walkhighlands

Solo West Highland Way in October

Date walked: 18/10/2019

Time taken: 8 days

Distance: 155km

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul...I account it high time to get to Scotland* as soon as I can." - Herman Melville

Prologue: The Caledonian Sleeper

Even though I've caught the Sleeper enough times to know better, it somehow retains a romantic appeal. When I book it, I imagine dozing off to the rhythm of the train after a dram or two, waking up well-rested, releasing the window blind, and finding I've been magically transported to wild moorland, where a stag bellows at the misty sunrise...

This, however, is not the experience of a seated journey on the 2350 from London Euston to Glasgow Central. Thanks to overzealous air conditioning on the new Sleeper trains, it's brutally cold: items that I turned out not to need for the West Highland Way, including a thermal vest and a woolly hat, came into their own. At Carstairs, there is an extended stop while they uncouple the Edinburgh carriages and then "reboot" the train, which means interrogation-strength lighting suddenly comes on. Oh, and there's no whisky on the drinks menu. I didn't sleep well.

It was only just getting light when we pulled into Glasgow. I made my way over to Queen Street and went into the portacabin waiting room to warm up and put my gaiters on. Blearly-eyed and addled, I failed to realize that the Milngavie train leaves from the lower-level platforms, and missed it. For some reason I decided to kill the time until the next one by buying a stale brie and tomato baguette from Pret a Manger as a picnic lunch.

Stage 1: Milngavie to Dymen. Distance: 19km. Time: 4 hours 45 mins. Accommodation: Drymen Inn.

I was not in particularly good spirits by the time I arrived in Milngavie, but I thought I could cheer myself up with poached eggs and beans on toast at an old-fashioned caff, washed down with a good strong cup of tea. Unfortunately a cheese and mushroom toastie at Costa Coffee was the best I could do. Chewing it in the window, I saw two groups of West Highland Way-ers taking selfies to mark the start of their journey and felt a twinge of regret that I was walking alone.

Mugdock Wood
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By the time I set off it was 0915 and it had started raining. At first I was too impatient to put my waterproof trousers on; after an hour of drizzle, I was too stubborn to admit to myself that that had been a bad decision. It was soggy and dank in Mugdock Woods, the autumn colours dulled by the rain. A short pull uphill made me notice a pain in my right shoulder, and I started to suspect I'd overpacked. I passed the first of the two groups I'd seen in Milngavie, two Americans in their 60s carrying small day packs. Gripping my rucksack straps to take some of the weight off my shoulder, I grumpily decided to nickname them "Baggage Transfer Couple". At Craigallian loch, the other group came into view, walking side by side up the wide track. They would be "The Four Shortsmen of the Apocalypse", on account of their numbers and choice of legwear. For some reason I was walking at a fast pace while they were laden with camping gear, so I quickly overtook them. I wondered if anyone had thought of referring to the combination of shorts and wild camping as "tickbait".

At Easter Carbeth there was a Hansel and Gretel style cottage with a sign reading "4 miles down, 92 to go!" No doubt it was kindly meant, but I couldn't help receiving it as mockery of my foolish endeavour. Eventually my mood improved as the rain stopped and views of Dumgoyne and its mini-me, Dumgoyach, opened up - the first hints at the mountains to come. There were highland cows in the fields, crows on the fences, pheasants in the trees. Sadly this pleasant stretch was quickly succeeded by a muddy, ramrod-straight path through farmland. Negative thoughts returned, and I found myself ruminating about minor social embarrassments from fifteen years ago. I stopped for a quick cup of tea at The Beech Tree, an eccentric mix of cafe and petting zoo, which also offers phone-charging for £1 an hour.

Dumgoyne and Dumgoyach
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Shortly after setting out once more I passed Turnip the Beet, a veggie-oriented cafe on the business park outside Killearn, and regretted buying the stale Pret baguette all over again. It isn't marked as a refreshment stop on the Harveys map, but looks cheerful and cosy. The next few kilometres continued in the same uninspiring vein, reminding me of the agricultural trudging that characterizes so many country walks in southern England. At Gartness, however, there was a decent stone bridge over Blane Water, and an honesty fridge with an end-of-season sale on ice-creams. Up the hill was the first bench I had seen since Mugdock Country Park, so I sat down at the roadside and ate the cursed baguette and some honey-roast peanuts, looking over at the Campsie fells and waving at passing tractors. As the road climbed towards Drymen, the views opened up again and the sun came out. This must have been a distraction, as I overshot the turn off into the village and was only alerted to my error by another honesty fridge offering "The last fresh water until Balmaha". Retracing my steps, I made it to the Drymen Inn around 2pm.

