Wednesday 2 May 2018

#038 Search for Local Hero

There's a place where the Northern Lights transform the sky
Modern mermaids spring from the sea
The land breathes with an ancient mystery
And all who witness its wonders
Come to believe in its magic

Such goes the low echoing tone voice-over of the trailer for the 1983 film Local Hero.

Link to You Tube: Cinematic trailer for Local Hero

By comparison to today's movies Local Hero contains none of the seemingly pre-requisite violence, nudity, special effects or ludicrous story lines. Thirty five years on, its a film which should have faded into obscurity. And yet, it endures and is treasured with heartfelt warmth.

At first glance, the plot is simple enough: Big oil business seeks to exploit pristine environment and buy out resident population of the fictional fishing village of Ferness at the cheapest possible price. Indeed taken in isolation, everything about Local Hero is unassuming. With the exception of Burt Lancaster, the cast at the time could hardly be described as Hollywood icons. Peter Capaldi and Jenny Seagrove would go on to be well respected and award winning names in theatre, film and British drama (Doctor Who, Judge John Deed, Endeavour etc).

 Oldsen (Peter Capaldi), Gordon (Dennis Lawson), Stella (Jennifer Black) & Mac (Peter Reigert)
The humour is never overplayed, but is none the less funny. Especially with Dennis Lawson's portrayal of Gordon Urquhart as the local factotum who pops up as pub landlord, solicitor and hotel proprietor.

Then there's Mac, played by Peter Riegert, who's task it is to open negotiations for the oil company. But Mac's efforts are thwarted by old man Ben, played by Fulton Mackay (most often remembered for his role as prison warder from British sitcom Porridge). Ben lives on the beach in a shack and is  wholly contented with his simple life. No amount of money that Mac offers can entice Ben to give this up.
Ben and Mac
To begin with, Mac is all about securing the deal. Its a matter of numbers and what he perceives as winning. This is until the village and its people start to get under his hard business shell. He begins to see them as something more than an obstacle to be overcome with dollars. He starts to care that by selling out, they are on the verge of losing the very things his life is devoid of.

"I want to stay here, run the hotel, do little bits of business. You can go to Houston. Take the Porsche, the house, the job. It's a good life there, Gordon. I pull down 80,000 a year, plus I take over 50,000 in mixed securities. I want you to have it all...And I won't let you down your good name here Gordon. 
I'll make a good Gordon, Gordon."

So is Local Hero a film about transformation? 

Certainly, yes. But this is like saying The Shawshank Redemption is a film about a prison escape! Shawshank, like Local Hero, is the type of film which draws you back time and again. You know what's going to happen, yet it remains fresh and the emotional journey intensifies with each time of watching.

One You Tube comment on Local Hero reads...

"I watch this film when I need to go deep"

Jeremy Clarkson as a presenter, Marmite to the British public, once said with surprising profundity for Top Gear...

"...greatest films of all time: Local Hero, Shawshank Redemption, Zulu"

To create the magic of Local Hero, director Bill Forsyth (who two years previously had delivered the hit Gregory's Girl) chose two main locations on opposite sides of Scotland. The famous red phone box (we'll come back to that later) and Ferness are actually the fishing village of Penan in Aberdeenshire. Whereas the beach, church and hotel interior scenes are around Morar, Mallaig and Arisaig on the west coast.

Gordon & Mac
The first time I tried to locate the location known as Ben's Beach in the film, I ended up at the tourist information office in Mallaig.

"Excuse me, I'm trying to find the beach in a film made locally..."
"Oh you'll be looking for Ben's Beach" the gentleman at the desk said without hesitation in a soft, almost lyrical, accent.
"That's right" I smiled, I'm most definitely not the first visitor to ask this, I thought.
"Three miles down to road, there's the sign for Camusdarach"

Camusdarach Beach
In real life Camusdarach is a delight for the senses. On a sunny day the minerals in the white sand reflect the light with illuminating brilliance. Yellow primroses dance in the sea breeze as they hang onto the bedrock reaching out into the water. With your back to the grassy dunes the view sweeps across a turquoise sea to the Cuillins of Skye and islands of Eigg and Rum.

