Tower Bridge, London

It has been 125 years since the famous Tower Bridge opened for traffic. This remarkable structure over the river Thames was officially inaugurated on 30 June 1894 by HRH Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VII.


Barge Lady Daphne built in Rochester in 1923 passes through the bridge downriver

Barge Lady Daphne built in Rochester in 1923 passes through the bridge downriver

In second half of the 19th century the congestion of the growing metropolis was very much apparent (the problem that prevails to this day). It was increasingly difficult and time-consuming for merchants conducting their business to travel on roads from one river bank to the other, especially in the area around Tower of London or Butler’s Wharf where the warehouses were located. The Special Bridge or Subway Committee was created in 1876 to find solutions to problem and subsequently initiated public competition to design new river crossing. Over 50 designs plans were submitted for consideration. However, none was chosen at the time as different options (like for example digging tunnel) were being explored. Disagreements regarding design continued to boil until 1884 when design by architect Horace Jones and John Wolfe Barry was chosen as a winning one by the Committee whose chairman was also architect Jones himself. A year later the Royal Assent was granted to build the bridge.

After architect’s death in 1887, engineer John Wolfe Barry was put in charge of construction and reworked the design for it to work as bascule bridge. He also chose Jones’s assistant, George Stevenson to help him develop cladding which was put around structural steel framework inside the two towers that are connected by walkways. These walkways were added for pedestrians who did not want to wait around when the bridge was raised. In 1910 these walkways closed for lack of use as pedestrians preferred waiting by the bridge rather than carrying their loads up and down using stairs inside these towers.

After expensive restoration project in 1982 these walkways are once again accessible to paying members of public as part of the Tower Bridge Experience. At times it’s been also possible to glimpse raising of the bascules through the glass floors (as I have when I visited the walkways) which were recently added on the east and west walkways.

The bridge was originally painted in brown colour but then in 1977 in order to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee it was painted in red, white and blue. And again, after the restoration (in 1982) it was repainted in blue and white and these colours grace the bridge since. Approximately about 40,000 people are crossing the bridge in vehicles and on foot every day but even now the ships still have the right of way if their captains give at least 24 hours notice.

When I was celebrating New Year’s Eve on the South Bank near Tower Bridge in 1999, myself, my friend Vladimir and the huge crowds were witnessing extensive firework display above the bridge for the last time. Since the new millennium, the celebration has moved up the river (to another steel structure of London Eye). But the design and engineering of this iconic bridge still continues to fascinate new generations.

Earlier design of Tower Bridge

Earlier design of Tower Bridge

Tide: The story behind the photograph

Moonlight at St John‘s Point, Caithness, Scotland

St John‘s Point is a headland located on the north coast of mainland Scotland. Visible from this point is treacherous Merry Men of Mey – a tidal race which is formed by the rocks that extend across the Pentland Firth, channel separating the Scottish mainland and Orkney Islands. One of the fastest tidal currents in the world is the strongest on the ebb tide when the current flows east to west. Its speed can reach up to 11 knots (about 20km per hour). The tide is caused by combined effects of gravitational forces of the Moon and the Sun and the rotation of the Earth.




Tide is a phenomenon to watch out for anywhere in the world. Here, in Pentland Firth – the strait that separates mainland Scotland from Orkney Islands – tide is especially strong. In these perilous waters there are number of tidal races that make navigation difficult, even in calm conditions.

I chose to photograph at St John‘s Point for number of reasons. Topographically this place looks interesting even on a map. The promontory with certain imagination resembles an open hand with its rocky „fingers“ dousing the sea. The cliffs not as steep as in neighbouring Dunnet Head are also more accessible. Another reason for visit has been continuation of my photographic practice that deals with landscape and its use as well as man‘s impact upon it.

