Tuesday April 1st, 2014
West Highland Way – Day 1, Milngavie to Balmaha
An obelisk in Milngavie’s main street marks the start of the West Highland Way. Photos are so obligatory here that strangers will actually approach you to ask if you need some snaps taken. We’d already dropped our bags with Travel-Lite, who would be doing the helpful job of ferrying our luggage between B&Bs each day so that we wouldn’t have to. There may well be some shortcutting in this, an emasculation of the true mountain man spirit, but if you want to enjoy your holiday you’d be mad not to make use of this service.
Steven can’t go anywhere without a latte, so once we’d taken all the necessary pics and waited for him to queue in Costa, we were on our way for 09.30. The rain was nothing serious, but it was damp enough for waterproofs as me made our way through Mugdock. There’s not much to relate on this relatively dull stretch which I still maintain is a perfectly nice walk, even though I was now doing it for the fourth time.
The Beech Tree Inn wasn’t yet opened when we got there around 11.20, so it was on to Drymen in good time for lunch. We were actually presented with too much choice, but settled on a nice country pub-style place that offered a shoes-off opportunity and all day breakfasts all round.
I attempted a metaphor about it being like a meal after crossing a desert and that the toast was the best I’d ever tasted, which needless to say backfired and led to the first running joke of the trip, one that ran and ran, and runs to this day still (“It’s good, but it’s not Drymen toast good”, and so forth).
Toasted up real nice, seven miles more to Balmaha was all that lay ahead. It was forest track through not really a forest anymore but a felled wasteland. The choice then became the low and direct route through Milton of Buchanan or the high road via Conic Hill.
We asked a friendly local passerby (even though we were in the middle of nowhere) for advice, and he was of the opinion our first pint would taste better if we did the hill. So did we, and so we did.
We were glad we did because it certainly adds to the sense of achievement. But ooft, what an effort. At not much over 1000 feet, Conic Hill is not exactly a monster, but with 15 or 16 miles already behind you it takes on a different complexion. And it’s so steep that you have to tackle it from the side, which means a couple of kilometres of walking sort of towards it but not really getting any closer. It’s a fair old climb, enough to make you short of breath, followed by yet more climb if you want to get to any of the series of peaks from which you're able to see Loch Lomond.
It was a pretty overcast afternoon, but the effort was worth it nonetheless for the views, although getting back to the path was a bit of a challenge. Climbing down was almost as tough as going up, if not on the lungs then on the knees and feet. We were only a very short distance out of Balmaha when I got a feeling in one of my boots like a toe had come loose. It could have been a shifting plaster, a moving toenail or my entire foot falling off, but walking on it was near impossible.
The shoe had to come off and it was still not clear if the offending toenail was still part of the team. The plaster that I’d applied earlier had to be chucked, but the hobble into Balmaha was a mercifully short one and the rewards were bountiful.
Our first night’s accommodation was with the lovely Mrs B, who greeted us with tea and a plate of cakes and showed us to our splendid annex room. Swelled with a good sense of achievement after a long day, we followed our reviving showers with a jaunt to the pub across the road for a pint and a bite.
And then it was the fabled land of the hot tub, which sat on the deck right outside our room. 37 degrees of bubbly goodness, it was our womb for the next couple of hours as we dissolved in weary bliss. All that remained of the day was a bit of telly and then it was bed before 22.00, which I don’t think my body was quite able to process, even in its state of exhaustion.
Wednesday April 2nd, 2014
West Highland Way – Day 2, Balmaha to Inversnaid
Mrs B served us an amazing breakfast at 08.00, yet we still didn’t get on the road until a slightly tardy 09.30, which was fine because we only faced a 14 mile day, split in half at Rowardennan. The first seven miles is a pleasant stroll that isn’t quite lochside, but takes you up and down with Loch Lomond sometimes in view. It was a lovely morning, probably the nicest we had over the six days.
Not far out of Balmaha, a sign informed us that work was being carried out and that we should proceed no further by order of The Operative. With no real alternative offered, we decided to say baws to The Operative and pushed on regardless, through a woody and surprisingly strenuous hilly section, full of little ups and downs.
It ended up being an unexpectedly long day, attributed to our late start and leisurely lunch in Rowardennan, which took us on to a stretch of well maintained track that after a while gave way to the most taxing underfoot conditions so far, another factor in our fairly late arrival at Inversnaid. Although perhaps much of this can be attributed to time spent trying to photograph feral goats – Steven has several hundred he can sell you for a very reasonable price.
We reached the Inversnaid Hotel around 16.30, and phoned for a lift up the hill to the Bunkhouse, which was appreciated. It’s a nice enough wee hostel, although not perhaps quite as nice as the staff seemed to think; apparently every person who visits ends up falling irretrievably in love with the place and moving there. It was the cheapest of all the places we stayed, and rightly so, but when you factor in no en-suite, a cell-like room and still having to pay for breakfast (a dismal piece and bacon) and towels, it’s not that great value after all when you consider what a few more pounds will get you at a B&B. Still, the drying room was useful.