At its northern end, beach can be accessed from a car park behind the dunes. Or if you're staying at the lovely Camusdarach campsite and self-catering cottages, buy a coffee and pan-au-chocolat from reception in the morning and take the private path to where Ben's shack was situated.

Link to: Camusdarach Camping and Cottages

Oldsen & Mac
To the right of the beach is a small house. In the film this was given a set dressing to make it into the village Church.

The real church, or more precisely the inside of it, is Our Lady Of The Braes Roman Catholic Church, a few miles east along the A830 at Polnish. It has ceased to be used for worship and for many years has stood unused and neglected. It has now been renovated into a private residence, but can be seen from a lay-by on the road.

Our Lady Of The Braes Church
A little further along the A830 is the Lochailort Inn where the interior scenes of the hotel were filmed. The inn was extensively refurbished in 2011, but retains the charm of a Scottish lodge with real fire, leather upholstery, elegant tartan fabrics and a warm welcome from the landlady manager.

Lochailort Inn
On my way back to Camusdarach, I pulled over to take a photo of Loch Eilt, somewhere near the camera position for the helicopter sequence at towards the end of the film.

Loch Eilt

So what is it about Local Hero that resonates with so many people?

Is it Mark Knopfler's soundtrack which weaves a mystical and at times almost mournful thread through the story, ultimately lifting the spirit in the finale, Going Home? A theme tune which he often plays as a encore in his live concerts. Each time I have walked down to the beach I almost subconsciously start to hum the tune.

Is Local Hero a film about choices?

Well there's the ending! On the surface it feels like the right things happen to the village and its people. But, we remain with Mac having arrived home to his Houston high rise apartment. Its fitted out with every modern labour saving convenience. The sounds of the metropolis, the city which never sleeps, drift in though the open window. From his coat pocket he retrieves some shells he had collected from Ben's Beach. He lifts them to his nose, smells the sea and connects with the memories.

Something has changed, he is no longer the same person that left before the assignment. He now questions all that he previously held to be true.

Perhaps this is the power of the story. We are left with unanswered questions as the the image fades to black, wondering what is next for Mac. Will he have the courage to complete his transformation? Or will he slip back into what is familiar, safe, the easy option? In the hope that one day the yearning will lessen and that the aching loss of what could have been will fade.

Just when this gentle film has delivered its devastating play.

Bill Forsyth cuts to the red phone box back in Ferness.

...and it rings.

You Tube link: Local Hero ending

You Tube link: Mark Kermode on the enduring love for Local Hero

Rafa on Camusdarach Beach

Stu Westfield
Written from somewhere on Ben's Beach
Ranger Expeditions

Saturday 31 March 2018

#037 Paleolithic Lamp and the dawn of creativity

Reaching Back In Time

For some time I have been fascinated by the cultural revolution that occurred 6000 years ago, when millenia of hunter gathering was overtaken by new stone age farmers. The Neolithic spawned new ways of thinking and living together. It gave rise to a sophisticated cosmology, the evidence we can still see in standing stones, circles and rock cut pictograms.

But, around 40,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic, there was an earlier period of cultural change and transformation...

In a world where metal had yet to be smelted from rock, all tools, clothing and shelter had to be made from wood, antler, bone and stone. Our ancestors' ancient living skills continues to this day in the few hunter gatherer societies remaining on earth; the Hadzape and San are notable in East and Southern Africa, still clinging on to cultures largely unchanged in tens of thousands years. This is despite persecution, marginalisation and poor representation in political circles.

Ray Mears World Of Survival - TV Series
In the UK, ancient living skills have enjoyed a resurgence. Mostly due to the television programmes of Ray Mears, inviting millions of viewers to join him vicariously on Bushcraft journeys, which inspired people to reach out and rediscover ways of life almost lost to us.