Several years ago I travelled to St David‘s Head in Wales to photograph location between Welsh mainland and Ramsey Island. This place (Ramsey sound) was chosen for an engineering research and development experiment when an underwater turbine was submerged in the sea in order to generate renewable energy in this channel known for its strong tidal currents. (The generating energy part of this project however, lasted only three months as the active sonar to monitor impact upon marine mammals developed fault and the turbine could not operate within its licence without this equipment being active; then the company behind this project went into administration)

Here, in the north of Scotland, between the Scottish mainland and the Island of Stroma is however an active tidal stream project. It is called MeyGen, also known as Project Stroma and it is being built by SIMEC Atlantis Energy. Topography of this location (similar to St David‘s Head), with its natural channel, was a significant factor for the placement of turbines due to high flows, medium water depth and proximity to mainland where the onshore power conversion unit building is located. The first phase of this project has been implemented and that meant the deployment of four 1.5 MW turbines. They will act as a precursor for later development of the whole tidal array in the subsea area. There are several phases for the whole project still to be completed.

Due to strength of tides and currents around Orkney Islands it is therefore not surprising that the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) based itself on these islands. They provide accredited open-sea testing facility to developers of both wave and tidal energy technologies. „We have been in a position recently where tidal turbines that have been on site, have been producing 7% of Orkney electricity, week in week out.....that is unique at the moment; what we have got to do is to make it a standard“, said Neil Kermode, managing director of EMEC in BBC ALBA documentary An Làn/Tide (A‘beartachadh an Lain/Harnessing the tide episode).

Getting to St John‘s Point wasn‘t difficult. Just a bit of walking, mainly downhill. There was a path among common gorse, a coconut-smelling thorny shrub with its yellow flowers that local people call whin bush. The sign at the end of this large overgrown area read: „This is a common land. There are sheep here on pasture. Please keep your dog on leash.“ The sheep were all around and in this time of the year grazing with its lambs. The path led me across a turfed outcrop which I later found out was a place where St John‘s chapel had stood long time ago. In 1919 John Nicolson discovered a stone slab during excavation within remains of a building. This slab, with finely incised outline of a cross, has been dated to 7th or 8th century.


St John’s Point - view towards Orkney Islands

St John’s Point - view towards Orkney Islands

St John’s Point - view towards Island of Stroma

St John’s Point - view towards Island of Stroma

What a view! I pitch my tent on the tip of the promontory. What a view! On the eastern side is uninhabited island of Stroma. On the northern side is Orcadian island of Hoy. And on the western side is elongated headland of Dunnet Head – the northernmost point of mainland Scotland. Everywhere else is the sea and the sky. The sun is shining and south-easterly wind blows steadily. Kittiwakes are flying in the air and the top of the sea stack called Man of Mey is a nest for oystercatcher. I patiently scan the sea to glimpse any signs of humpback whales, minke whales or orcas who come to Pentland Firth in late May on an annual passage through it. It is in vain though as I am too early for this extraordinary wildlife procession. I gaze long at the sea anyway. The Pentland Firth is a busy shipping channel. Tide is coming in and then going out leaving rocks of Men of Mey partially bare.

Before the evening comes, in full sunshine, I dip in the very cold sea breaking on the disintegrating jetty in one of the geos (small fjord or gully). This jetty was used in the recent past by local fishermen to land herrings, abundant fish stock in the late 19th and early 20th century.

When the sun comes down on the north-west horizon it becomes considerably colder. Different flock of small birds flutter together in the air. With darkness descending, one by one, the lighthouses in the whole area come alive. Their flashing light in frequent intervals serves for navigational aid to warn the boats and ships of dangerous areas. The Dunnet Head lighthouse (built 1831) on the mainland was designed by Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) whose descendants later designed most of Scotland‘s lighthouses. The one opposite me in the distance on Island of Hoy peninsula named South Walls is Cantick Head lighthouse (Thomas & David Stevenson, 1858) and there is another one on the northern tip of Island of Stroma simply called Stroma lighthouse (David A & Charles Stevenson, 1896) which is positioned very close to Swilkie Point – the most dangerous whirlpool in the Pentland Firth where four or sometimes five contrary tides meet. Although Robert Louis Stevenson did not become lighthouse engineer he was very much involved with the sea. He became novelist, poet and travel writer; author of notable works such as Treasure Island (1883) or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). He must have visited this place at St John‘s Point as he also wrote a short story called The Merry Men inspired by the infamous rocks and the tidal race (the collection of short stories The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables, 1887).

Even though there are still buildings visible on the Stroma island, no one lives there anymore. In 1901 it still had population of 375 people. This tiny island was inhabited until 1962 when most people left. The last family, the lighthouse keepers however, abandoned it in 1997 as the Stroma lighthouse was converted to automatic operation, similarly like other lighthouses at the time.


