mile or so I reached one of my favourite spots on the Essex coast – the remote point where Clementsgreen Creek meets the River Crouch. Today however wasn’t a day to stop and sit. I turned right, heading into the wind up the Crouch. A chap on a mountain bike overtook me – just. It wasn’t the weather for cycling but he was the only other person venturing out onto this wild bit of Essex coast.

There are good views across Marsh Farm Country Park and a large number of birds to see.

The full walk is 7½ miles but with the sun falling I wasn’t going to be able complete it before dusk, so opposite Hullbridge (where a ferry once crossed the Crouch) I turned inland to return to the station by road.

In the book I’ve mentioned Marsh Farm as a possible place for refreshments, so thought I’d pop in for a cake. It’s some years since I last visited and the place is quite different. Gone is the nice little café by the entrance. The café is now further into the farm and you first have to pay to get in. Wanting only a cake and drink I wandered in unchallenged and made my way to the café. It’s in a play barn. What a din! Kids everywhere and families at every table. Not really the place for a middle aged bloke (or does 59 next week make me old) on his own. I made a hasty retreat and sat at a remote picnic bench to eat the emergency KitKat. It wasn’t as far out the way as I’d thought, and while I sat trying not to look like a dodgy man with a rucksack and muddy trousers on his own in a children’s farm, a succession of families came to look at Santa’s sleigh in a shed by the bench. If anyone said anything, which they probably did, it was out of my hearing.

All that needs changing in the book is to take out reference to the farm café. Marsh Farm also need to change their website. It took me 23 minutes fast walking to reach the station., They state 20 minutes – and presumably expect their visitors to be families, not men with rucksacks.

Peter Caton 14.12.19

Breich Station Revisited

When I went to Breich in 2017, one of the forty stations visited for my book Remote Stations, I wrote that the station looked abandoned, its platforms resembling a wild flower garden. It was a sad, sight, run down and ready for closure. Only Network Rail didn’t get their way. By starting a petition I played a small part in the campaign which saved Breich from closure.

Electrification of the Shotts Line meant that the footbridge had to be replaced and Network Rail appeared to have quoted an excessive sum to rebuild the station. My objection suggested that a new footbridge was not necessary and that money could be saved by building a path from the road to the eastbound platform. This is just what Network Rail have done. Had the idea of a footpath never occurred to Network Rail, or did they include an expensive footbridge in order to inflate the cost and exaggerate their case for closing Breich?

Services had been cut to two a day and only 48 passengers recorded in the previous year, a common British Rail tactic for ‘closure by stealth’. Fortunately the Scottish Government reprieved Breich, saving the station for current and future residents and giving a message to Network Rail that in the 21st century people will not accept closure of our railway stations.

Recently I went back to Breich. What a transformation.

I’d travelled on the sleeper to Edinburgh (also a transformation with the new stock) and caught an early morning train to Glasgow. Most now stop at Breich, providing an almost hourly service. One person joined the train I got off and two others boarded the one I took back to Edinburgh. So that’s 10% of the total passengers in 2017 on just two trains. Now that trains are stopping here passengers are returning to Breich – a message that should be taken heed of elsewhere, notably at Pilning where the footbridge has been removed and the station has just two trains a week – both in the same direction!

In my objection to closure I’d written that with a regular service people could travel to Breich for walking in the surrounding countryside. I spent my time here on a freezing morning enjoying a walk along a deserted lane and a track to Woodmuir Plantation. I look forward to returning for a longer walk and to publication of usage figures which will show that if trains are provided people will use them.

Peter Caton
December 2019

Message to Voters

2019 General Election –

Dear Resident

I would like to introduce myself as your Green Party candidate for Hornchurch & Upminster Constituency.

A local candidate, I’ve lived in Upminster for 55 years, attended The Bell & Coopers Coborn schools, work part time in my small business based in Purfleet and am an author of local walking and travel books. As a member of Upminster Methodist Church I’ve run or helped with youth clubs for more than 30 years.

