|The West Highland Way|
This place ain't so bad after all ....
The last day of our walk dawned bright and sunny. It seemed a minor miracle that we had hiked almost one hundred miles since having our photographs taken in Kelvingrove park on Saturday morning, and even more of a miracle that I had survived intact. My legs were finally beginning to accept that I intended to use them for what they were designed for rather than slinging them casually across a sofa in the manner they were accustomed to. They still felt a little stiff in the morning but once they had warmed up they carried me along with little fuss. My toes were about as bruised and as ugly as they were going to get and all ten toenails were still stubbornly attached (I wondered who had drawn those odds in the family sweepstake), and all the chafed areas, embarrassing or otherwise, had cleared up after liberal smearings of Sudacreme. In short I felt fine. I may have looked like a middle aged haggard wreck with a week old beard and a penchant for gaiters but inside I was a laughing little cherub.
We broke our fast whilst the proprietor entertained us by killing wasps with his bare hands. I can't remember exactly what our breakfast 'special' consisted of but I do remember it was delicious. A bacon, cheese, and tomato concoction layered over some sort of unleavened bread.
On our way to rendezvous with Kath we passed a Spa supermarket and popped in to grab some things for lunch. As we browsed the deli and fruit sections a woman started complaining about the lack of choice on offer. "Och," she lamented in a fantastic Scottish brogue, "nay cheese an' onion cresps!"
We met Kath at the Tailrace Inn and I took the chance to do a quick video diary before we set off. Kinlochleven, looked altogether different in the early morning sunshine. To paraphrase Meriadoc Brandybuck, as he stood in the middle of Fangorn Forest, I almost felt I liked the place. I panned starting and ending at the river. The mountains still ringed the horizon, the ex-aluminium smelting plant still dreamed dark dreams on the edge of town, but it all looked a little more bearable. Of course I was leaving, I was just a visitor passing on through, and I was unlikely to return in a hurry, so I could afford to be magnanimous.
... but getting out of it is
If anything, the climb back out of Kinlochleven was more taxing then the Devils Staircase. It was a long pull, steep in places, with more than a fair share of the sort of wooden steps that I have learnt to hate with a passion as they suck the strength out of your legs quicker than any other obstacle on earth. Who designed these steps anyway? None of them seemed to have been built with a normal human leg measurement in mind. You either had to take a huge elongated step with one knee stuck in your ear and the other leg at full stretch behind you, or had to hop up them primly like a sparrow. As usual I found myself lagging behind after the halfway mark; my body was like a funnel that was draining away energy faster than it could be topped up and I resorted to stopping every fifty yards again to recharge. Muttering darkly and vowing to be better prepared next year I soldiered on. Having said all this, the climb was a pretty one, ascending through the Mamore Forest, it's trees dappled by early morning sunlight, and an occasional fine view back over There seemed to be a lot of people on this morning's excursion and they filed past me as I rested at each bend in the track. They looked bright and fresh, newly scrubbed and smelling of soap, the very antithesis of my present condition. I justified this by using the excuse that they were almost certainly day trippers whereas I, damn it, had marched all the way from Glasgow. I felt like shouting this out as they passed me by, but that might have risked a quick shove and a fatal plummet through the trees so I kept my mouth shut. Well, it was open and gulping in air actually but you know what I mean.
General Wade's military road
We stopped for lunch by the wayside, climbing up a few feet to sit on the springy turf. We had detected an end-of-term feeling to this final day and this was ably demonstrated by a line
of walkers dancing past us singing 'Side by side' and miming the actions to the song. Following in their wake was Bob (he of the ripe odour) whom we hadn't seen for some time. Bob had a new travelling companion, a curly haired youth who smiled but said very little. This new friend was travelling in the same manner as Bob, sleeping in a bivvy and roughing it. He probably had a well travelled bouquet as well but in this case two wrongs seemed to have made a right and they were happy enough to share the road together. It was nice to see Bob again and we caught up with the pros and cons of the last few days of walking. Eventually he wished us luck and walked on, heading for Fort William and the finishing post. The downside to this sort of journey is that you make friends readily, but very briefly. I realised that it was unlikely I would ever see him again.