There was some satisfaction at having completed the first stage, but I was really very tired. My shoulder was inflamed, my leg muscles were sore, and my feet felt as though they'd been spanked by the asphalt. On top of that, I had some nasty chafing around my ankles, seemingly from the socks I'd been wearing. After hanging up my wet kit to dry and having a shower, I lay down on the bed planning to select my Fantasy Football team for the weekend's fixtures but promptly feel asleep. When I woke up it was raining again and I felt grateful that I didn't have to put up a tent, but also concerned by how much this relatively easy stage seemed to have taken out of me. I thought about going to the Clachan Inn for a pint but couldn't find it in myself to put on my waterproof jacket again and cross the village square, so I went downstairs to the bar and had an early dinner, some red pepper soup followed by a good piece of breaded haddock with chips and mushy peas. By 8pm I'd turned in for the night.

Accommodation Review: Drymen Inn
The Drymen Inn is an old building that's been modernized with a conservatory-dining room at the front and some boutique hotel inspired touches in the rooms.
Positives: the staff were friendly and the food was good in quality and large in quantity.
Negatives: it's a bit expensive for a pub with rooms.

Stage 2: Drymen to Rowardennan. Distance: 23km. Time: 5 hours 15 mins. Accommodation: Rowardennan Hotel.

Unsure about how well my legs were going to stand up to the second stage, I briefly considered starting the day with a 1.5km shortcut on the Rob Roy Way before pulling myself together. Happily most of the muscle soreness had subsided overnight, and pre-emptive ibuprofen seemed to help with my shoulder pain, which the internet informed me was an inflamed trapezius. I was away by 9 and quickly got into a rhythm on the easy track through Garadbhan Forest, bidding good morning to Baggage Transfer Couple as I overtook them. In less good fettle was a weary young man humping a gargantuan pack in the opposite direction: I fear he was giving up on a northerly attempt at the West Highland Way rather than nearing the end of a southerly one. Emerging from the trees onto the moor, I decided it was time for the poles to come out, and I immediately wondered why I hadn't used them on the first stage. I used to assume they were strictly for older walkers, but I tried them out on a trek in the Himalayas eight or nine years ago and have never looked back since: they take weight off your knees, improve your walking posture, and give you much more stability on uneven or steep ground, which in turn means you can go faster. In the distance on Conic Hill I could make out a lone figure, who I named White Hat on account of her headgear. A contemplative soul seemingly untroubled by the cold wind blowing in from the north, she paused frequently to take in the view of Loch Lomond and the Arrochar Alps.

View of Loch Lomond from (i)Conic Hill
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It was Saturday morning and Conic Hill turned out to the busiest stretch of the entire Way, with many daytrippers clambering up the steep hill path from the carpark at Balmaha. Although it was a fine panorama from the summit, I found myself getting cold in the wind, as well as unreasonably annoyed with the selfie-taking hordes, so I hurried on. Attempting to apply lessons from the previous day, I'd planned for a fairly long lunch break, so I stopped in at the St Mocha Coffee Shop. Something of a hipster outpost, there was much attention to milk texturing and an Instagram counter mounted above the fireplace. My flat white was excellent but the only hot food option was my nemesis, the cheese toastie, which I ordered along with a poorly-chosen bag of cheese and onion crisps.

A blithesome day on the bonnie banks
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By the time I had finished my lunch, the sun had come out, illuminating the marina. I followed the Way through oak woods on the Eastern shore of Loch Lomond, lateral sunlight making the Autumn colours of the foliage warm and rich. From time to time the trees gave way to perfect sand beaches, where occasional campervans were parked and fishermen had set up for the weekend. I passed White Hat, who was sitting on a sheltered bench pondering the light glinting on the water. Sometimes the path followed the shore; at other times it turned inland and uphill through the trees before dropping down to the loch again.