The Dawn Of Creativity

In his book The Mind In The Cave, archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, discusses the development of human consciousness and what made our homo-sapiens ancestors decorate caves and rocky outcrops with images of bison, deer, horse and other species. He theorises that human brains' evolved a higher level of consciousness, gaining the ability to conceive abstract concepts such as the future and plan complex and cooperative activities such as hunting. This is what made humans fully modern. It is what differentiated us from other mammals and importantly other homo-species.

It offers an explanation as to why the Neanderthals, with a lower level of cognitive thought, might only be able to conceive of the present and short term future. It certainly fits with Neanderthals' apparent lack of elaborate funerary practice and functional but basic tools. The rise of the homo-sapiens in the upper paleolithic was accompanied by fine microlith tools, burials accompanied by grave goods and most probably, language.

This said, Neanderthals were a successful species, they existed for some 200,000 years and were adapted to their environment. But, in Darwinian terms, competition is a catalyst for change. Competition for resources, such as game, between the Neanderthals and early homo-sapiens could have accelerated the development of a higher level of consciousness and ability. We don't know whether this competition manifested itself in conflict, but we do know that as the range, and culture, of homo-sapiens expanded, the Neanderthal population ebbed away.

Lewis-Williams proposes that this higher consciousness and development of language had to go hand in hand. Such sophisticated concepts such burials with artefacts (indicating belief in some form of after life) and communication of corralling hunting techniques could only be done with the aid of language. Also, why would humans go to such extraordinary lengths as to journey deep into cave systems, far deeper than necessary for shelter, to paint images. A plausible explanation is that these were part of a shamanic, or spiritual experience, only possible in a brain which had evolved to be capable of such thought and abstract ideas.

The Paleolithic Lamp

To create deep cave art, such as that created in Lascaux and Chauvet, people must first have been able to see what they were doing. It's here that the archaeological record can help us. Found in the La Mouthe cave in the Dordogne was a stone lamp. It's a simple thing when viewed with 21st century eyes used to microchips and instant worldwide messaging. However, if we consider the dexterity required to craft the lamp and the ingenuity to visualise the outcome of it containing a burning wick fuelled by animal fat, then this is indeed a remarkable object. Especially so, given that the oldest paleolithic art dates to around 37,000 years ago.

However, on the underside is an etching of a ibex head with exaggerated curving horns. This image would not have been seen when the lamp was in use. Even if we consider is no more than an adornment, that someone thought to embellish the lamp further demonstrates a high level imaginative thought. More evidence of homo-sapiens ability to out-think, out-perform and out-complete the Neanderthals.

Re-Creating The Paleolithic Lamp

I selected a piece of Orcadian sandstone for this project. Firstly because it had already been naturally eroded by the sea to a shape which already offered a convenient hand hold in one corner. Secondly because sandstone is readily shaped and the 'well' would be more easily formed, compared with harder rock.

For the animal fat fuel, I used lard bought from my local village shop.

The wick I selected Soft Rush Juncus effusus. This is a common moorland species of tall rush (to 130cm) which is densely tufted and grows straight up. They form dense stands, the  stems are smooth cylinders that contain a continuous foam-like pith.

It is the pith which is required to make the wick. I took three pieces of different ages, from fresh growth to a dying stem. The outer stem of the greener shoots was much easier to peel back and retain a continuous length of pith. I then set the pith in the lard and smeared some lard on the pith to prime it.

The lit result was very pleasing...


Most often Bushcraft is promoted as a set of skills. In itself, these skills provide a marvellous journey of discovery for the practicioner. What the Paleolithic Lamp experiment demonstrates is that enjoyment can be taken further by imagining not just how, but why our ancestors did what they did.

From here we can reach back in time to find endless possibilities of inspiration...
Link to Ancient Stones Crafted In Hayfield

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions
Hayfield, Peak District

Sunday 11 March 2018

#036 Legends Assemble

The Belgian Ardennes, a region of rolling hills, rough terrain, ridges and steep sided valleys cut by swift flowing rivers. Much of the area is covered by seemingly impenetrable forest.