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The night is quiet. The tide had ebbed away and I shelter on the cliffs below my tent, making long exposure. Night is gently illuminated by the Moon. Being in the north in late spring means that the nights are short. It is only 2am but the clouds already display dawn colours of slowly rising sun. It has been a magical night and the light in north-east signifies it would also be a wonderful day ahead.


St David’s head (Wales) - view towards Ramsey Island

St David’s head (Wales) - view towards Ramsey Island

Landscape of Prehistoric Sites

It was still dark night when I was approaching on foot to one of the most famous prehistoric monument in the world. Traffic consisting mainly of lorries on the road A303 which passes in close proximity to the site was already relentless. Ahead I could make up silhouette of stone circle and behind it a new day was gradually coming up in the eastern sky. When I reached the fenced monument I contemplated on morning mist hovering in the fields below. The mist was resembling translucent blanket slowly changing form and position to a point of disappearing completely and revealing scenery in greater detail.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire

I was not alone here. In my view lonely and freezing security guard was moving in circles around the monument. At least in my mind, walking in his boots in these times of day, I could imagine that the surrounding landscape must present him with different moods and lighting conditions every single day. When first rays of rising sun touched Stonehenge, a large group of people suddenly appeared and quickly dispersed on the site. They came to enjoy rare one hour experience of being here; an experience enabled by English Heritage (the charitable organization responsible for looking after this monument and other sites in England). A special ticket which they had to purchase, double the normal price set to view the monument, entitled them to wander around and within the stone circle that is usually out of bounds to ordinary visitors who are only permitted to a designated pathway well off the stone structure.

Time was up for these visitants. Bathing in sunshine the group went back to the minibuses they boarded at nearby Visitor centre that largely facilitates access to Stonehenge. But there is so much more to explore around here as this landscape is saturated by various other sites concealed within it and connected to different eras of human habitation in this area. Stonehenge is however, at the very top of hierarchy among British prehistoric sites mainly for its would-be completeness, monumentality and variety of unearthed stories attached to this site which began as an earthwork enclosure on Salisbury plain about 3000 BCE.

There are many more prehistoric sites spread around the whole British Isles. In fact the countryside is dotted by standing stones, tombs, stone circles, dolmens, barrows, mounds or forts. These are highly interesting to archaeologists or historians whose perspectives and interpretations get updated with each and every discovery including scientific and technological advances and their subsequent application for new research that as a result enable us to better understand our history and to an extent our future as well. Many people however, visit these sites for various other purposes including reenacting ancient rites, noting of solstices and equinoxes, keeping up with their roots and identities or simple curiosity.

I myself slept within a stone circle near megalithic tomb in Ireland and in the second half of night got soaked up by rain for daring so. In Pembrokeshire in Wales, I walked in the Preseli hills, an area designated by geologist Herbert Henry Thomas in 1923 as a source of bluestones (dolerite) which are placed in the inner circle of Stonehenge. And I am certainly not alone in seeking unique experiences in prehistoric landscapes. Recently in Avebury, its rather large stone circle drawn in many people during first spring day full of sunshine. However, all of our wanderings and appreciations of spirit of the place are possible only for generations of custodians taking care of these landscapes and monuments throughout the ages - be it farmers, clergy and other enlightened people or institutions of present-day.

Traveling to different sites on British isles has enabled me to view in context significant era of human development and acknowledge extraordinary effort of our predecessors who, perhaps unintentionally, left behind a legacy in stonework which as raw rock was created by geological processes even deeper in time.