Rowardennan Forest
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At one point I got off the path to let a mountain biker whizz past and noticed that Ben Lomond had appeared up ahead. Like many people, it was the first Munro I ever climbed, and I tried to remind myself what that afternoon more than twenty years ago had been like. All I could remember was that it had taken much longer and had a much more dramatic summit view than I'd expected; and that quite a few people climbing it were in jeans and trainers.

Going down to the Clansman bar at the Rowardennan Hotel that evening, a memory came back to me of eating a celebratory burger, looking out at the light of a long summer evening on the loch. As well as Baggage Transfer Couple and the Four Shortsmen, there was a large party of people clad in walking attire. I thought I recognized the man who seemed to be the guest of honour, but couldn't place him. He seemed a bit forlorn, and I wondered whether he didn't like being the centre of attention. It was two days later when, scrolling idly through my phone, I realized it had been the adventure writer James Forrest, who I follow on Twitter. Ben Lomond had been my first Munro, but it was his last: incredibly he'd bagged all 282 in just six months, and the gathering at the Clansman was the finishing party. Suddenly I understood his look of loss amidst the adulation: the journey being complete, what on earth was he to do next?

View of Ben Lomond
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I had salmon with stir fried vegetables for dinner. I'd been told there would be live music and was looking forward to some strathspeys and reels, but the band seemed to have brought a laptop instead of a fiddle. As they launched into a karaoke version of the Beautiful South's "You Keep It All In", I took the dregs of my Guinness upstairs.

Accommodation Review: Rowardennan Hotel
Positives: decent value for money; good drying room.
Negatives: disappointing self-service buffet breakfast; un-traditional live music.

Stage 3: Rowardennan to Inverarnan. Distance: 22km. Time: 6 hours 30 mins. Accommodation: Drovers' Inn.

I was ready for a tough day and got away at 8.45. Towards the end of the second stage, I'd been feeling some tenderness on my left heel and my right ankle, so I applied some pre-emptive Compeed, along with blobs of gel to my sock-chafed areas, and necked some more ibuprofen. It was a cold morning: the sky was clear and blue, but the East side of the loch would remain in shadow for several hours. Keen to warm up, I set off briskly and quickly passed White Hat and her husband, along with a trio who seemed unsure which direction to go from the youth hostel. I must have had my head down as I missed the fork in the path to Rob Roy's prison and ended up on the higher route, deeper in the trees. When the path rejoined the loch it narrowed and became rougher, with many tree roots, rocks, and abrupt ups-and-downs to negotiate. Across the loch, the distinctive profile of The Cobbler came in and out of view. Even in October the vegetation seemed quite dense, and I imagined I was a soldier making my way through the jungle in a Vietnam war film. I kept hoping the path would detour onto one of the peninsulas that streteched far enough out into the loch to catch the morning sun so that I'd have a warm spot for a drinks break, but I was almost at Inversnaid by the time I got that wish.

A rare sighting of the Loch Lomond Monster
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I'd planned on getting an early lunch at the Inversnaid Hotel, and was pleased to find that it had had a luxurious makeover since my last visit. There's a new wood-panelled vestibule with coat hooks, rucksack racks, and seating to take off your boots and gaiters. Through the next door you find a room with high communal tables which (unlike the bar) has a view of the loch. There I met the couple I shall refer to as Red and Dread, on account of their respective hairstyles. They'd overshot the youth hostel the previous night, so had wild-camped by the loch. I ordered pea soup and half a tuna sandwich with a orange juice and lemonade, but they were set on something stronger. Sadly for them the barman said he couldn't serve alcohol until 12: it turns out there is a literal beer o'clock in Inversnaid. Putting my boots back on, I was "assisted" by a friendly lion of a Golden Retriever who I remembered seeing on the Rowardennan to Balmaha leg. Apparently there is no dog-friendly accommodation in Inverarnan, so his humans were in for a long push all the way to Crianlarich.

The next five kilometres or so were even rougher, and I was grateful for my poles. However, the sun was finally high enough in the sky for the eastern shore of the loch to be lit up. The bracken was burnt orange, the silver birches purple, the oak canopy a deep green. Coming over a rise, I saw a scattering of stone buildings by the loch, and the tops of Crianlarich hills in the distance. I was suddenly flooded with the simple joy of being alive: I could feel the day's exertion in my legs and the sun on my skin; I could see the way leading me into the landscape I love best.

