Christened by a fierce October storm, with howling gales and torrential rain – in August – the Fords of Avon Refuge is reborn.
A large group of volunteers gathered at the remote refuge on Friday and Saturday, August 26 and 27, to demolish the existing, somewhat bedraggled structure, and replace it with a new one.
Basically, it’s the same: it’s built on the same spot and is the same size, providing basic shelter from the elements. But the new refuge now has a wooden floor to lift inhabitants out of the dubs, and insulated walls and roof.
In scenes reminiscent of one of the more extravagant television DIY shows, with a touch of the Ray Mears in the scenery department, people crowded round the small structure hammering, banging, painting and consulting the plans. Exterior planking rose quicker than you would believe and, no sooner was the membrane fixed to the walls than the protective mass of boulders were being piled around – while the roofing squad worked above.
Meanwhile the real heroes of the day were keeping a steady supply of tea and bacon rolls on the go.
The building went so quickly and smoothly partly because everybody was just so damned good and worked as a close-knit team, because, well, we would say that. But mainly it was because Kenny Freeman had prefabricated it all long before it was flown out to site by the RAF. Every piece of wood was detailed, numbered and packaged, and plans for putting it all together were meticulously prepared, so that the actual construction went more smoothly than an Airfix model.
Tons of rocks were manhandled: first to remove them so the old hut could be removed, then to replace them in a stable configuration; a bit like dry stane walling on the outside and less elegant, but stable, fill between the outer wall and the wooden structure. Human chains of boulder-lifters transferred the raw materials from where they had been cast during the demolition phase to the hands of those who placed and packed them back into the new structure. As the wall rose, larger boulders had to be ‘stretchered’ up on one of the ladders constructed on-site. It was all back-breaking, arm-straining work, but carried on at a steady pace and all but completed on the Saturday, with two dedicated souls even braving the Sunday morning drenching to put some final touches on.
Meanwhile the inside flooring was finished while the roof – also insulated this time – went on, with a topcoat of corrugated iron panels to make sure the weather stays on the outside.
Astonishingly, by the time we all downed tools on Saturday it was all but done and the joinery department, headed by Kenny, constructed some temporary benches and, later, a temporary canvas extension to the hut to accommodate the workers for what in polite circles is called an evening reception.
Ian Shand played a christening tune or two on the pipes and traditional libations were made, with toasts to – well, to ourselves, dammit, for a good job well done. Glasses (or bottles or plastic/enamel mugs, delete as appropriate) were also raised to some of those who were unable to attend but were there in spirit, such as Abbie Morgan and MBA chairman John Arnott.
Tales were told, some of them even true, and songs were sung with huge enthusiasm and varying levels of ability (it’s amazing what bum notes can be hidden in a chorus), and your author even ventured a few bits of tune on the penny whistle. All in all it was a great bothy night, prompting our own immigrant worker – Vaclav from the Czech Republic – to declare it his best night ever in Scotland.
A pretty good night by anyone’s standards I think, although my recollections of the latter part of the night are none too clear. Better, though, than one volunteer, who was found sleeping outside in the dubs and tried to fight the three Y-front-clad workers who hauled him into the tent. No names, I’m afraid.
As already related in this blog, morning brought a major change in the mood. While the weather on Saturday had been better than forecast, with only the odd wee shower, it broke down completely overnight, and by morning three tents were down and the rivers quickly rising, fed by a barrage of rain.
While I and several others made our escape to the south, Ian and Ross from the RSPB (which owns the estate and the refuge itself) have been praised for their efforts getting people and tools out to the north by ATVs. (It’s worth noting that this whole operation was the result of cooperation between the RSPB, the MBA and the MC of S, whose Heather Morning did a power of work on the ground and on the bureaucracy.)
It’s maybe worth mentioning the journey home ‘enjoyed’ by John Fae Kent.
Unknown to me, even as I was writing my last blog post, about the ‘great escape’, John was still battling to get home. He’d left the Fords of Avon on his own, some time after the rest of us. Turned back by the torrent at the Glas Allt Mor, he first decided to go to the Hutchison Hut in Coire Etchachan. However when he got there he found his sleeping bag, like all his clothes and everything else in his rucksack, was sodden. He then went back to the Glas Allt Mor and, perhaps influenced that his bike had been left not far on the other side, decided to climb up the side of Beinn Chaoruinn to cross the stream and come down the other side. This he did – no mean feat given the weather – and recovered his bike, which he pushed down the track on east bank of the river. Past the metal bridge at Derry Dam, keeping to the east track, he came across a stream which just about swept his bike away and then another which was impassable. He abandoned his bike and returned to the metal bridge, coming down the west path and encountering thigh deep water as he approached the Mountain Rescue hut. It was midnight before he got back to his car and, even then, in the pitch dark he had to change his torch batteries before he could find it in the car park and finally reach home at 2 a.m.
It’s not bad going for someone who, if the Fords of Avon had been on a bus route, would have been entitled to make the journey for free, but John later dismissed talk of an epic, saying: “to me it’s just one things I have to be prepared to do if I go to the hills alone.” Very true, John, but an attitude that, were it more common, would perhaps see the MR Teams spending a lot more time with their feet up in front of the fire.
Having said all this, the important thing about the whole weekend is not the ending, but what was achieved in a remote location by volunteers working together.
Since it was built circa 1970, the Fords of Avon Refuge has become a well-known landmark in the Lairig an Laoigh, one of the three main passes through the Cairngorms.
It is on record as having saved lives on a number of occasions, being the only shelter for many miles in an area where people seem to excel at getting lost and where there is no natural shelter.
The new hut is still a Spartan affair – one of the conditions of the rebuild – but is more weather-tight and warmer.
So well done to everyone involved.