In a spot of bother? Both­ies to the res­cue

On Bri­tain’s re­motest hills, both­ies pro­vide safe refuge for walk­ers. Phoebe Smith loves th­ese cosy shel­ters, many of them cared for by the Moun­tain Both­ies As­so­ci­a­tion, which is cel­e­brat­ing its 50th an­niver­sary

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents -

MOUN­TAIN SANC­TU­AR­IES

S

ur­rounded by moun­tains fad­ing into dark­ness, I hes­i­tated, the au­tumn chill sting­ing my cheeks. The first drop of rain landed on my nose: I knocked twice and pushed the door open.

It was empty. For now, I would have the place to my­self. Stone walls; bare floor­boards; wood­burn­ing stove; a couple of chairs and a ta­ble. As rain rat­tled on the win­dow, I lit some com­fort­ing tea lights and set­tled down.

My shel­ter on this wild night in the wilder­ness was a bothy – a moun­tain refuge left open for weary walk­ers. Both­ies have no war­dens to check you in, no book­ing sys­tem, no elec­tric­ity and no run­ning wa­ter. Rudi­men­tary they may be, but af­ter a hard day’s walk­ing in win­ter, a bothy is a wel­come sight to a weary way­farer. Both­ies come into their own dur­ing win­ter: with a roof and a fire or stove to warm up with, they of­fer more pro­tec­tion than tents, al­low­ing you to enjoy longer spells in win­ter land­scapes.

In case the bothy is full, or you can’t find it in the dark­ness, snow or mist, you need to pack as if you’re camp­ing, in­clud­ing a warm sleep­ing bag and mat, and a stove for treat­ing wa­ter

and making hot drinks. Also cru­cial are fuel for the fire, matches and toi­let roll, plus a ded­i­cated bag for car­ry­ing rub­bish out with you.

Stay­ing in a bothy feels like a proper ad­ven­ture. Soli­tude, for ex­am­ple, is never guar­an­teed. I’ve shared whisky with Ger­man tourists, crashed a stag party, and bed­ded down top-to-tail with a group of climbers I’d met an hour be­fore. Aside from meet­ing like­minded peo­ple and spend­ing cosy nights in front of a fire, it’s the build­ings them­selves that I love. Bri­tish both­ies are dif­fer­ent from the moun­tain huts found else­where in the world, be­cause they were never built specif­i­cally for walk­ers. They were orig­i­nally home­steads on re­mote es­tates, built for game­keep­ers, farm­ers, shep­herds, quar­ry­men and so on.

In the first half of the 20th cen­tury, the large es­tates re­or­gan­ised their work­force more cen­trally, trans­port im­proved, and many of th­ese re­mote build­ings were no longer needed. Hun­dreds were aban­doned and left to ruin. Later, af­ter the Sec­ond World War, walk­ing boomed in pop­u­lar­ity, and many hik­ers made use of the empty build­ings to spend a night in the hills – with or with­out per­mis­sion.

BRING­ING BACK THE BOTH­IES

In 1965, a group of friends led by Bernard and Betty Heath re­stored a re­mote build­ing in Dum­fries and Galloway. That work­ing party marks the found­ing of the Moun­tain Both­ies As­so­ci­a­tion (MBA), funded by do­na­tion and run by vol­un­teers. Half a cen­tury later, the MBA still works closely with landown­ers – who own the build­ings and lease them to the group – to “pre­serve and re­store open shel­ters for the use and en­joy­ment of all those who love wild CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE Ap­proach­ing the bothy at Ben Alder; many both­ies have a sleep­ing plat­form; the visi­tors’ book at Hutchi­son Me­mo­rial Hut in the Cairn­gorms; toasty toes – many both­ies of­fer an open fire or stove and lonely places”. This year, the or­gan­i­sa­tion re­ceived The Queen’s Award for Vol­un­tary Ser­vice, an award given to vol­un­teer groups across the UK to recog­nise out­stand­ing work in their com­mu­ni­ties.

The both­ies in its care range in size, lo­ca­tion and for­mer use. There’s the tiny for­mer wa­ter pump­ing house on Gr­wyne Fawr reser­voir in the Bre­con Bea­cons; the near-hid­den Lake Dis­trict hut of Warn­scale Head, made from left­over slate min­ing spoil, with a won­der­ful

view down to But­ter­mere; and one of the most re­mote both­ies in Scot­land, Ben Alder Cot­tage, which de­mands a tough walk to reach it and is steeped in tales of the for­mer res­i­dents said to haunt it. That’s just a tiny se­lec­tion of the MBA’s 101 shel­ters, mainly across Scot­land but with a scat­ter­ing around north­ern Eng­land and a hand­ful in Wales. There are also both­ies looked af­ter by other groups – it’s a thrill to stum­ble across one you didn’t know ex­isted.

OUT OF DAN­GER

For some walk­ers, a bothy pro­vides po­ten­tially life­sav­ing respite from atro­cious weather. The Pen­nine Moun­tain Res­cue team uses a bothy called Greg’s Hut near Gar­rig­ill on the Pen­nine Way to warm up lost hik­ers and ad­min­is­ter first aid.

Work to main­tain the shel­ters is vi­tal to their sur­vival and thanks to do­na­tions of both money and time, the MBA con­tin­ues to thrive. Chair­man Si­mon Birch ex­plains: “In the early years, not many peo­ple knew what a bothy even was, never mind where they were.” Now all the both­ies are listed on the MBA web­site. De­spite the oc­ca­sional prob­lem, the MBA has found that the free-of-charge sys­tem has worked well; if you trust peo­ple to do the right thing, they nor­mally will. With the pop­u­lar­ity of out­door pur­suits in­creas­ing, the main is­sue the MBA faces now is one that has been brought about by heav­ier us­age – for most both­ies don’t have a toi­let. In­stead, a shovel for dig­ging a hole is the norm, but some peo­ple don’t al­ways use it. “We have in­stalled com­post­ing toi­lets at some pop­u­lar both­ies and that has helped,” ex­plains Si­mon.

Back in the bothy, I fire up my camp­ing stove to make a hot chocolate while the rain fell out­side. A fair bit has changed in the last 50 years in the out­door world, from tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances with smart­phones

“One of the most re­mote both­ies,

Ben Alder, de­mands a tough walk to reach it”

Tucked away: in­trepid walk­ers in the Lake Dis­trict can shel­ter for the night at Warn­scale Head bothy, high in the hills above But­ter­mere Lake

Phoebe Smith is an in­trepid trav­eller and writer. Her lat­est book is The Book of the Bothy (Cicerone, £12.95). She is adamant that you don’t have to go far to have an ad­ven­ture.

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