The ruined croft by Doune Bothy
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I'd had an email from the Drovers telling me the bridge to Inverarnan had been washed away in flash-flooding in the summer, so when I reached Beinglas Farm at around 3.30pm I gave them a call and they sent Roberto the chef to collect me in a pickup truck. The legendary Gothic roadside inn was another place I had not been in years. I was both pleased and distressed to find it hadn't been modernized as comprehensively as its new website implied - pleased because the taxidermy and and candle-lit corners and macabre oil paintings are still there in the bar; distressed because the creaking floorboards and squealing doors and cracked windowpanes are still there in the rooms. As I was unpacking my dry bags, I could overhear an Aussie in the next room vocalizing the sort of questions that only occur to you in a state of post-Way exhuastion: "Mate, they've given me a twin room, does that matter?". Knocking on the shared bathroom door: "Mate, is that you in there? Oh you're only gonna be five minutes, sweet, I'll wait for you".

Down in the bar was the familiar eclectic Drovers mix of weary hikers, Glaswegian daytrippers, baffled tourists, and hardcore Sunday drinkers. I had a pint of Deuchars and ordered a goats cheese salad and veggie bangers and mash for dinner. The barmaid told me all the salads were off and asked if I wanted to order a side instead, so I opted for cheesy garlic bread, only realizing when it arrived that I'd been tricked into ordering a deconstructed cheese toastie. It had turned very cold and I was glad that both the fires were lit, and that - unlike the poor Drovers staff - I didn't have to wear a party kilt or sleep in a static caravan.

Accommodation Review: Drovers Inn
Negatives: No drying room, funny smell in the shared bathroom, general disrepair
Positives: It's the Drovers and there's nowhere else like it

Stage 4: Inverarnan to Tyndrum. Distance: 20km. Time: 4 hours 20 mins. Accommodation: Tyndrum Inn.

I shared the pickup ride back to the trail with White Hat and her husband, who turned out to be cheerful Canadians now living in Malta. We agreed we'd go all the way back to Beinglas to make sure we'd walked every step of the Way. They commented to Roberto that the hotel was very well decorated for Halloween, perhaps not realizing that every night is Halloween at the Drovers.

It was a cold morning with frost on the ground, the temperature on the pickup's display showing at -2. I set off briskly just before 9. The first challenge of the day was a diversion notice where the bridge over the burn before Derrydarroch had been washed away, presumably in the same flash-flooding that had destroyed the bridge form Beinglas to Inverarnan. It suggested detouring a few hundred metres uphill over boggy ground to another bridge, but the burn didn't seem especially high so I decided I could climb down to it and cross safely. My feet stayed dry and as I clambered back up the opposite bank I felt quite pleased with myself. Shortly afterwards the full extent of the food damage became apparent. There was a lot of debris - boulders and tree branches and silt - where the River Falloch had dramatically burst its banks, and the rear corner of the whitewashed cottage at Derrydaroch had been shored up with a makeshift corrugated metal barrier to save it from the same fate as the bridges. It must have been a couple of hundred years old, suggesting unprecedented river-levels.

Frost at the Falls of Falloch
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Shortly afterwards I caught up with Red and Dread and passed the time of day. They'd wisely opted for a hut at Beinglas Farm instead of their tent, and were thinking about pushing on to Bridge of Orchy. With more modest aspirations, I was contemplating the detour to Crianlarich for lunch. By the time I reached the halfway point signpost, however, I was feeling a bit fatigued and didn't fancy trudging back up the hill. I carried on into the dark, dense conifers of the Ewich forest, which seemed to be holding on to the cold. Eventually I found a tree stump in a patch of sun, and sat down to eat a tuna sandwich and a bag of crisps. Even with an extra layer on, I started getting cold, so hurried on my way. This isn't the most inspiring stage in terms of landscape, and the path is continually zigzagging under the railway and the A82, which are rarely out of site. Near Dalrigh, there was another diversion due to construction work on a bridge, and this time I chose to follow it, disturbing a buzzard which flow away low ahead of me along on avenue of silver birches.

I got to Tyndrum just after 1pm. Probably because so many HGVs and logging vehicles pass through it, the village has a truckstop feel. After checking in my hotel, I went into the diner-inspired Real Food Cafe for a cup of tea and a bakewell tart. The fire was lit and it was nice to warm up. Baggage Transfer Couple came in with news that the weather was about to deteriorate, which got me thinking about my kit and supplies. At the Green Welly Stop I found a rubber foot to replace the one that had gone missing from my walking pole by Loch Lomond, and replenished my stocks of peanuts and chocolate.