I’d like to take this opportunity to set out policies on key issues:

Climate Change – Our country faces many issues but the greatest of these is climate change. If we fail to act the consequences for the world, its people and wildlife will be catastrophic. Resources are finite. We must invest in renewable energy, phase out fossil fuels and reduce our need to travel. Public transport has to be affordable and reliable, and measures taken to encourage people to work and shop locally. We must force governments to act not simply pay lip service to saving our planet. Individuals, companies, local authorities and governments can all make a difference and we must all do so.
Housing – It is scandalous that every night in 21st century Britain thousands sleep on the streets. Homelessness is no longer restricted to big cities; we see it in Hornchurch & Upminster. New socially rented homes are needed to allow everyone access to an affordable place to live. We do not need the large houses that make maximum profit for developers, but small homes that our children can afford so they do not have to move away from the area.

Air Quality – Air pollution causes 36,000 premature deaths in the UK every year. Young people are the most vulnerable yet pollution outside some of our local schools is at dangerous levels. We must have cleaner cars and public transport, car free areas and safe routes to walk to schools.

Brexit – The 2016 referendum gave a small majority for leaving the EU, however it is now clear that Brexit will have a considerable negative impact on our economy. The Brexit process was initiated by a referendum so it would not right to simply revoke Article 50. Now that we all have more information a further referendum should be held, to determine how we should leave (deal / no deal), or if the will of the people is now to remain.

High Streets & Local Communities – Our high streets are dying. Whilst the Green Party seeks to encourage use of public transport, cycling and walking, we appreciate that there is a need for some people to be able to drive to our town centres and that increased car parking charges are having a negative impact on our high street traders. High parking charges will result in more people driving longer distance to out of town centres, with a greater environmental impact. The recent local car parking increases should be reversed ensuring that there are reasonable initial free periods.

Green Spaces & Trees – The green spaces in our towns and the Green Belt that surround them are under constant threat. We must continue to resist attempts to build on these spaces which add so much to our locality. New housing should be on brownfield sites. Our trees are vital in helping to limit climate change and a crucial part of the beauty and character of our towns. We should be planting more and unless there is very good reason, keeping all of our beautiful mature trees.

Animal Welfare – We should not be legalising the killing of animals for enjoyment. All forms of fox hunting should be banned and the law enforced. Penalties for animal cruelty should be greater and banning orders properly enforced. Factory farming should be phased out.

Crime & Policing – There is understandably much concern at the spate of street attacks, often on children. Action must be taken but the government’s huge cuts in police numbers are having a real impact. Green Party policy is for greater community involvement with our police service. Too many officers are being diverted to major events in London. We must also look at the causes of crime and be proactive in working to provide role models, youth facilities and to divert those who may be led into offending. Rehabilitation of offenders needs far greater priority.

Fair Votes – We need a fairer electoral system so that the make-up of Parliament more accurately reflects the votes cast; government should be by consensus, not conflict. Our first past the post system stifles democracy – it is ludicrous that the result of the General Election will be decided by only around a hundred marginal seats.

Spending & Taxation – As the world’s 6th richest country we should adequately fund the NHS and education services and accept our moral duty to provide our fair share of targeted aid to those less fortunate in other countries. Immigration must be controlled but Britain’s proud tradition of providing sanctuary to a reasonable number of genuine refugees should be maintained. Taxation should be simple and fair, and based on the principle that those who can afford to contribute more pay a greater share than those who cannot.

Equality – Everyone should be treated equally and fairly and have the same opportunities, regardless of race, colour, religion, sexuality, education and wealth. Someone educated at their local comprehensive should be no less likely to become Prime Minister than an Eton scholar. Everyone should have access to legal aid and being able to afford an expensive lawyer should not increase the chances of being acquitted in court.