Thursday April 3rd, 2014
West Highland Way – Day 3, Inversnaid to Tyndrum
This was our third day on the West Highland Way, 20 miles from Inversnaid to Tyndrum, and where it all started to go wrong. A bright start saw us by the Inversnaid Hotel and ready to go by 08.30. The Way out of Inversnaid north to Inverarnan is basically a jungle trek, climbing over and ducking under trees with barely a path to speak of. It’s proper Last of the Mohicans stuff, clambering over steep hillocks and slippery rocks and through narrow gaps strewn with branches and boulders. You have to carefully gauge every step if you don’t want to take a tumble, but it’s also highly rewarding and great fun, if absolutely knackering. The seven or so miles took us well over three hours.
I'm not averse to a bit of cheery sweating, but this was in a different league even by my standards. Not long after our Inverarnan pitstop, I felt like I’d sat in something wet. But after a while I realised it was sweat that had made its way down my legs following all the Rambo antics, and which was in the process of turning to ice on that less than tropical April day.
An afternoon of nausea, chills and a genuine fear of hypothermia followed, and by about 13.00 I was considering skipping the rest of the day, but that’s easier said than done when you're in the middle of nowhere and still have to get somewhere to allow you to do said skipping.
But some meds, some whisky and Steven’s Russian weather-proof jacket (which I fear I ruined forever), along with some words of encouragement from my friends, allowed me to push on. Looking back on it now without the benefit of the delirium I was experiencing, it’s probably not the most exciting of stretches, but it was given a lift when we came across a large gang of cows blocking the path entirely. The hill to the side was too steep and overgrown to go round them, so we stood eyeing them for a few minutes to see who would crack first. After a while it became clear that the only option was to walk slowly among them and hope they were still vegetarian.
They did part, after a fashion, and we should have just kept going with this plan. But through impatience and stupidity I saw a gap towards the fence and thought we could go around them on the fence side instead. Which would have worked just fine if it wasn’t for a foot-deep combination of mud and cow poop that very near sucked our boots off. It was a shambles, but we eventually got around them and made it to the halfway point by Crianlarich.
There was still a decision to make at a fork in the path where I had the choice of powering on or diverting to Crianlarich from where I could make plans to get to Tyndrum. Having already missed the only afternoon train though, that was also easier said than done, so I took the decision to try and walk it off.
What followed was a lovely woodland stretch, green and fragrant and magical, but I was feeling too ill to fully appreciate it. The combination of blisters, horrible chafing from walking in soaked trousers and flu-like symptoms were more than my combined forces of paracetamol, ibuprofen and Islay malt could counter, and every so often I would pause with hands on knees to decide whether I needed to barf.
I was in a bad state on the endless trudge into Tyndrum, a hobbling wreck and shivering all over. But make it we did, eventually, into a delightful B&B. The West Highland Way had dealt what may have been a mortal blow.
Friday April 4th, 2014
West Highland Way – Day 4, Tyndrum to Kingshouse
The previous day was a miserable, painful experience and there were too many factors stacking up that made me certain there was no chance I could walk 20 miles this day and still complete the Way. The only way I could contemplate completing the whole thing was if I had a rest day.
I wanted badly to finish (the whole Way that is, not abandon the attempt), so I took the decision that I would skip this section and head to the next stopover by bus and meet the boys there. Nat and Steven strode off after breakfast without so much as a backwards glance. I'm sure if you’d encountered them on the trail that afternoon, their response would have been along the lines of “Paul who?”
I’d booked myself on a bus later that morning, so after hanging around the B&B like a bad smell (and let’s be honest, by this stage of the game I probably was a bad smell) for as long as I could, I limped into the thriving metropolis of Tyndrum. I spent a week there that morning, wringing every ounce of entertainment out of the Green Welly Stop, a mystical service station cum tat-peddler where you can buy everything from a box of highland toffee to a giant green welly. I may well just have spent three hours weeping quietly into my coffee, I don’t really remember.
So after a while I got the bus from Tyndrum to Kingshouse, which actually stops at the entrance to the Glencoe Ski Centre, maybe a kilometre or so shy of the hotel. I could just about have faced that walk but luckily a staff member was there with her car, so I got a lift.
I had definitely done the right thing, because it would have been folly to continue in the state I was in. When I got to our room for early afternoon, I taped up my blisters, moisturised my, erm, red bits, and just generally got some rest, spending time out of trousers and shoes. Walking around the hotel just in socks was sore enough, so who knows what the expanse of Rannoch Moor would have done to me.
Steven and Nat rocked up about 15.30 and I was genuinely pleased to see them; when you're all alone and in pain in a strange place, it’s amazing who you start to miss. I could see them from the window of our room, transfixed by the handful of domesticated deer that were roaming the hotel grounds, and 7802 photos later they came inside to join me. We had a nice dinner and a good fun night, drinking and chatting with some Oz girls who were also doing the Way. I regained some strength and knew that with just two days to go I could power through on Compeed, painkillers and whisky.
