Author Interview: Helen and Paul Webster, Day Walks in the Cairngorms
- Wednesday 5 February 2020
Day Walks in the Cairngorms by Helen and Paul Webster, founders of the Walkhighlands website, is a new walking guide containing twenty circular routes through the spectacular scenery of the Cairngorms National Park. Featuring outstanding photography and Ordnance Survey mapping, the book contains easy to follow directions for each recommended walk.
In this interview, Helen and Paul consider why the Cairngorms is a great place to live, why it is such a popular tourist destination and which is their favourite walk in the area. The interview also covers concerns about the impact of climate change on the future of the National Park.
After a 4,000-mile continuous backpacking trip across Europe, what was it about the Cairngorms that made you decide to settle there?
We actually moved to the Isle of Skye after leaving our office jobs. But after a few years, we were writing about walks all across Scotland, and we needed a new base that was more in the centre of the country so we could easily travel to all parts. The Cairngorms have proven ideal – they've always been one of our favourite areas. Though the winters here are the coldest in the UK, we get far more sunshine and it's much drier than in the West Highlands. Winter on Skye often meant struggling to open our front door with the strength of the wind and rain, and nothing beats the magic of a bluebird sky’s day over pristine snow.
The Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) are looking to cut their carbon emissions to help contribute to reaching the Scottish Government’s target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, how do you think visitors and tourists can help keep their carbon footprint down?
If you are coming on a walking holiday here, travelling overland within the UK rather than taking a flight somewhere more distant, you've already taken a great decision in terms of reducing your CO2 emissions. The Cairngorms have great public transport links from outside – with a main rail line and good coach connections – but transport within the area without a car is still a struggle for someone doing a series of different day walks; we've still got a way to go to make this easier. One great way to reduce emissions from tourism is if people stay longer in one area like the Cairngorms and really explore it properly, resisting the temptation to race around to different parts of Scotland and spread your time too thinly. Slow tourism is the way to go, and gives a richer experience than just racing around a bucket list of popular hotspots.
How do you think climate change will affect tourism in the Cairngorms?
This is the coldest and snowiest place in Britain. Whilst that will continue to be the case, the trend is definitely that winters here are getting less cold and the snow less reliable. It's hard to see a future for downhill skiing in Scotland in the longer term, but the high plateau offers great ski-mountaineering and snow-shoeing, and I think these activities will grow as, not being reliant on lifts and runs, you can go to where the snow is.
Beyond the impact on winter tourism, a much-needed reduction in people taking flights is likely to see the tourism market change, with fewer visitors flying here from overseas, but hopefully an increase in domestic tourism to make up for it.
What’s your favourite walk in the Cairngorms?
I really love to walk in the ancient Caledonian pinewoods – any of them! But if I had to pick a single day walk to introduce people to the area, it would probably be the ascent of Sgor Gaoith. It's got a bit of everything that makes the Cairngorms so special: an approach climbing up through beautiful old pines, a spacious plateau, and it culminates in an incredibly dramatic summit at the last moment, perched atop the huge broken crags that plunge down to Loch Einich.
What do you think it is that makes the Cairngorms so attractive to walkers and keeps them coming back for more?
A big part of the appeal of going walking for me is to experience something of nature, and to reach remote and challenging places you otherwise can't get to. The Cairngorms contain a huge area far from roads and habitation – a place where humans feel small and insignificant amidst a landscape on a vast scale. But they also have landscapes that are as close as Britain has to being places in their natural ecological state – the heart of the ancient Caledonian pinewoods, or the exposed, arctic plateau. Thus they satisfy both of the common meanings of the word 'wild'.
What do you think of the debate about rewilding in Scotland and how do you think it would affect walkers?
Much of Highland Scotland is badly overgrazed, with red deer being maintained at artificially high densities, whilst other areas are intensively managed for grouse shooting. Rewilding will mean reducing these grazing pressures so that the fragments of native woodlands which we do have – which make parts of the Cairngorms so magical – expand in size. It would also mean recovery of the natural montane scrub at higher altitudes, something we really lack in Britain at the moment. There is a hugely ambitious project called Cairngorms Connect, through which several adjoining estates, owned privately, publicly and by nature conservation agencies, are working together on a common vision to enhance natural habitats in the area of the Cairngorms they own. This can only be a great thing for walkers, enhancing and enriching the very qualities that inspire us to get outdoors.