Preseli hills, Pembrokeshire

Preseli hills, Pembrokeshire

Stonehenge visitor centre, Wiltshire

Stonehenge visitor centre, Wiltshire

Pentre Ifan, Pembrokeshire

Pentre Ifan, Pembrokeshire

Avebury stone circle (fragment), Wiltshire

Avebury stone circle (fragment), Wiltshire

Avebury stone circle (fragments), Wiltshire

Avebury stone circle (fragments), Wiltshire

The Longstones, Beckhampton Avenue near Avebury, Wiltshire

The Longstones, Beckhampton Avenue near Avebury, Wiltshire

West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire

West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire

Zennor Quoit, Cornwall

Zennor Quoit, Cornwall

Chun Quoit, Cornwall

Chun Quoit, Cornwall

Castlerigg stone circle, Lake District

Castlerigg stone circle, Lake District

Stonehenge, Wiltshire

Royal Botanic gardens, Kew - Temperate House, London

Last year in May, the largest Victorian glasshouse in the world opened its doors to public once again. Grade I. listed Temperate house in London‘s Kew Gardens undertook long renovation work by architects Donald Insall Associates. The result is a huge success not only in showcasing the engineering prowess of the past and present but essentially in re-opening this space for conserving the collection of rare temperate plants – the main objective of this project.

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Kew Gardens was established by princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha who commissioned head gardener John Dillman to enlarge botanical garden planned by her deceased husband Frederick, Prince of Wales. The gardens opened in 1759 and one of the oldest plant here is tall tree ginkgo biloba planted in 1762, the year in which the first sandwich was served in London.

Temperate house was designed by Decimus Burton (1800 – 1881) in 1859. This glasshouse was then opened in 1863 but the construction continued for the next 36 years. After the turn of millennium the glasshouse was so run down that it was no longer safe for public to enjoy the beauty of diverse plants and flowers inside. With help of funding from National Lottery, private and commercial donors it was possible to start restoration project that took five years to accomplish with the total amount spent close to £42 million. Most of the plants were removed during painstaking restoration however, nine trees remained in situ as they were too horticulturally significant to risk moving them elsewhere.

The embellishments decorating the glasshouse such as statues and urns were recast to the original Burton‘s design. Burton‘s sense for architectural detail is highlighted in terracotta urns placed in each corner of the central building. These urns are in fact concealed chimneys. Their function was releasing the steam from the old heating system.

This spectacular building comprising five pavilions (with its 4880 meters square) houses about 10 000 plants in diverse habitats like for example China, Himalaya‘s, Africa, Australia or Americas. One of the most interesting plants here is Encephalartos woodii, named after John Medley Wood, curator of Durban Botanic Garden who discovered it in 1895. This palm tree like cycad, brought to Kew in 1899, has also been called the loneliest plant in the world because there are only male specimens left – the female Encephalartos woodii has never been discovered.

It will also be interesting to observe the new growth of plants in Temperate house. There are currently unobstructed views from the upper walkway and it will take some time before most plants reach maturity and therefore it is possible to appreciate the expansive view of space inside of this architectural gem.


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Short stories in architecture

Villa Tugendhat (1930)

During my recent stay in the Czech republic I visited two very interesting buildings – Villa Tugendhat in Brno by Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and the new Saint Wenceslas church in small village of Sazovice by Atelier Štěpán. The common denominators of these two buildings is simplicity and organisation of space.

Villa Tugendhat was built in 1930 for the industrialist family of the same name. An interesting fact reveals that the design was accomplished with no budget constraints but from the street level this functionalist villa appears to be low, discreet and modest. However, the built area consists of 900 m2 with sloping and expansive garden. This was the first time in architectural history that the steel structure in the form of subtle columns was used in a private house. The building with its architectural details was somewhat related to another Mies van der Rohe’s design, the Barcelona pavilion.

Sadly, the owners did not enjoy living in their home for long as they had to flee the country due to World War II approaching.

In the meantime, it became the headquarters of Nazi Germany secret police, Gestapo. At the end of the war it housed and was devastated by the Soviet cavalry. It briefly functioned as a private dance school or a place for physiotherapy. In 1992 the villa housed historical negotiations about political separation of Czechoslovakia. Since 1994 it is open to public and the villa also became UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001.


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Villa Tugendhat, Brno, Czech Republic

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Saint Wenceslas church (2017)

The first reference about an intention to build a church in the small village of Sazovice, South Eastern Moravia comes from 1935 assembly of Union of Saint Wenceslas. Two years later after financial contributions from members of this Union a plot of land was bought in auction for a future chapel. However, the World War II put things on hold when German soldiers confiscated remaining finances.

After the end of war a new bell tower was executed in the village. Nonetheless, people still put together another pot of money for chapel but before they could start building, Communists who took power in coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 expropriated the plot of land and the money left for building new chapel. During the Communism era it was very difficult to have any church approved and built as the only ideology officially permitted by the state was communist doctrine.