For those with an eye on their history books or the landmark television series Band Of Brothers, the Ardennes are steeped in legends. The Belgae tribes were a thorn in the side of Caesar's Roman ambitions, Napoleon III was defeated during the Franco-Prussian war in the nearby Battle Of Sedan and of course the Ardennes winter nearly did for the 101st Airborne in the Battle Of The Bulge.

In modern day Belgium access to the countryside is largely via GR (Grand Randonne), Regional or local Promenade Routes, usually marked with coloured symbols.

With this in mind, Tim de Vriendt and Stef Schuermans, Race Directors of Legends Trails have done a superb job in negotiating local and regional by-laws which would have put off lesser event organisers. They have threaded a 250km course which gives a full flavour of the Ardennes and offers a challenge worthy of the legions which have trod, strived and crawled through its tough terrain.

The Legends Trails, now in its third successful year. Each edition has been different, the weather, the strategies and superb racing stories, from the winners to the endeavors of the Lantern Rouge to beat the cut-off time. Tim and Stef have built a quality race with generous home cooked food, enthusiastic volunteers, a specialist medical team and a dedicated HQ team, organising logistics and taking care of safety matters. Each participant is also equipped with a tracker from Legend's Tracking.

Website: Legends Event Tracking Services

In 2017 we saw the first two British finishers, Ryan Wood and Allan Rumbles. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both are also finishers of The Spine Race. Is the Legends Trails a tougher race than The Spine Challenger? Almost certainly yes. But is it as tough a proposition as the Full Spine. What we can say is that while the distance is shorter, the Ardennes terrain offers little opportunity to settle into a rhythm. It is relentless. If we let the numbers speak, then in 2018 there were 29 finishers from 70 starters.

For 2019 Allan has set up the British Legends Trail Team facebook group. Supported by Tim and Stef, the aim is to share this modern ultra classic with UK Ultra runners.

Facebook Group: British Legends Trails Team

Flights to Brussels from Manchester can be booked in advance from around £40 each way (plus checked in luggage). With a number of options from the airport to the area of the start. Plus there's the additional benefit of you being surrounded by these lovely national treasures...

In the past year I've helped several friends from Belgium and the Netherlands in their race skills training build up to their Spine Challenger and Spine Races. All have found their 'Complete Racer' training very useful in helping them race more efficiently. As the race models are similar, Spine finishers should also carry a useful skills set into The Legends.

2020 will be the 5th anniversary of the Legends Trail. To celebrate this there will be a 500km edition, an event to truly test the mettle of any ultra runner. So be it 2019 or 2020, Legends Assemble!

Legends Trails Website

Stu Westfield
Legends Trails Safety Team Leader

Friday 26 January 2018

#035 Cheetah Story

"I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy"
                                                                                             - Earnest Hemmingway

My earliest recollection of a wildlife documentary was a cheetah, filmed in slow motion, as it chased a Thompson's gazelle. Kinetic energy rippled down the flanks of the cat, pads momentarily touching the savanna, flicking up clouds of red dust, tail steering like a rudder as the gazelle jinked left and right, throwing off the momentum of its pursuant.

Over the years, in the course of my work as an expedition leader I have led several expeditions to eastern and southern Africa. During this time there has been a disturbing trend in the worldwide cheetah population and big cats in general.

Cheetah are now extinct in 20 countries where they formerly roamed. By January 2017 there were only 7100 left in the wild, a dramatic reduction of 90% from what there numbers were 100 years ago. Cheetah are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. With the rapidity of de-population this iconic species could be on the brink of irretrievable extinction before science has time to classify it as such.

The last time I saw a cheetah in the wild was in 2008, in Lewa Downs conservancy in Kenya. It was one of my most treasured and special wildlife moments. 

I watched as a coalition of three adult male cheetah harassed a female with sub-adult cub to see of she was in condition to breed. These were the biggest, toughest looking cheetah I had ever seen. They were the famous Lewa brothers, powerful, impressive and confident. An attitude they took to their selection of prey, bringing down unlikely and unheard of species such as ostrich and fully grown zebra. They even had the ability to overpower grown lions.

