Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Fort William Here We Come!

Day 7 – Saturday 16 June 2009 – Kinlochleven to Fort William – 15 miles

After breakfast we went to put our bags in the shed for collection by the luggage carriers, and I spoke to a lady who was setting off to do the Aonach Eagach on her own. I thought this was quite brave – I haven’t done it myself but it’s the most famous ridge in the UK, making Striding Edge look like a picnic. You need quite a head for heights, and on a windy day like today it could be a bit of a challenge.

With thoughts of lunch we called at the Co-op and got some sandwiches and a couple of pork pies (which I just love when I’m walking). Gerry bought today’s paper and promptly threw most of it away as he didn’t want all the supplements. From Kinlochleven the Way gains height quickly along a pleasant footpath through woodland, until reaching the Land-Rover track west of Mamore Lodge (where the Canadian contingent stayed last night) which is in effect yet another military road which then goes on for miles through impressive scenery, in the shadow of the Mamores with Stob Ban looking majestic.

It rained on and off early on, but for most of the long military road section it was OK. We were passed by a Scottish couple who stayed at our B&B last night. He enjoys himself by running the WHW so he was having a pretty relaxing time, even though they were only taking five days. A few ruined buildings were passed at Tigh-na-Sleubhaich, then the track swung right at the Lairig Mor (Big Pass).

We had lunch by a little stream (the pork pie was good) then carried on into cleared forest, still with lots of people about, then on to more open moorland after coming close to the road up to Lunn Da Bhra. As Ben Nevis appeared in front we entered mature forest and the rain returned. The ground was like a soft carpet of pine needles as we plodded on, eventually reaching a wide new forest road and putting on full waterproofs – which was the cue for the rain to stop!

We followed the forest track down towards the Glen Nevis Visitor Centre: through binoculars hordes of people could be seen descending the tourist path off Ben Nevis – it can’t have been much fun for them as the summit had been in cloud all day. It began to rain again as we reached the road: Linda and Val were getting fed up by now so weren’t pleased to learn that we still had a couple of miles to go. Mind you, it’s such a tedious final stretch along this busy road that it would be better if they made the Visitor Centre the official end.

Finally, in the usual anti-climactic way, we were at the finish board in Fort William, where we took photos of other relieved walkers in return for a quid pro quo. Finding a handy bar in the main street of Fort William, we stopped for a celebratory pint before continuing to the Old Observatory B&B, which was on the far side of town and would have been the best yet – except that our shower would only run cold. What followed was hectic activity by the owner and his father, as they found a spare thermostat which was ‘in stock’ – water on, water off, check, not working, water on, water off … but eventually we had a great shower and all was forgiven.

We went out for an evening meal at an Italian restaurant which was great. Linda had us in stitches with a true story about a wine tasting evening where she ended up drinking the raffle prizes! Easily done, I suppose!

And so ended the West Highland Way, easily the most social of any of the long distance walks which we’ve done. Iit’s not too hard and treats you to some fabulous scenery. We got the timing right – May gave us good weather before the midges arrived. But make sure you book early – some people either found accommodation difficult to get or had to travel some distance to and from start/finish points. A great walk, one which we would recommend to anybody.

And if you’ve enjoyed reading this blog, please leave a comment so I can see if anyone is reading it. If I discover that there actually are readers out there, I might do a blog of last year’s Pennine Way

Photos: 1. The old hydro-electric generator building in Kinlochleven, now a multi-purpose centre; 2. Tigh-na-Sleubaich; 3. Stob Ban; 4. Lochan Lunn Da Bhra; 5. Ben Nevis (it's there somewhere); 6. The finish, with Val, me, Linda and Gerry.

Incidentally, I climbed Stob Ban, one of the Munros in the Mamores, several years ago in absolutely foul conditions, with Frank Brown and Mike Watkins (see 214 Wainwrights Blog). After various complaints from me and Frank, Mike uttered those famous words, oft repeated since: "Ah've bin out in worse weather than this. MUCH worse!"