The Green Party – Whilst the environment is at the forefront, The Green Party has a broad spectrum of policies, promoting social justice, equality, grassroots democracy and a fairer society. Green councillors across the country have been successful in working closely with local residents and holding councils to account. Often behind the scenes, in Hornchurch, & Upminster constituency we have been actively campaigning on local issues such as air quality, the Lower Thames Crossing and saving our green spaces.

No vote is wasted and every vote for the Green Party tells our government that they must act now to care for the world.
We owe it to our children to put the future of the planet first.

Yours sincerely

Peter Caton

2019 General Election – Green Party Candidate

I am proud to once again be representing the Green Party as candidate for Hornchurch & Upminster in the coming General Election.

I am standing for the Green Party because I believe that climate change is the greatest issues facing us all. If we fail to act now the consequences for the world, its people and wildlife will be catastrophic.

Gigha’s Tidal Islands

Last week my wife and I enjoyed a wonderful, if often wet holiday in Scotland; two nights on the Isle of Arran, two nights on the Island of Gigha and two nights in Oban – and two new ‘tidal islands’. Being islands off islands they wouldn’t have qualified for my book No Boat Required and we found that one of them would now come under the ‘nearly tidal’ category.

The remote community owned island of Gigha is off the west coast of the Kintyre peninsula, between the mainland and Islay. It’s 7 miles long by about 1½ miles wide, has a population of 31 and with many white sand beaches is a truly wonderful island.

Off the north west corner is Eilean Garbh, which many photos show connected to the main island by a strip of white sand. One photo even accidentally found its way into a holiday brochure for a Caribbean island and no one noticed that it was actually in Scotland. With just two days on Gigha we had to ignore the weather, so having walked down paths from the island’s only road, we arrived soaked through. It was then that we found that this is no longer a tidal island. Marram grass has grown up across the centre of the sandy tombolo that linked Garbh to Gigha, leaving beautiful white sand beaches either side (they look whiter when dry).

We walked across to Garbh but the ascent to its summit is steep and I didn’t need too much persuasion that to climb the slippery ladder fixed to the rocks was a risk best not taken. Returning to the Gigha Hotel for dry clothes and warm lunch we learned that the marram grass became established some years ago and the spot is now known as the Twin Beaches. Beautiful even in pouring rain, this must be an idyllic spot when the sun shines. We will return one day.

On mentioning No Boat Required to a lady in the craft centre we were told that Gigha does still have its own tidal island; Eilean a Chui in Ardminish Bay. We could see it from our hotel bedroom window. With long Scottish evenings we could visit after dinner, by which time the rain was lighter, but still wet enough to keep the midges away. There’s a short rocky causeway by a tiny harbour but it was easier to walk across the sand. The island, which is accessible most of the time (Gigha’s tidal range is remarkable small) is quite small (but bigger that it appears on the photo) and a true tidal island to add to my list.

Should anyone get the opportunity to visit Gigha we can thoroughly recommend this little known but beautiful Scottish island.

I would have liked to post some photos of Gigha taken in better weather but the cloud didn’t lift for our entire stay, so just to show that the sun did shine in Scotland here’s one of Holy Island off Arran.

Walkers Are Interesting People

In Essex Coast Walk I asked if it is walking that makes people interesting or that interesting people choose to walk.

Today on the sea wall between Leigh on Sea and Benfleet I met another interesting walker. Jim, originally from Galway, has completed many long walks, a day at a time, either travelling from London by train and bus, or basing himself in a B&B and taking public transport to and from each day’s walking.

He posts videos of the walks and some music on a YouTube channel – Huggie Huggie2love – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhhR9khVLC8

Worth a look.

CRANHAM BY-ELECTION RESULT

We came second to the Residents Association, who defending a huge majority again won by a long way. But I beat not only Lib Dem, UKIP & Labour, but got 21% more votes than the Conservative candidate, in one of the most Tory & Brexit supporting areas of London. Second place is the Green Party’s best ever result in Barking Dagenham & Havering. People are starting to understand that we simply must act to minimise climate change.