Later on, in the bar at the Tyndrum Inn, I noticed the Four Shortsmen were in for their tea. There was a football match on so I chose a table with a good view of the TV. My position in the Fantasy Premier League standings stood to benefit from a low-scoring game, so I found myself inwardly cheering when the players fluffed chances on goal. I ordered a very tasty homemade fish pakora and a spicy South Indian curry with rice and naan, along with a pint of Hobgoblin, and turned in early.

Accommodation Review: Tyndrum Inn
Other hikers have told me the Tyndrum Inn doesn't have a great reputation, but it's had a makeover recently (including converting its Guest Lounge into a studio for a massage therapist, which could definitely come in handy for the weary West Highland Way-er). There is a drying room, and my room was warm and comfortable.
Positives: Outstanding food, good bar, refurbished rooms, great value for money
Negatives: Breakfast was a bit meagre

Stage 5: Tyndrum to Inveroran. Distance: 16km. Time: 4 hours. Accommodation: Inveroran Hotel.

As Baggage Transfer Couple had predicted, this was a rather dismal day of low cloud and constant rain. I set off without waterproof trousers but remembering my stubbornness the first day, I soon stopped and put them on. As it wasn't too windy in the glen, I also decided to give my rucksack's ridiculous yellow rain cover an outing and unfurled it. The steep slopes of Beinn Dorain came into view ahead and I imagined what it would be like to be at the summit on a clearer day, making a mental note to return and bag it on a future trip.

Plodding north from Tyndrum in smirr
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Despite the gloom and the same unexplained niggles in my ankles, I was in good spirits and most of the walking was easy underfoot with evading puddles being the only challenge. I noticed, as I often do when I have become properly immersed in a long walk, how being outdoors makes the grand narratives of your life melt away. Walk for long enough, and you stop ruminating about decisions made in the past, or worrying about whether you have the right plans for the future. Instead you simply enjoy a good breakfast at the start of the day and look forward to a hot shower at the end of it. If the sun shines you feel blessed; if it rains you know eventually it will pass. It is a pleasure simply to breathe the air, to experience your own body moving. Trees seem miraculous: roots drawing life from the earth, leaves drawing life from the light. You tune in to the different sounds of water: rushing, dripping, lapping. Nothing means more than a furry caterpillar crossing the path, a watchful bird of prey on fence post, a pony or a Highland cow looking up at you: two creatures recognizing one another. There is nothing to wish for, except to be warm rather than cold; to be dry rather than wet; to be fed rather than hungry.

I got to the Bridge of Orchy hotel just before 12 and was grateful to dry off by the woodburner and have an early lunch - a big bowl of Cullen Skink with warm bread, followed by a piece of coffee cake and a cappuccino. I chatted briefly with a fellow solo walker who was packing up as I arrived and wished her well for her journey to Kingshouse. As I was eating, The Four Shortsmen came in and we swapped notes on our itineraries, realizing they were identical. One of the Shortsmen read out the newspaper story framed on the wall, about the blizzards in 1984 which saw more than 80 people taking refuge in the Bridge of Orchy hotel for several days while the storm blew itself out, many sleeping on the bar floor. Despite being at double its normal capacity, apparently the only thing the hotel ran out of was Guinness.

Much empathy with this lone tree, high up on the windy moor near Mam Carraigh
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I left the Four Shortsmen to their cake, and ventured back out onto the Way, waving to Baggage Transfer Couple who I could see approaching in the distance. It had looked from the cosy interior of the bar that the rain might have eased off, but this turned out not to be the case. The next stretch was a steady uphill pull, first through forest and then out onto open moorland. Apart from a hardy fell runner coming in the opposite direction, I saw no one. After the conviviality of the lunch break, I felt isolated and exposed. As the path crested the hill, the landscape opened up in a great sweep from Loch Tulla in the East across the cloud-capped Black Mount to Glen Kinglass stretching away in the west, grand and forebidding. Happily I could also see my destination for the day, The Inveroran Hotel, an old drovers' hostelry in the glen sheltered from the wind by dense clumps of scots pine.