A year later, wildlife camera man Simon King captured incredible footage of these behaviours for the BBC series 'Life'

(warning: scenes of natural predator and prey behaviour)
Cheetah hunt: BBC 'Life'

The bothers' strength was defined by their coalition. The death of the eldest, after a fight with a pride of lion, sealed their fate. The last of the brothers, seen to be listless as if mourning the loss of his sibling, was confirmed on Monday 30th April 2012 when a surveillance officer found the carcass. Their reign had lasted 14 years, a remarkable tenure. It is of course the natural cycle, but it was none the less a sad day for anyone who had enjoyed their magnificent and larger than life escapades.

Another series made by Simon, was Cheetahs Fast Track To Freedom (2004) told the story of Toki and Sambu, two three month old orphaned cheetah cubs and attempts to raise and habituate them to a wild environment. The documentary shows with heart breaking  clarity just how difficult this is. 
Cheetah Fast Track To Freedom

The follow up programme Tokis Tale (2007) leaves us only partially satisfied that the release to the wild had to be within a fenced (albeit very large) enclosure due to Toki apparently seeking out human company and not faring well in confrontations with other wild cheetah.

The main threats to cheetah come from habitat loss and fragmentation. IUCN state:

Because cheetah occur in low densities, conservation of viable populations requires large scale land management planning; most existing projected areas are not large enough to ensure the long term survival of cheetahs.

Conflict with farmers, especially in southern Africa, leads to cheetah being trapped and shot as vermin for largely perceived threat rather than the relatively little damage they cause. Loss of wild ungulate population will exacerbate this situation as well as depriving cheetah of food in areas where agriculture expansion is encroaching into cheetah home ranges.

But perhaps the most distressing cause of cheetah decline is the illegal trade live cubs smuggled to the middle-east market as exotic pets to be paraded as status symbols and fashion accessories. Of the crates and crates of cheetah cubs smuggled out of Africa, only one in six survives the journey. Most of the rest will die prematurely of malnutrition or be discarded if they reach maturity and their behaviour becomes unmanageable.

As the Simon King documentary shows, it is virtually impossible for these animals to be reintroduced to the wild. 

Despite unprecedented levels of funding for scientific research and analysis, more global awareness than ever thanks to the internet, big words from celebrities, personalities and some politicians: Cheetah are sliding inexorably and quickly into extinction. 

At what point will decisive, meaningful and effective action be taken, in addition to the efforts of a few dedicated individuals which are amounting to a sticking plaster over a heamorrhaging wound?    

Humans have a unique talent in destroying what they love. I now wonder if the cheetah brothers I saw in 2008 will be the last I shall ever see outside of captivity?

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions
Expedition Leader - Africa Specialist

#034 Rousay - The Egypt Of The North

Within sight of mainland Orkney and just a twenty minute ferry away, lies the small island of Rousay. With area of just under nineteen square miles, it has such an incredible density of important archaeological sites it has become known at 'the Egypt of the north'. There are no fewer than 15 chambered cairns on the island.

All along the south edge of the island is a string of Neolithic passage and chambered tombs. Many are sited on an ancient geological terrace over looking the waters of Eynhallow Sound. They bask in the glowing etherial light of the winter sun as it tracks low across mainland Orkney and behind the rugged hills of Hoy. None of this would have would have been accidental. Archaeological evidence shows the minds of our Neolithic ancestors where highly attuned to natural cycles and the passing of the seasons.

In our "Journeys Into The Stone Ageseries of short films we discuss the sophisticated cosmology of the Neolithic and how this displaced the Mesolithic hunter gatherers. 