Monday, 8 June 2009

Normal Service is Resumed (Weather-wise)

Day 6 – Friday 15 May 2009 – Kingshouse to Kinlochleven - 9 miles

I could hear the rain on the skylight during the early hours, but I suppose four days of continuous sunshine is more than one can hope for. As we emerged from the hotel the skies were grey and leaden, and the wind was cold, but at least it wasn’t raining. It made a change to wear long trousers. We decided against the big Buachaille as the top was shrouded in cloud and the weather looked like it would get worse rather than better.

So off we set, the four of us now, along the track to Alt na Feagh and then up the dreaded Devil’s Staircase (which is actually a pleasant climb to the highest point on the WHW at 1797’ – still not as high as Pendle Hill). Once again the Way was busy, with hordes of walkers. Just after the summit of the pass, the rain began in more earnest and the wind was cold. Cloud obscured the view towards the Mamores and Ben Nevis.

This was to be our shortest day, thank goodness, and I felt that the best thing would be to get on with it and get to Kinlochleven as soon as possible. It still feels like quite a long track from the Devil’s Staircase, as it passes the massive pipes which brought water to the generators for the Alcan aluminium smelter in Kinlochleven – water still flows through the six pipes from the Blackwater Reservoir but comes out at the bottom without doing any work, the smelter having shut down several years ago.

The big Scot from the three amigos came walking by, so we caught up with each other’s news, but by late lunchtime we had arrived at our destination and had a beer and lunch in the Tail Race pub, along with several other walkers. As a result of the closure of the aluminium smelter, Kinlochleven is a quiet place, but unlike some towns in north-east England which have been badly affected by the closure of industry, Kinlochleven is smart and all the houses well-maintained, with people obviously taking great pride in their homes.

Then on to the B&B which was luxurious. By evening it was cold, raw and windy outside, so we simply found the nearest place to eat before returning for an early night before the last day tomorrow.

Photos: 1. The Kingshouse and Buachaille Etive Mor; 2. Sron na Creise - the bridge is on the main Glencoe Road; 3. At the summit of the Devil's Staircase with Gerry; 4. Rather obvious signs of industry near Kinlochleven.

Over General Wade’s Military Roads

Day 5 – Thursday 14 May 2009 - Tyndrum to Kingshouse - 20 miles

Today we planned to catch up our friends Gerry and Linda Bindless, who had set off a day before us and were to take two days to reach Kings House, the hotel at the head of Glencoe, whilst we were going to do the 20 miles in one go. Except that Val’s feet were still a bit tender so we decided that I would walk the seven miles to Bridge of Orchy on my own, and Val would catch the train from Tyndrum from where we would do the remaining 13 miles together.

After breakfast with a young couple from Cologne (Andreas looks like Matt Damon) I started at 8:15, leaving Val to shop for lunch as the train wasn’t until 10:30. Yet another glorious morning and the scenery was superb, following the military road out of Tyndrum, parallel to the railway for a while, with the massive conical shape of Beinn Dorain rearing up in front. The road was soon left behind and the route was just delghtful, passing Auch Farm and following the valley north. I arrived at Bridge of Orchy in two hours, somewhat early, and ended up having a cup of tea with the guy who runs the bunkhouse which is the old station waiting room (you can find it on www.westhighlandwaysleeper.co.uk) and talking about why he took it over, and also catching up on the three amigos who had stayed there the previous night, blisters and all.

When Val rang in a panic to say that the train hadn’t arrived, my host reassured me that it was just late (because the south bound train had been late) and so I passed this information on to her – I could tell she was baffled by the fact that I was so confident with my info! She arrived a little later, accompanied by two men – one a local, the other a genuine American Indian who had met on a cruise and the American was now back paying a visit. They’re a friendly lot up in Scotland. None of them had seen a conductor or been asked for a ticket so couldn’t pay for the privilege of travelling on this wonderful section of railway!