After I'd checked in and had a shower, I sat in an armchair in the guest lounge for while, making some notes in my journal and reading about the history of the hotel - including Dorothy Wordsworth's evocative description of drovers eating porridge around a smoky peat fire in the kitchen. By the time I ventured into the bar I was surprised to find it was almost completely full, but The Four Shortsmen had secured a table and kindly invited me to join them. We ended up eating venison casserole together and swapping sketches of our lives back home and stories of our adventures on the Way and beyond. Much as I enjoy solitude and reflection on these journeys, it was very nice to be part of the group banter.

Accommodation Review: Inveroran Hotel
Bought fairly recently by a South African lady and her Scottish husband, the Inveroran Hotel is gradually being transformed from basic digs into something rather luxurious.
Positives: Excellent food and great bar in a pretty remote location, drying room, lots of homely touches, including an endearingly badly-behaved cocker spaniel
Negatives: Closes for the season around 22nd October

Stage 6: Inveroran to Kingshouse. Distance: 16km. Time: 4 hours. Accommodation: Kingshouse Hotel.

With another relatively short day ahead, I treated myself to a lie-in and a leisurely eggs florentine for breakfast. Most of the other overnight guests were part of the same large group of Germans, who had heaped suitcase upon suitcase in the reception area, presumably indicating they were walking the Way with baggage transfer support. Too late I remembered that I'd meant to post some used socks and pants home from Tyndrum, along with other items of kit it was clear I wasn't going to need. However, as I passed the wild camping area by the river and saw two girls folding up the sodden groundsheet of their tent, I quickly stopped feeling sorry for myself.

After stopping to take a few photos from Victoria Bridge of Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh looming over Loch Tulla, I caught up with the Four Shortsmen and walked with them along the cobbles of the old drove road until it became clear my natural pace was opening up gaps in their group. I pressed on, out into the dramatic and desolate expanse of Rannoch Moor. I'd been looking forward to the wildness and isolation of this stage, but for the first time since Conic Hill the Way suddenly seemed crowded, with the brightly coloured waterproof jackets and rain covers of northward-tramping walkers visible at regular intervals in the distance. Perhaps the new arrivals were Saturday-starters on a 7-day itinerary who had caught up by doing longer legs from Rowardennan to Crianlarich and Crianlarich to Bidge of Orchy. For some reason I felt I wouln't be able to enjoy the scenery properly unless I overtook them all, so I sped up, barely pausing to admire the dark, wind-scoured mountains in their cloaks of mist.

The Devonians on the old drove road from Inveroran to Glencoe
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By the time I took my first break at the Glencoe ski area cafe, the day's walking was nearly over, and my hopes of some moments alone in the wilderness had been dashed by the reappearance of traffic on the A82 in the glen below. Nevertheless, I enjoyed drying off by the woodburner with a coffee and the signature view of Buachaille Etive Mor - another early Munro-bag, but one which I remember much better than Ben Lomond on account of a traumatic descent involving downclimbing in the gloaming, followed by a devastating midge-attack. From the cafe it was an easy plod down the hill to a treat I had been looking forward to: a night at the newly re-opened Kingshouse Hotel.

After a very welcome soak in the tub, I had a pot of tea in the bar and simply watched the weather for a while, rain coming and going. From time to time one of the hotel staff would go outside and feed bread to the local deer, which pleased the guests who were looking for photo opportunities, but seemed a bit odd from an ecological perspective. On my way back upstairs I bumped into the White Hats and used the Harveys linear map to give them some reassurance about the final day's walking, which they needed to get done in time to catch the 1730 train. When I got down to the bar again the Four Shortsmen and Baggage Transfer Couple were sitting together at a big table, so I got a pint of the River Leven IPA and went to join them. Baggage Transfer Couple turned out to be from Minnesota and were going on to Inverness and then Skye after finishing the Way, so I offered them a few recommendations. For dinner I ordered a halloumi and mushroom burger with sweet potato fries, failing to note that it was served in a toasted brioche bun. My nemesis the cheese toastie had triumphed once again.

Accommodation Review: Kingshouse Hotel
Positives: Modern design makes the most of the views in all directions, open fires, baths in the rooms, epic breakfast, walker-friendly (including a drying room and public showers for wild campers)
Negatives: Bar menu quite limited (mostly burgers) and restaurant menu rather expensive; incongruous music choices (eg The Beach Boys)

Stage 7: Kingshouse to Kinlochleven. Distance: 15km. Time: 4 hours. Accommodation: Tailrace Inn.