Saturday April 5th, 2014
West Highland Way – Day 5, Kingshouse to Kinlochleven
Feeling a good deal better, and knowing there were only two short-ish days ahead, I was able to face the remainder of the Way with renewed energy, albeit after a very disappointing breakfast. If you choose to split the walk as we did, Kingshouse to Kinlochleven is by far the shortest day, only nine miles over the Devil’s Staircase, which isn’t quite as hellish as its name might suggest.
It’s a decent climb to be sure, but there were guys running up it and making us look bad. It was also a shame it was so misty, because the views around Glencoe would surely have been smashing. The rest was a fairly uneventful descent into Kinlochleven, and we reached our B&B a couple of hours before our luggage did. This meant sitting around in our pants for some afternoon telly and a spot of snoozing, and we passed most of our easiest day watching movies and enjoying a beer or two.
Sunday April 6th, 2014
West Highland Way – Day 6, Kinlochleven to Fort William
Sixteen miles from Kinlochleven to Fort William was all that was left of our West Highland Way adventure. A terrific breakfast, served on tables bedecked with the national flags of its patrons, set us up for our final day.
The climb out of Kinlochleven is probably steeper than the Devil’s Staircase, particularly with half a pound of black pudding jiggling in your tummy, so it was a challenging old start. Once up out of sight of the town, the track turned into a rather handsome ridge through the Mamores. But the wind and the drizzle was starting to make it a bit less pleasant than it might have been, and much of it became a head-down trudge.
Bouts of heavy rain meant that it was a blessing when we finally reached the tree-line at some point around lunchtime. Some shelter to munch whatever provisions we had left allowed us to muster the enthusiasm for the final soggy push into Fort William. But even though this was on some of the flattest, easiest ground we’d seen all week, the rain and the already accumulated miles turned the final couple of hours into a dismal slog.
Some poorly conceived signage didn’t help, nor did the final couple of miles alongside a busy road into town. It’s not the town’s fault (largely), although it doesn’t help itself by positioning the finishing point of the Way at the far end of a grim pedestrian precinct full of boarded up shops. Perhaps if we’d strode in fresh and perky on a nice sunny day we’d have proclaimed it a bonny haven, but as it stood it was a thoroughly ignominious final mile or two following 90-odd of unrivalled beauty and splendour.
We drip-dried on the floor of a pub which wouldn’t serve alcohol to Nat, then dined on a horrible curry to kill the couple of hours before our train was due. I managed to fit in a life-giving shower in the leisure centre, which I followed up by inadvertently towelling next to an open door facing out onto one of the busy halls. I didn’t check if there was a wanted poster of me on a subsequent visit to the town, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise.
And that was it. A quick dive for the train, which I almost conspired to miss because I’d managed to put my trousers in Nat’s bag, and we were on our way home.
It had been a truly amazing six days, a blend of fun, toil, hardship, reward and camaraderie that I’d repeat in a heartbeat. I'm grateful for every second I spent with Steven and Nathanael, and I wouldn’t have finished the West Highland Way without them.
I would follow these guys anywhere.
Thursday September 10th, 2015
West Highland Way – Day 528, Kingshouse to Tyndrum
Almost a year and a half down the line, and following a good deal of nagging on my part, Steven, Nathanael and I finally got together to walk the stage of the Way that I had missed.
Ever since they had walked it, from the first moment I saw them afterwards in fact, they’d been adamant it was the finest section of the Way. Partly that was to wind me up, and they’ve gotten good mileage out of how much they enjoyed a day without me, but mostly they said it because it was probably true.
Having now done it myself, I can confirm that they were absolutely right. This is a simply breathtaking corner of Scotland which, with the right weather, provides views of a vast, barren, yet indescribably beautiful landscape that’s one of the biggest expanses of wilderness in Britain.
Needing an early start, we’d spent the previous night in Tyndrum then took a morning bus to the Kingshouse Hotel, which would allow us to walk back to the car in Tyndrum at our leisure. I took an extended ribbing from the guys about how much better it was when I wasn’t there, but they were happy to cover the ground again, partly because it was in the opposite direction to what they’d previously done, and partly because it was a much nicer day.
We lunched at Inveroran, where the deer that had apparently enlivened Steven and Nat’s last visit was nowhere to be seen. Onwards to Bridge of Orchy, poor Steven got brutal pelters for misjudging the distance, and we got some majestic views back to Rannoch Moor from the hilltops of the Black Mount.
The final miles into Tyndrum became a bit wearisome, but as 20 mile days go it wasn’t the hardest we’ve ever done, serving both as a completion of the Way for me, and as good practice for the Great Glen Way to come.
Read other users walk reports for the long distance trails - and add your own.
NB. This board is for reports on multi-day long distance routes - reports on simply long walks should be added to the standard boards.
NB. This board is for reports on multi-day long distance routes - reports on simply long walks should be added to the standard boards.