After so called “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 there were other priorities in the village to attend to but constant belief of locals in a new church has gradually transformed the idea into tangible design.

Architect Marek Jan Štěpán drew the round shape based on scale and horizontal projection of square-shaped Saint Wenceslas chapel in Prague. Round form also relates to Saint Wenceslas age (10th century) when rotundas were being built in Bohemia. Architect wanted the cylindrical volume to look light as if made from paper. The sections of façade fold inward and outward thus enabling the light coming inside.

This building is also more than a church. In the basement is small cultural centre, a space devoted to lectures, discussions or exhibitions.

This interesting building and its design has also won many architectural prizes and was listed by Azure magazine in 10 Best Buildings in 2017.

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Saint Wenceslas church, Sazovice, Czech Republic

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Malhamdale, Yorkshire, England

Watlowes valley, Yorkshire, England   Watlowes dry valley was formed by meltwater running underneath a glacier for a considerable period of time during last Ice age. The dry stone wall which extends in the valley is thought to be the oldest standing wall in the area of Malhamdale. It dates to medieval times when the wall functioned as an ancient boundary between eastern lands of Bolton Priory and western lands of Fountain Abbey.

Watlowes valley, Yorkshire, England

Watlowes dry valley was formed by meltwater running underneath a glacier for a considerable period of time during last Ice age. The dry stone wall which extends in the valley is thought to be the oldest standing wall in the area of Malhamdale. It dates to medieval times when the wall functioned as an ancient boundary between eastern lands of Bolton Priory and western lands of Fountain Abbey.


It was in Carboniferous period, about 300 million years ago, that this area of Yorkshire Dales was a shallow tropical sea. Over a time of about 50 million years a series of limestone beds accumulated at the bottom of this sea. The bedrock got composed from shells of marine organisms and chemical precipitates. Once at the bottom of the sea this limestone formation, now eroded due to slightly acidic rainfall, is to be found at the top, capping the landscape around Malham.

Malham village was founded sometimes in the 8th century. People here grew barley and oats until recently but today the land is dotted by sheep and cattle roaming among the extensive length of dry stone walls. According to survey done in the end of 20th century it is estimated that there are over 5000 miles (8 000 km) of dry stone walls in Yorkshire Dales alone. These walls are dominant feature here and the first field systems may have been built during the Iron Age (about 500 BCE) with the purpose to make livestock safer against wolf’s attacks. Most of the walls around Malhamdale however, were built or rebuilt in the Enclosure period (1780-1840) when government act gradually helped to turn communally owned land into private property. Individual landowners abandoned farming in favour of raising sheep and cattle.

Dry stone walling is done without use of mortar and as such is a disappearing skill on British Isles. Today, this unique trade supports only about 40 qualified dry stone wallers in the whole of United Kingdom.


Malham cove (Winter 2017)

Malham cove (Winter 2017)

Malham cove by moonlight (Autumn 2018)

Malham cove by moonlight (Autumn 2018)

Malham dry stone walls

Malham dry stone walls

Malhamdale limestone pavement

Malhamdale limestone pavement

Malham Tarn

Malham Tarn

Town Head farm, Malham

Town Head farm, Malham

Cheddar Gorge, England

Cheddar gorge in Mendip Hills is the largest gorge in England. This gorge was formed in limestone during last Ice age by meltwater rushing down from glaciers over period of 1.2 millions of years. The river (today called Cheddar Yeo river) gradually made its way underground thus creating a complex underground system of caves. There are now many smaller caves in the area around Cheddar as well as two bigger ones that are open to public. Cox’s cave was discovered by George Cox in 1837 and Gough’s cave by Richard Gough in 1898. The underground was extensively examined by cavers as well as archaeologists and many bones and various artifacts were found. The most distinguished archaeological find (1903) was an almost complete skeleton of so called Cheddar man which is currently on loan in Natural History Museum in London. Radiocarbon dating suggests this specimen lived here around 10 000 years ago. New research into his ancient (degraded) DNA was recently carried out at the NHM and the study proposes that there is high probability this mesolithic hunter-gatherer still had dark skin.