Past the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, over the hill to the sound of Cuckoos to the Inveroran Hotel where Gerry and Linda stayed last night, and then on to Victoria Bridge (north of Loch Tulla) and the incredible military road over Rannoch Moor – not tarmac, but a genuine Macadam-built road built in the early 19th century (I think) with not a pothole in sight. Apparently this was the only road north to Fort William until 1933, so presumably everyone went by train! The road runs to the north of Loch Tulla but has no views of it, because the line of sight is blocked by Forestry Commission plantations, which is a shame. On the opposite side, however, the views towards the the Stob Ghabhar group and the Black Mount are excellent as the road climbs gently but relentlessy on to Rannoch Moor, and after Loch Tulla is left behind the view south opens up over the vast moor towards Schiehallion.

A couple of years ago I was guest speaker at the annual dinner of the Rannock Sheep Breeders annual dinner. Note the spelling – I thought they must have something do do with Rannoch Moor, but instead ‘rannock’ turns out to be a derisory term for a useless sheep – it’s a group of (mainly) Yorkshire Farmers and they have a reet good neet aht once a year. I’m now an honorary member and it’s an annual event I look forward to.

I digress. We met a German couple, Sabine and Heiko, who had been up to the snow line on Meall a’ Bhuiridh. They had stayed last night at the Inveroran and had met Gerry and Linda. So after passing the White Corries ski resort and Blackrock Cottage (it’s on every Scottish Tourist Board advert) we arrived at the Kingshouse Hotel. I’ve been in the Walkers’ Bar and wasn’t expecting much (unlike the Rowardennan). Instead I was pleasantly surprised – the hotel has bags of character, a great atmosphere and superb views of Sron na Creise and Buachaille Etive Mor.

We met up with Gerry and Linda and had a beer outside with Sabine and Heiko, and talked about the possibility of climbing Buachaille Etive Mor tomorrow, if the weather would hold. The Canadian group reappeared for dinner, but of the three girls, the three amigos or Jeff there was no sign. There was a fairly large group called the Walking Women, but whilst their intra-social skills may have been great, there was little in the way of inter-social, if you see what I mean. Fabulous sunset.

Photos: 1. Beinn Dorain from near Auch; 2. The old station at Bridge of Orchy, now a bunkhouse; 3. Fantastic! On General Wade's military road; 4. Peace and quiet shattered!; 5. Blackrock Cottage and Buachaille Etive Mor; 6. Sron na Creise from Kingshouse.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Glens, Woods and Saints

Day 4 – Wednesday 13 May 2009 - Inverarnan to Tyndrum - 13 miles

Unharmed from our night in a haunted bedroom (yeah, right) we arrived for breakfast, served in a dusty dining room (of course) with original Victorian wallpaper. I reckon that within two days Val and I could completely ruin the character of The Drovers by simply doing a bit of cleaning and decorating. The three girls were in pretty good condition considering the previouis night’s whisky tasting, and stuffed ducks looked on as we ate our scrambled eggs.

Once again the skies were blue as we set off, calling at the Beinghlas camp site shop to get sandwiches for lunch. The walk through Glen Falloch was a delight, with the river an ever present feature below us, the train clattering its way across the green-painted viaduct and the sound of the road just present in the background. At Derrydarroch we crossed the bridge constructed in 1997 by the Royal Engineers – presumably the previous one was washed away - then soon crouched down to get through a sheep-creep under the railway and followed a section of old road past a load of bullocks (?).

After crossing the main A82 a plaque proudly stated that the following 929m section of path (pretty accurate, huh?) had been repaired by some volunteer group with public money. The following section was exceptionally rough, but improved beyond measure after about 929m!! Entering the wood just west of Crianlarich we had just decided to look for somewhere to have lunch when around the corner appeared … a picnic table! Passing walkers exchanged brief tales – one couple trying to do the Way in four days (‘to beat the weather’) and two old fellas walking N – S who had started the previous week by doing the Great Glen Way and had terrible weather.