Planning on a two-meal strategy for the day, I took full advantage of the indulgent breakfast buffet, finding room for scrambled eggs, hot smoked salmon, potato scones, baked beans, yoghurt and granola, croissant and raspberry jam, a piece of cheese, and two lattes. The view from my room was to the east, so while I was packing up and applying new compeed and anti-chafing gel I could see the Four Shortsmen and other wild campers setting off along the Way, illuminated by a dramatic lateral shaft of sunlight.

Getting going myself, I found I was in a very different mood from the previous day, and I meandered along, enjoying the spectacular light and pausing frequently to take photos. Only when the rain set in again did I get back to my usual pace. Catching up with a couple I'd glimpsed in the distance, I was surprised but pleased to find it was Red and Dread, and we said hello. Dread had switched to wearing trainers and was picking his way along on the edges of the soggy path, which I suspect was slowing them down.

Glen Etive, Buachaille Etive Mor, Glencoe
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The path briefly rejoined the A82 before turning inland and uphill towards the infamous Devil's Staircase. I can imagine that if you had walked all the way from Bridge of Orchy in one push, you might not relish it, but with fresh legs it's a modest climb by Scottish hillwalking standards. Up ahead I could see ten figures zig-zagging their way up in matching olive-green rain capes. At the top this turned out to be the German group from breakfast at the Inveroran Hotel, and I look a team photo for them at the summit cairn, the giant Saltire they had brought rippling in the wind.

From the top of the Devil's Staircase
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From there it was all down hill to Kinlochleven. I passed Baggage Transfer Couple, who were enjoying the difference in the view from this higher elevation, and then caught up the Four Shortsmen and walked with them until they stopped at some falls for their lunch. On the last stretch I fell into step with a couple of lads from Devon and enjoyed their dry humour. I said it must be good having easy access to Dartmoor from home; "Yeah", they replied, "That's where we usually go to get cold and wet".

After the luxury of the Kingshouse Hotel, the Tailrace Inn brought me back down to earth. Out of consideration for the carpet, I'd taken off my gaiters and muddy boots before going inside, but as I approached the bar to check in, the proprietor issued a stern reprimand: "Boots are to be kept on AT ALL TIMES". Sloping back to the porch, I noticed a poster announcing this, the opposite policy to the Inversnaid Hotel. What is a poor walker to do? I had a quick shower and went out to see if the Bothy Bar at the Macdonald Hotel was more welcoming. It was: I forgot the two-meal strategy and ordered a bowl of skink and a pot of tea, settling down to enjoy the view of the Pap of Glencoe across the long sea-loch. By the time the soup arrived, I'd been joined by the White Hats who were staying at the hotel, and we had a nice chat over our lunch about their life in Malta and of course the Way, the talkative barman chipping in from time to time with bits of local trivia and banter: "What's the best thing about Kinloch? Leavin'"

Afterwards I strolled back into town in search of a picnic lunch for the following day, and found a three-bean chipotle wrap and some chipsticks at the Co-op. One of The Shortsmen had mentioned that Kinlochleven was an old smelting town, which seemed to be confirmed by a small museum called "The Aluminium Story", the rows of Victorian workers' cottages, and a slightly melancholy post-industrial atmosphere. Surprisingly, there is also an indoor ice-climbing centre, with a cafe and shop, but it all seemed to be shut - whether October is too early in the season or too late was unclear.

By the time I walked back up to the Bothy Bar, the hills above the town were sprinkled with the first snow. As on the frosty morning at Inverarnan a few days previously, it felt like winter was well and truly on the way. The Four Shortsmen had pitched their tents in the campground at the back of the hotel, and were having an early dinner. There wasn't room to join them, so I got a pint of Trade Winds, one of my favourite Scottish beers, and returned to the table with the loch view to watch the Pap's dramatic conical silhouette grow darker as the sun set. Eventually I decided on a venison burger and ate it watching the football - or rather, watching a border collie watching the football. It was only Man United against Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League, but she was glued to it, straining at her lead, yelping at moments of drama, and craning past humans when they inconsiderately stood in her way. After the final whistle I said goodbye to the Four Shortsmen and returned to the Tailrace for an early night.