Due to its natural beauty and steep rocks Cheddar gorge is a great place for climbers. It is also generally touristic place that is visited by nearly half a million people every year. The road B3135 winds through the gorge and is an ultimate test for drivers, bikers and cyclists alike. Not all people come to see protected landscape as their priority because this area is also very famous for its cheddar cheese that is still being produced in the village.

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Cheddar gorge

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Cheddar gorge (Heart Leaf Bluff) by moonlight

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St. Paul's chamber at Gough's cave

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Road B3135 (Horseshoe bend)

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Road B3135 through the gorge

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Gough's cave

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Skeleton of Cheddar man at Natural History Museum, London

Walks in English countryside

Some time ago I was given old Czechoslovak camera called Flexaret IV. Apparently it wasn’t in use for long time, hidden in loft of a household gathering the dust. It is a medium format camera very popular during 50’s and 60’s. In those times it was preferable choice for amateur photographers beyond eastern Europe and indeed very popular with Czechoslovak families. This camera utilizes square format (approximately 6X6 cm) and uses 120 film which was initially introduced by Kodak for their Brownie No.2 camera in 1901.

It looked in good repair and after I cleaned it I realized that this camera was in really good condition. I ran through it Ilford film in order to find out whether it was worth keeping for the actual use or to be kept as a decoration or perhaps even a collectable item. The resulting images pleasantly surprised me. I started to take the ‘box’ with me on walks with my friends in English countryside as I wanted to have images with different feel as pictures taken by today's camera phones are just too ubiquitous. Another, more tangible reason for its use on my walks is that I do not want to carry the weight of my main camera kit on my back.

It is all manual camera made in 1957 and its design, function and durability makes it still possible to take photographs after 60 years since it was made by Meopta company in Přerov.

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Archeopark Pavlov, Czech Republic

The landscape of Pálava hills is rich in archaeological finds dating to 30 000 BCE. During extensive excavations in region of South Moravia archaeologists unearthed number of Paleolithic settlements as well as great amount of stone and bone tools, artworks, skeletal remains of old stone age humans and animals including mammoths.

Initial idea for a museum was conceived in 2003 and it took further 13 years to design and build this subterranean exhibition space. The concept of underground structure was considered due to number of reasons. The Institute of Archaeology CAS (museum’s commissioning body) wanted to display certain finds in their original context post-excavation. And another reason was that the location chosen for the museum was within protected landscape area.

The museum was designed by architectural studio Radko Kvet and the exhibition combines traditional display with the latest AV technology. The exhibits on show include copy of the most famous find called Venus of Dolní Věstonice (the priceless original is housed in Moravské zemské muzeum in Brno). This small ceramic statuette of a woman was found in nearby village of Dolní Věstonice and has recently been dated to circa 29 000 years BCE. Unlike similar figurines made from mammoth’s ivory found in France, Italy or Russia this one is made from fired clay and therefore significant in broad cultural and technological sense.

The museum building has won number of architectural prizes and its design connects this landscape to our prehistoric ancestors deeper in time.

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Christmas in Cairngorms (The story behind the photograph)

Loch Etchachan, Cairngorms, Scotland

Loch Etchachan in Cairngorms is situated within the central plateau deep in Grampian mountains. Being 927 meters above sea level, it is the highest body of water of its size in Britain. The loch is totally ice free only for short periods of time during a year. It is classified as oligotrophic (meaning nutrient-poor) and is devoid of fish. This remote place best represent Arctic-alpine character of these mountains, unique in British Isles.

 

Cairngorms (Am Monadh Ruadh) are a mountain range that is part of Grampian mountains in the Scottish Highlands. The Cairngorm plateau is the largest area of high ground in Great Britain and as such is prone to heavy snowfall not only in winter.

In May 2015 I spent 10 days roaming alone in Cairngorms walking through Lairig Ghru, Glen Derry, Strath Nethy and Glenmore. In the beginning of this trip I had a goal in mind – climbing the summit of Ben Macdui (1309 m), the second highest peak in Britain which was on my route. However, it turned out differently than planned due to particularly bad weather. The freezing conditions, constant rain or snow and especially persistent high winds made me abandon this idea for safety reasons. I remember at the time how much I appreciated staying night in a bothy (Hutchinson Memorial Hut) in Coire Etchachan as a gale raged outside.