Neolithic Orkney - Part 1
Neolithic Orkney - Part 2
The Neolithic Revolution in Ancient Guernsey
Stone Age Revolutions on the Isle Of Mull

Taversoe Tuick Chambered Cairn
This two storied tomb, dating from 3000BC, is one of only two known Neolithic tombs with two stories. The tomb is built on a hill so each storey can be accessed from ground level.
The lower tomb was originally entered by a long passage from the downhill side, leading to a chamber divided into four shelved compartments. 
The upper tomb was separate from the lower and different in design. Entered from uphill along a shorter passage into a chamber composed of two rounded compartments. 
The hatch between the two levels did not exist in pre-history. Archaeological excavations revealed several skeletons in lower level. In the upper chamber there were three cists which have since been removed, containing the cremated bone from a child and at least two adults. There were also many grave goods.

Blackhammer Chambered Cairn
Also dating from around 3000BC, the Blackhammer cairn is just a kilometer away. It is divided into seven compartments, or stalls and is over seven metres in length. 
Archaeological investigations revealed two skeletons and animal bone, including birds, with evidence of burning and that the tomb was deliberately blocked when it went out of use.
The original three metre passage entrance to the chamber has been replaced by a sliding door with steps down into the once corbel roofed chamber.

Knowe Of Yarso Stalled Cairn
The Knowe Of Yarso tomb is divided into four compartments and is entered through its original passage. It incorporates decorative slanting stonework, also seen in Blackhammer, which is reminiscent of markings on local Unstan Ware pottery. (We visit the Unstan Tomb on Mainland Orkney, in Neolithic Orkney Part 2 )

The 1930 excavation revealed 29 human skeletons with skulls set along base of walls. At least 36 deer skeletons were also discovered. To be interred in this way suggests the deer, or what they represented to the Neolithic community, were totemistic, like the dog skeletons at Cuween Hill tomb and the many bones of white tail sea eagles found inside the Isbister Carin on South Ronaldsay, also known as the Tomb Of The Eagles.
It is very possible that the eagles were part of a excarnation ritual, like a Tibetan sky funeral, before the deceased bones were stored within the tomb. At Wideford Hill the dogs may have served the same purpose. Or their remains kept among human bones may have served a more esoteric purpose. In the case of the dogs, the guardians of the houses of the living now keeping watch over the house of the dead.
Of course, deer are a herbivore species, so the excarnation explanation fails in this case.  The purpose of interring their bones in The Knowe of Yarso could have represented a spiritual function or offering. Rousay is not a large island and would only have supported a limited herd of deer. 
Our Neolithic ancestors living there would have to manage their harvesting of this resource. Indeed, a hard winter with high natural mortality and subsequent low numbers of calves may have had severe consequences for the Rousay tribes, giving rise to treating the bones of dead deer with the same reverence as those of humans. 

It is possible that the agricultural activities of the small Neolithic farming communities also interfered with the deers' natural behaviour of descending from high ground to lower pastures in late autumn for the annual rut.

Midhowe Stalled Cairn
At 23 metres, this is the longest stalled cairn in Orkney. It is divided into 12 compartments, many with stone benches and is sited unusually low, right down on the coast. But, given its magnificent size, this decision would have made the tomb's construction much easier as it is next to the sea front, where shelves of flagstone are exposed. The flagstone would have been readily cleaved away, giving building materials within just a few metres of the tomb site. 
1930's excavations revealed 25 skeletons including two children, some still on the stone benches where they had apparently been laid to rest. Gave goods – pottery and animal bones. The tomb had been back filled with rubble when it went out of use.
A modern structure has been built over the tomb to preserve it from the Atlantic elements.

I wonder if subsequent Neolithic tribes built and populated each cairn with the dead in chronological sequence. So when a tomb was back-filled and put out of use, the next one was build further along the coast line, but keeping the significance of facing the sea channel and movement of the sun, especially in winter as it remained low in the southern sky during the short days either side of the solstice. 

Significant events, such as local exhaustion or near extinction of the red deer population, for instance, could have precipitated a shift in cultural emphasis and the building of a new tomb in the Knowe Of Yarso case.

Or were there several co-existing communities? Each conforming to a general code of funerary practice but with particular cultural identities and idiosyncrasies, which we see in the masonry style and grave goods found in each tomb. These artisan flourishes and expressions of behaviour define the individual and their sense of belonging, it is a fundamentally enduring aspect of the human condition.

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions