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A few thoughts on months – and on March in particular

Leaving the summit of Meall Chuaich in MarchLeaving the summit of Meall Chuaich in March
The north side of Ben Lomond                                                                                                                                                                                                   The north side of Ben Lomond

The mid-April summerlike spell and subsequent wintry biteback notwithstanding, as I write this at the start of May it is unquestionably spring in central Scotland and on the nearby hills. Blossom is looking lovely on the trees, the wheatears have arrived, the first swallows too (seen on 22 April in Stirling, five days earlier than in each of the previous two years but a week later than in 2011) and hedgerows have that lovely green brightness of fresh growth.

It wouldn’t really be this time of year, however, without such boiling-then-baltic-again toing and froing – with the snow level disappearing uphill then reappearing on a frequent basis – and in upland terms the transition from late winter to early summer is often a confusing period. In the Highlands at least, spring – whatever form it takes (and this one follows a winter of only middling harshness with an admittedly chilly coda) – is one of the shorter and less clearly defined seasons.

Quite why this might be comes down in part to the curious nature of March, a strange month when the extra-daylight optimism of late winter has a habit of slowing right down, when some people mow their lawn at the start of the month while others wait until April, and when those setting off to climb big steep snowy hills often seem dangerously confused as to what time of year it is.

Right from its first day, March increasingly seems to be regarded as a proper spring month in the southern parts of the UK and the more urban bits of Scotland. This has a knock-on effect in the hills, with people trying to get up and down things with hardly any winter kit and no consideration of which way their chosen slope is facing. Prime examples of this can be found on the north ridge of Ben Vorlich (the Loch Earn one) and the north-west ridge of Ben Lomond, both easy and popular routes in summer but fundamentally different undertakings in winter because of the northerly aspect and consequent scope for tricky underfoot conditions.

A fair few people have probably always treated these ridges as year-round, no-ironmongery walks, but it does seem to be on the increase, and the March tragedy when an apparently underequipped walker fell off the north side of Ben Lomond – and others had to be hauled off by a rather unimpressed-sounding rescue team was an all too predictable turn of events. On Ben Vorlich, not for the first time, friends and I witnessed some alarming behaviour on an icy day in mid-March (thankfully without anyone actually falling off), and there were serious accidents earlier in the season at the Lake District equivalent blackspot – the steep north-east-facing slope where Swirral Edge abuts the Helvellyn plateau.

What links these three popular routes is that people only very rarely get into trouble on them in summer, but it’s becoming quite commonplace in winter and early spring. I’ve written about this kind of thing and these kinds of worries before, however, and it’s not my intention to say much this time round. Rather, the odd nature of March has led me to think about something more subjective: which months of the year I never really look forward to from a hill and life-in-general perspective, and conversely those which I actively relish on each spin round the calendar.

I’m now of an age where I seem to have more or less worked out what I do and don’t like in various regards – also known as becoming set in one’s ways – be it food (veggie curry yes, peanut butter no), cricket formats (first-class yes, T20 no, 50-over stuff maybe if the wind’s in the right direction) and chess styles (unbalanced tactical skirmishes yes, subtle blocked manoeuvring no).

The same applies to months. I don’t have a full list, a sequence of all 12 from favourite down to least-liked (and of course others will have their own radically different orderings, while even the “best” month can feel dismal in a poor year and the “worst” almost idyllic in a good one). But – to start at the upbeat end of things – I’m pretty sure my top four are, giving the favourite first, May, June, February and April.

May could well be the generally most-liked of all months for those who spend a lot of time in the British hills. Daylight is close to its longest (and keeps lengthening, albeit by ever-smaller amounts, throughout the month), the weather is often warm and dry, and there are usually still some decent-sized snow patches on the higher hills, useable in descent but avoidable where necessary and not requiring the carrying of metalware or the wearing of heavy boots. (Although it’s worth bearing in mind that in most years, for a day or two at some stage, May is likely to include the last knockings of winter with scope for being caught out underequipped.)

Also – apart from in a few west coast and thickly forested enclaves – there are no midges or clegs. I won’t be alone in having climbed more Munros in May than in any other month – the 250 mark could well be reached this time round, at a rate of more than two per day – and it’s the most hill-friendly time of year in many ways.

June is similar, with even more daylight (and a few more midges), and if you’re going to try something big, try it now. But the turning of the year towards the end of the month, even though barely noticeable in terms of comprising lost seconds and minutes rather than hours, is enough to place it just behind May in the calendrical pecking order. “Make good use of May,” a hill friend once said, “as you don’t get many of them.” It was noticeable that he said this of May, not June.

Placing February third in the list is, I freely admit, a more contentious choice. I really like February because of the way that, come mid-month, the daylight – indeed the whole world – seems to break free of the grip of December/January darkness, with half-forgotten good times suddenly feeling like they’re not far away again. There’s a mysterious quality of light that January lacks but February has, birds start showing signs of getting busy – and remarkable numbers of people, me included, cheer up almost overnight.

On the hill there is often excellent crampony snow in mid/late February, allied to an easing of the weather brutality. It can be nice to sit for lunch in a lee spot, if not on the actual ridges or summits then not too far downhill – whereas December/January is mostly a case of straight up, straight down again, food eaten on the move or at best in a series of hurried, huddled snack-stops. If only in terms of increased lounging options, I’m a fan of February, for sure.

And April feels like a proper spring month – 75 per cent spring mixed with 25 per cent other stuff, anyway (although this most recent one was perhaps 65:35) – and almost always with a strong, heartening sense of things changing fast, moving on, developing and progressing once again. Often the very start of April, as this year, can feel late-wintry and discouragingly stodgy in seasonal-change terms. But at some point in the month, usually around halfway, everything – lower hill vegetation, garden plants, weeds, birdlife, frogs, insects (bees and butterflies rather than midges and clegs) – just goes whoosh, and we’re away again into without-a-doubt spring with the joys of early summer soon to follow.

The year I walked the watershed, 1987, provided a prime example of this change: snowy on the border hills at the start on 11 April, but just a week later came a blissfully balmy evening in Moffat. This was so pleasant and vivid that I can still recall the mildness, the springlike smell of the air and the soft quality of light, almost 30 years on. It heralded a genuinely warm spell for the crossing of the central belt towards the end of the month, an invigorating switch from winter, through brief spring, to summer. Quite a lot of Aprils are like that.

So those are my top four (with September being a shoo-in for the number five slot), and it’s worth saying at this point that assessing chunks of the year by month is of course rather artificial. There are other ways – for example one of the proprietors of this site says that his favourite time is when the cuckoo is calling in the glens, often a mid-May to mid-June overlap rather than one single month.

At the other end of the scale, I’ll nominate just three disliked months. The one I like least, year-on-year, is November, which rarely seems to have much going for it. The days are shortening apace (by late November we’re almost into the midwinter clampdown – the date when the evenings turn, in central Scotland at least, is 14 December, and it has pretty much done its darkening by the end of the preceding month). The weather often seems poor (it’s been several years since we’ve had a classic November spell of frosty mornings, light winds and beautiful temperature inversions above 800 metres), and the ground is greasy or soggy or even sodden. Any early snow is usually rubbishy stuff, and to add insult to misery there are well-meaning but tiresome men trying to fleece you for charity cash while sporting embarrassing moustaches.

OK, there are some nice tree colours, and if I did most of my walking in the Lakes rather than in Scotland then I might well look on things more agreeably – but even in my mid-fifties I’ve already seen enough to say that I would happily skip four out of five Novembers henceforth, were such a thing allowed.

Next comes January, probably the most generally disliked month just as May is the most liked. In a way this is odd, given that daylight is lengthening, albeit not by very much, throughout the month. But January lacks the pleasant interruption of Christmas and can feel something of a grind. There will almost certainly be some fine days – several of the most memorable outings I’ve ever had have been in the year’s first month – but there is often the annoying conjunction of cold clear days that would be fine on the hill and icy mornings when the roads are too lethal to contemplate. There was one such day this January – a sunny Saturday when plans for something biggish up Killin way were thwarted by an 8am skidpan and the absence of the council gritter. The day was salvaged courtesy of a pleasant-enough afternoon trip to the Dunning hills, but it was a little frustrating overall.

January can often feel like a month of missed opportunities. Just as May is my most Munro-heavy month, so January is the lightest – I’m only on 47 Munros total, spread over 41 separate days (and three decades), a clear indication of the up-and-straight-down-again aspect of things at that time of year. It’s also often a near-hopeless month for trying to progress bagging agendas and long-term hill games. As previously discussed here, I’m chipping away at a Munro calendar round – the idea being that, in due course, each of the 366 dates will have at least one Munro listed against it. This is a long-term scheme – we’re talking decades rather than years – and by the start of 2015 I was down to 33 gaps, of which seven were in January. I’d noticed that four of the needed January dates fell on weekends this time round, so was hopeful of managing at least one, possibly even a couple. The result? No progress at all, still seven needed, and it will be well into the 2020s before the round has a chance of being completed.

January could well be the month that becomes hardest to cope with as the years pass. I’m still of an age where I’ll go out in all sorts of rubbishy weather – my character feels like it needs further building – but the driving side of things now feels less inconsequential than in years gone by. I’m also aware that various of my regular hill sidekicks, all of them older than me, increasingly seem selective in what they do until things start to ease in mid-February. Like fuzzy hearing and failing eyesight, January is the month that goes first in activity terms as the ageing process proceeds on its relentless way.

Which brings us back to March, my third-least-favourite month for the reasons described above – and also, I suppose, because of the annoying interruption it provides to the sequence of four favourite months. March has its good points, of course, with the clock-change near the end of the being one of them, as evening jaunts start to come into play. If the snow level is high enough that roads such as the Lochan na Lairige pass are clear, then good use can be made of it, and heaven knows I’ve spent plenty of time in March on the Ochils over the years. But there’s something about it that I’ve never really warmed to, and probably never will.

Anyway enough of March – and of April, for that matter. The calendar has now flicked over into May – time to head out and make good use of the best month of the year once again.

Dave Hewitt
1 May 2015

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