The following few miles through the woods were on pleasant undulating tracks, and then we crossed the main road and headed towards St Fillan’s Priory, a small ruin and graveyard. The wind was getting strong now as we looked back to the magnificent twin peaks of Ben More and Stob Binnein. Val’s blisters were hurting so at Strathfillan Farm she changed to trainers, which were worse, so after 50 yards she changed back to boots again.

The last section crossed the main road yet again on the road to the Cononish gold mine (it’s still working) and past old lead workings: a monument here in the form of an obelisk, apparently made of stone covered in lead sheets, has had nearly all its lead pinched. After a shandy in Paddy’s Bar at Tyndrum, we called at the Green Welly Stop to get some Compeed for Val’s blisters and then arrived at our B&B for the night, Dalkell Cottage.

The proprietor keeps a clean house with all mod-cons and at least seven letting bedrooms, but she’s a little short on ‘bedside manner’ – ‘Remove your boots’ – ‘Follow me please’ – ‘Don’t dry clothes on radiators’ – ‘Please pay me now’. Fish and chips at the Good Food Bar were surprisingly yummy, followed by a couple of beers with Jim and Moira back at Paddy’s Bar.

Photos: 1. An Caisteal from Glen Falloch; 2. The Derrydarroch Bridge plaque; 3. Healthy livestock; 4. The twin peaks of Ben More & Stob Binnein; 5. Graveyard at St Fillan's Priory; 6. Ben Laoigh, Tyndrum.

Friday, 29 May 2009

To The Drovers!

Day 3 – Tuesday 12 May - Rowardennan to Inverarnan - 14 miles

While the rest of the country was having cold, windy, wet weather, our luck continued with blue skies again. All the usual suspects were there at breakfast – Jeff from Worksop, Jim & Moira, and the three girls. The three amigos were hopefully enjoying a Youth Hostel breakfast, but we wouldn’t see them for a while as today they were doing a long stint to Crianlarich – in order to stay at another Youth Hostel, the prospect of which was no doubt thrilling the two reluctant hostellers!

As we set off a minibus arrived from Drymen with several of yesterday’s walkers, and we joined company with Alan and Liz Dick from Lancaster, staying with them all day with few pauses in the conversation! Soon after the start was the superb Rowardennan War Memorial – a ring of polished grey granite with a pyramid set in the base, overlooking Loch Lomond – quite special. The RAF was due to perform a second fly-past but when it happened we were in a wooded section and could only hear the plane without seeing it. This first section was along easy forest tracks before dropping down nearer the loch shore on narrower paths, and just like yesterday the woods were alive with birdsong.

By lunch we arrived at the Inversnaid Hotel, which most people get to by coach or via a ferry across the Loch. Nice setting next to a waterfall; miserable bar steward from Yorkshire sounded like Jimmy Savile on a really bad day. He told me the beer and sandwiches were going to be expensive before I even ordered, then proceeded to give a dire weather forecast for Thursday, purely on the basis that Thursday was his next day off!

The afternoon section was hard going, scrambling up and down rocks, weaving in and out of tree roots; we encountered some of the feral goats which you are told if you can’t see them you’ll be able to smell them. Must be something wrong with my nose. At Doune Bothy (a bothy is usually a stone building, often an old cottage or shepherds’ shelter, with only the most basic of facilities – a roof, fireplace, raised floor for sleeping, no water or toilets) we encountered a guy who said he’d been walking from Crianlarich when his back went, so he was taking time out. He had a fire going and I was a bit suspicious – even more so when he asked if he had any food. He just didn’t seem genuine, and talking to other people later it appeared that he’d been there for quite a while, on the scrounge the whole time. We didn’t give him anything apart from a cheery ‘Goodbye’.

Finally we arrived at The Drovers, which is on the main Crianlarich road just north of Loch Lomond. It looks a complete wreck, with unpointed walls and paint flaking off the windows. Inside the dust lies in layers inches deep and there are stuffed animals and birds everywhere – including a bear in the hall. We had a beer with Alan & Liz, Jim & Moira and the three girls before going to our room, which was….

Really nice, clean with a spotless en suite shower room and whiter than white bed linen. Oh, and haunted, according to the girl at reception. I bet she tells everybody their room is haunted. We met up for supper again with our daytime walking companions, and I had the Famous Guinness & Ale Pie (every dish is ‘FAMOUS’, and we met the two Canadians – Peter & Kristin Thor, and their English friends (parents of the flying instructor) Steve & Jane Williams. They had met on the Coast to Coast walk a year or two ago and struck up a good friendship. Hands across the water… The girls were beginning to live dangerously, sampling cask-strength whiskies.

Went to bed, waited some time for the ghost to show up, but he (or she) let me down, so I finally gave in to sleep.

Photos: 1. The Rowardennan War Memorial; 2. View of The Cobbler (Ben Arthur) in the Arrochar Alps; 3. The waterfalls at Inversnaid; 4. Loch Lomond; 5. Doune Bothy; 6. The Drovers; 7. A ferocious animal. And a stuffed bear.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

By The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond

Day 2 – Monday 11 May 2009 – Drymen to Rowardennan - 14 miles

We awoke to a fine day with unbroken blue skies, so shorts were today’s fashion statement, and during breakfast chatted to Jeff from Worksop, who was doing the WHW on his own. His wife and in-laws were taking a two-week holiday in Fort William where of course he would join them at the end of the walk. We called at the local Spar for a cheap packed lunch - some sandwiches, a sausage roll and a couple of apples – and then we were off, through clouds of yellow gorse on into wide tracks through the forest of boring Sitka Spruce. The number of walkers was amazing – we counted about twenty at one point, British, American, Canadian and German – and it really felt like we were on a pilgrimage!

The landscape opened up, cuckoos were calling, and we got our first views of Loch Lomond and Conic Hill, which is on the line of the Highland Fault – you can see the line continuing along the string of islands that run across the south end of the Loch (have a look at the big photo at the top of this Blog – this is taken at the top, with the islands in the background). A party of three girls had stopped to attend to a blister which one had picked up on her hand from her walking poles, so (interfering as usual) I showed her how to use the wrist-straps to keep the pressure off her hands.

On the climb up Conic Hill the rock underfoot is remarkable – a conglomerate with big pebbles, looking like rough concree, but formed naturally in what must have been massive floods millions of years ago. An RAF trainer aircraft did a ‘fly-past’ – later we learnt that the instructor was the son of a couple who we met walking: knowing he’d be in the area he had promised to do a little display! The footpath bypasses the top of the hill but it’s worth making the short detour to the summit where the view is fantastic – you can see over Glasgow to Arran, and in the opposite direction the Wallace Memorial.

Val didn’t like the steep descent to Balmaha which was a bit harsh on the knees. We passed the Loch Lomond Visitor Centre and then stopped at the Oak Tree for a beer, where they kindly allowed us to eat our own sandwiches outside in the sunshine.

Balmaha is on the southern tip of Loch Lomond and from here the route follows the eastern shore, winding in and out and up and down: much more difficult than it appears from the map. But the views are great, and the woodland is much more attractive, with oak, birch and rowan, far more natural and pleasant than the regimented Forestry Commission tree farms. The birdlife is more diverse too, with Wood Warblers and Pied Flycatchers as well as the more common Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs and Chaffinches.

After what seemed like an age we arrived at the farmstead of Ross Mill where a depressing sign indicates 7km back to Balmaha and 2km to Rowardennan. Two more kilometres?? I’d rather the sign just said something like “You’re nearly there…” But at last we arrived at the Rowardennan Hotel, which I had expected, from the website, to be really something special. Unfortunately it was a big disappointment: some rooms had been refurbished but not ours, the work was still in progress, there was no-one at reception, the whole place seems rather tired, and then there’s The Clansman Bar, stuck on the side like a Monstrous Carbuncle and completely out of character, with big plasma TV and glitzy bar. Yet this is the only bar and dining room. They need to replace it with something cosy, with a big log fire, oak panelling, stags’ heads on the walls, you know the kind of thing.