The 'other' Ben Nevis and the tacky end ....
Later in the afternoon Colin and I climbed a small turf covered hill to take some photos. We wanted a relatively quiet location, away from the trail so we could capture some of the remoteness of the locale on video. This meant, of course, that as soon as we had the camera out a party of Germans appeared and began wandering about, getting into our shots and talking all over our video footage. To our right reared the huge bulk of a particularly large mountain, a feature that had become more and more prominent as the day had progressed. I wondered what it might be called. It was very impressive and it filled the eastern corner of the sky. One of the Germans approached Colin and asked him if this was Ben Nevis. Colin shook his head and pointed off to the left towards the distant purple ridge we had been told was the real deal.
I was deep in thought as we climbed back down to the trail and I came to the conclusion that we had been misinformed (or just as likely we had misinterpreted what we had been told) about our mountains. The great lumpy crag rearing up into the sky to our right was (as the information board had told us) Ben Nevis. The purple ridge we had been photographing
I pose in front of Ben Nevis
So there was it was, looking close enough to touch. An oversized way mark pointing to the end of our walk, the end of one night sleepovers, the end of battered painful feet, chafed flesh, and the end of inflamed leg muscles. I was missing it already.
Now the trail climbed for a while and entered the dense coniferous plantations of Nevis Forest. Our old friends the midges returned to keep us company and the air grew noticeably more humid. We passed through narrow ravines where the trees drew overhead forming cool shady tunnels that were not unpleasant to walk through.
We came across a loose cairn of stones that marked the place where a Campbell chieftain had fallen whilst in retreat from the McDonalds. Colin and I added a stone without first reading the information board nearby. It said, basically, that if you were a McDonald sympathiser (and by inference in collaboration with the Bloody English) you should add a stone and if you were a supporter of the clan Campbell then you took a stone away. Colin and I had added a stone and, being southerners, we had acted correctly. Kath's eyes narrowed a tad.
"Bloody English," she muttered.
She needed a comfort break in the woods so we walked on. I bet she took a stone off the pile as she walked past.
The midges were kept at bay with Jungle Formula and so we marched along with numb lips and lump-free appendages. A dragonfly suddenly appeared and dive bombed us.
"There must be still water about," I observed.
"Why?" Kath replied, "Can you hear it?"
"No it's just that dragonflies need sti ..... hang on - how can you HEAR still water?"
But, recognising a 'Blonde Moment' when one arrives, she was already doubled up with laughter.
The forest went on; the glorious Ben Nevis standing guard over us. We passed occasional forest clearings where the trees had been felled for timber. These great swathes of destruction looked like the Somme, circa 1917 or the aftermath of a nuclear strike. I actually like pine forests but they are not particularly eco-friendly and offer very little chance for bio-diversity. I had been encouraged, during this walk, by the attempts at replanting broadleaved forests. The rewards of this program won't be reaped for several decades but the landscape can only benefit from these projects - with the best will in the world, walking through miles of pine forests can be a monotonous experience.
We entered another clearing, crossing a wooden bridge over a set of rapids where giant brown toadstools grew along the riverbank, and then back once more into forest. The path began to dip and rise and during one ascent we passed a woman who was obviously in difficulties (maybe chafing or blisters, a sweat rash perhaps - it was impolite to ask). Her friends were trying to encourage her by telling her that this was the last stretch and there was only another half an hour left before the end of the walk. I heard this with both elation and sadness. It's not often that you experience conflicting desires to have something both continue and end - an odd emotional cocktail.