Since that time I wanted to come back to these remote, inhospitable but uniquely beautiful mountains again. This came finally to fruition during Christmas trip to Scotland when I joined friends and experienced mountaineers Fedor & Andrea who climb in Himalayas and other mountain ranges in Alpine style.

Initially we did not set off for Cairngorms but rather for Isle of Skye on the west coast. However, during the journey to Scotland more favorable weather forecast was pointing towards Cairngorms. The providence at play, perhaps. We timed ascent of Ben Macdui just after Christmas  (2017) because the detailed mountain weather forecast indicated clear views from the summits. Needless to say the weather didn’t turn out according to forecast models shown on dedicated information services.

We left from Linn of Dee via Derry Lodge. The board at the lodge displayed information that the small bridge over Derry burn down the glen wasn’t quite in order therefore we took the path on the left bank. It was slightly drizzling and the weather did not suggest winter conditions ahead. Most of the snow thawed and there was very little of it lying up on the hills. We reached the bothy Hutchinson Memorial Hut built in 1954 in memory of Arthur Hutchinson (1902-1949), an Aberdeen born geologist. This was supposed to be our base for few days. Here we were greeted by 55 year old bearded man called Hugh. He has been a MBA (Mountain Bothies Association) member for a long time and as he revealed later on he was the first person who slept here after a substantial update in the form of extension in 2014. Hugh was warm and knowledgeable Scot who came here to prepare and test the routes on which he would be guiding group of tourists in March. As a person with considerable experience in these mountains he had had practical enrichments stashed around places for use when he would be in these parts. As darkness fell and the cold became colder we learned what these things were: wood, coal and whisky. All of them fuel and mood enhancers, if used in convenient way.

The fire in stove transformed the atmosphere in bothy. It was Christmas and our evenings were filled by telling stories, eating food and sipping single malt whisky. Good fire in a stove is, according to author of The Scottish Bothy Bible, Geoff Allan, known as “bothy TV”. Starring into the fire can be mesmerizing and could even prove to be fatal. This we learned when carbon monoxide detector mounted on the inside wall went off. Science works. Thank goodness.

In the night the snow fell and put a white blanket over the landscape. During the day the wind was very strong and we made a walk only to Loch Etchachan, the highest body of water of its size in Britain.

                         Photographs by Andrea and Daniel

                         Photographs by Andrea and Daniel

Our food was going down so we decided to go for Ben Macdui the next day, regardless of weather conditions. Hugh was also going with us and we set off from bothy during blizzard. Snow crystals stung our faces all the way up to Loch Etchachan. After changing direction the wind was blowing from the side. Hugh was leading our party most of the way up but Fedor was also checking the route using his skills and devices. The snow cover was thin with grasses and stones peaking out however, the drifts piled up at places. The visibility was very poor and we benefited from Hugh’s knowledge of the path in dreary terrain. The cairn we reached signified the Ben Macdui plateau. We were not far off the summit but stopped here unlike the wind that continued blowing relentlessly. Fedor made visible arrow in the snow in order not to get confused what direction we came from. This wasn’t summit proper and Hugh decided to walk another 150 meters to get there. We stayed put, looking at his large body disappearing into whiteness of the snow storm. The way down was actually much harder, at least for me. Going against the wind and face the stinging snow crystals was painful. Our previous footprints all but disappeared with the falling snow. This was a harsh environment. My cheek started to freeze and my fingers too. The wind chill factor made temperature even lower. The maximum wind speed recorded by automatic weather station built by Physics department of Herriot-Watt University on the summit of Cairn Gorm (1245 m) is stated in the book by Patrick Baker - The Cairngorms: a secret history to have been 176 miles per hour (283 km per hour). Comparing our struggle to such mayhem would be unimaginable. Still, it was difficult to breathe, hard to keep my eyes open. Hugh then caught up with us and we got safely back to bothy.

Although we did not get up to summit proper it was great journey to experience winter in Cairngorms and that in spite of cold conditions, strong winds and noisy rattling tents at nights. And as the old saying goes, the journey itself is more important than the destination. It certainly proved to be the case.

 

                         Photographs by Hugh, Fedor and Andrea

                         Photographs by Hugh, Fedor and Andrea