The three guys from yesterday were staying at the Youth Hostel and two of them weren’t happy: like many others they came to the Hotel to eat, and it was a fairly sociable evening. We all compared notes and checked on how far we were going the following day, wondering what The Drovers would be like (it has a querky reputation as well as being haunted) and then it was off to bed for a well-earned night’s sleep.

Photos: 1. Gorse near Drymen; 2. Conglomerate rock in the Conic Hill Path (+ my boot for scale); 3. RAF Flypast; 4. Loch Lomond at Balmaha; 5. Ben Lomond and Ptarmigan

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The Walk Begins

Day 1 – Sunday 10 May 2009 - Milngavie to Drymen - 12 miles

Breakfast was a civilised affair: tables were denoted by the guests' national flag, so it was clear that we were accompanied by Germans and Scots – two young German men, names unknown, and Jim & Moira from Elgin who were doing the WHW for the third time. I can recommend the smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. The very efficient Morag, alerted by the fact that our baggage carrier had not dropped off luggage labels the day before, had already rung them to discover that they had got their dates wrong, and sorted it all out for us without asking – excellent service!

Under sunny skies (at last – Morag told us that they had had two weeks of abysmally wet, cold and windy weather) we set off back to the town centre of Milngavie. The Pennine Way, arguably the UK's most famous long distance path, starts in lonely fashion at an anonymous signpost by an unimpressive village farm. The West Highland Way, arguably the UK's most popular LDP, is blessed with a granite monument and other paraphernalia possessing a certain razzamatazz. As we arrived various parties were having their photographs taken, with lots of hugs, kisses and general goodbyes.

The route follows a disused railway line and soon leaves the houses, passing through parkland before entering Mugdock Wood, where the bluebells were putting on a fine display, and then passing Craigallian Loch. As we approached Dumgoyne Hill the sunshine gave way to cloud and then a heavy shower: thinking it wouldn't last we carried on until we realised our mistake and put on waterproofs. Eventually the rain stopped and the sunshine returned: we met three guys – from Glasgow, Leeds and Berkshire - and had a chat with the Leeds man about Byrnes's Wine Merchants in Clitheroe, which he visits often.

Resisting the temptation to visit the Glengoyne Distillery we arrived at the Beech Tree Inn at 12.00 - half an hour before they were allowed to serve alcohol. But they have a sensible policy of allowing walkers to eat their own food, providing they at least buy a drink. Wet clothes were spread on the picnic tables to dry out in the strong sunshine. The route, once again following a disused railway line, pressed on north through pleasant countryside, where Whitethroats were singing in the gorse and cuckoos were adding a touch of Spring to the air.

All the time we were encountering other WHW walkers – some travelling light, others back-packing fully loaded, with everything but the kitchen sink. A longish section on a quiet country road followed, starting with the picturesque Gartness Bridge and cottages, before a short section through fields took us to our overnight halt of Drymen, a small village on the east side of the southern tip of Loch Lomond. We arrived by 3.00 and I was a bit worried that we might not have given ourselves enough daily mileage.

Next to our B&B – Hillview, on the Square – is reputedly the oldest registered pub in Scotland, The Clachan (1734), so we tested the local lager before reporting. The Clachan was a busy affair in the evening, with plenty of WHW walkers of course, including Jim & Moira, our breakfast companions. So Day 1 ended with 12 miles on the clock. Tomorrow would take us 14 miles, ending half way along Loch Lomond – and the weather forecast looked good.

Photos: 1. The Start of the West Highland Way, Milngavie; 2. Bluebells in Mugdock Wood; 3. Dumgoyne Hill; 4. Glengoyne Distillery; 5. Hillview and The Clachan, Drymen.