We reached a viewpoint where we could make out the untidy sprawl of Fort William below us, just a few miles distant. Ben Nevis loomed mightily to our right. We took some more pictures and Colin shot a video of Ben Nevis - so we'll know what it looks like next time.
Onward and downward, the trail almost threatened to do a Kinlochleven on us as Fort William didn't seem to be getting any closer as the day wore on. But abruptly, and rather startlingly, we emerged from a stand of trees onto a busy road on the outskirts of the town and the very final stretch of the West Highland Way lay ahead of us. It was just a mile or two along a tarmac path but surprisingly it took a lot out of us. We discovered that walking on asphalt after so many miles of forest trail is just horrible. All the sore parts of our feet and legs were re-activated and we began to peer ahead, straining for the elusive sign that would tell us we had finished. Kath in particular seemed to struggle, she was using both of her walking poles but was stooped over like an old lady and walking at half her normal pace.
The anti-climatic end
The end of the West Highland Way was nothing short of a complete anticlimax. A wooden sign, erected next door to a busy traffic island, congratulated us on making it all the way to the end. And that was about it really. It wasn't anywhere near as impressive as the poncy stone plinth marking the start all the way back in Milngavie and I doubt there would be anything in place at all but for the Highland Craft Centre who had created it as a shameless marketing ploy. Still, at least they had bothered. Come on Fort William - surely you could do better than this?
The Highland Craft Centre was just behind the finishing post, all gleaming glass and tacky souvenirs. The traffic roared around the island as we made our final video shoot and took our last set of photographs as West Highland Way walkers.
Another small group of people were seated nearby. They watched us impassively.
"Just done the Way?"
And, with this damp squib of a conversation, it ended. We parted company with Kath and retraced our steps back to our final Bed and Breakfast - The Glenfer - to a room that boasted three large beds and the most luxurious shower room we had yet enjoyed. Even better, there was a well equipped laundry room and, for a small price, the landlady offered to wash most of our clothes.
"You've walked the West Highland Way then?" she asked as we handed over a heap of festering tee-shirts and smalls.
We told her proudly that, indeed, we had.
She nodded. "I had some guys here last week who ran it all the way."
Some people just have a knack of being able to deflate you.
Beers in Fort Bill ....
We were ticking breakfast menu boxes zealously when Kath arrived, the smell of warm laundry and fabric conditioner permeating the lobby of the house. We walked back into
in search of the Ben Nevis Bar where, maybe, we would find Manfred and Matthias waiting. I had heard so much bad press about Fort William that I was expecting something like Kinlochleven, sans mountains. In fact I found it quite a pleasant place. It was clean and functional with all the pre-requisite high street chain stores necessary these days before a place can consider itself modernised (and perversely removing it's character in the process). It was like scores of other large towns found the length and breadth of the U.K. The sort of place where you would
take a PC World entirely for granted.
The final night out
Manfred and Matthias parted company with us at this point as they needed an early night in order to tackle Ben Nevis in the morning. We swapped email addresses and then said goodbye to them and waved them off down the high street. I'm pretty sure that I trod on Manfred's toes as he gave me a farewell hug but he was good enough not to let it show.
We spent the rest of the evening in a place who's name, in my ignorance, escapes me. We found Mr. Blister and his friends seated at a table inside and he looked relaxed and pain free, almost certainly due to the copious amount of 'heavy' he had consumed.
Colin and I sat with Kath and we made merry over several pints of real ale. We had been behaving ourselves with regards to alcohol all week as nobody enjoys hiking with a hangover but now those restraints were removed and we celebrated our achievement with enthusiasm. We weaved our way back to our B&B and then weaved straight past it, heading out into the dark wilderness beyond the towns edge. We realised our error only when we ran out of street lights.
I wanted to sit up and talk about the weeks experiences with Colin, share the memories, maybe over a shot or two of whisky but the wisdom of middle age overruled the youth hidden deep within and I snuggled contentedly into my duvet and was soon fast asleep.
See Route on ......