Accommodation Review: Tailrace Inn
Positives: Open fire in the pub, drying room, decent breakfast
Negatives: Rooms a bit tired and overpriced, counterintuitive and robustly-enforced policy on walking boots

Stage 8: Kinlochleven to Fort William. Distance: 24km. Time: 6 hours. Accommodation: Caledonian Sleeper.

Although my train was due to leave Fort William a couple of hours later than the White Hats', like them I was keen not to take any chances. I got away before 9, realizing with a twinge of regret that I should have visited the Grey Mare's Tail waterfall the previous afternoon. It was, however, an absolutely stunning morning, the sky a clear cold blue. As I gained height on the steep path out of Kinlochleven, the woodland was suddenly flooded with autumn sunlight. It had snowed more overnight and the tops of mountains rose into view in every direction, dusted white. At the top of the climb, the path unfurled in front of me, winding away through the lairig, far into the distance. My heart soared.

Leavin' Kinloch with snow-dusted tops
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The Lairig Path
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There was an icy wind, and stopping to take a photo, I noticed again how it had chilled my poles. Not keen on rifling through my dry bags looking for gloves, I set off again at a brisk pace, gradually gaining on a pair of walkers up ahead. More photographically prolific, they stopped for a while at the ruined croft and I soon caught up. I realized I'd seen them in the bar in Kinlochleven: they were tackling the Way fast and light and had done a 34km leg from Bridge of Orchy the previous day. We continued together for a couple of hours, turning north, and I quizzed them about other long-distance paths in the highlands. Happiest outdoors, it turned out this was their fourth West Highland Way and that it was their all-time favourite, with better amenities than its East Highland sibling, and more varied and interesting scenery than the Great Glen "towpath". I noticed that they were much better organized than me when it came to eating and drinking regularly, with snacks and water bottles stowed in easily-accessible pockets. They'd planned a celebratory dram when Ben Nevis first came into view, and barely broke stride while enjoying it. If I was going to attempt more ambitious itineraries in future, I needed to take note. In all my years coming to the Highlands these were the finest views of the great hill I'd ever seen.

First sight of Ben Nevis with Happiest Outdoors
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Eventually I needed a rest and a bite to eat, so I chose another sunlit patch with a handy treestump on a deforested slope and ate the wrap and the chipsticks. It was odd to think I would soon drop down into Glen Nevis and be on the road into the suburbs of Fort William, and at the end of my journey. When booking my travel I'd remembered the anticlimactic end of a previous long hike in northern Spain. There, I'd given myself twenty-four hours in Finisterre, imagining that I'd want to celebrate and rest; only to discover that what I actually wanted was to keep walking. The day dragged on, and I couldn't think how to enjoy it - really, I was jut waiting around for the bus that would begin my journey home. Booking the Sleeper for the same evening was intended to pre-empt this kind of dismal ending and help the good memories of the Way live longer.

Ben Nevis extreme close-up
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The final stretch into Fort William turned out to be the least well-signed, compounded by directions for South-bound walkers. A logging track hairpinned downhill into woodland, and then emerged onto the glen road pavement, which felt hard on the feet after so many miles. I started to worry I was missing a parallel track through the trees, but couldn't see any alternative. Finally it arrived at the familiar hospital roundabout, and for the first time in a week there was town traffic to stay aware of.

Marching up the main street in Fort William with my incongruous poles still beating out a rhythm on the tarmac, I scanned the passing Friday afternoon shoppers for nods of acknowledgement. But of course no one cares that you have made this journey: they have their own lives, their own hopes and worries. Just as I was approaching the finishing post, I was happy to see the White Hats who had made it in plenty of time for their train, and we agreed to have a drink together in the Grog and Gruel. In the square at last, I sat down and took a selfie with The Man with Sore Feet scultpture, a Wetherspoons pub and a Travelodge in the background. Looking back at the photo, I see a faraway shine in his eye, and in mine.

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Comments: 12


Bluecoat


Activity: Mountain Walker
Place: Assynt

Munros: 15
Corbetts: 2
Grahams: 2
Sub 2000: 3
Islands: 21
Long Distance routes: West Highland Way   



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2019

Trips: 1
Distance: 155 km


Joined: Oct 26, 2019
Last visited: Feb 19, 2020
Total posts: 6 | Search posts