|The West Highland Way|
The wrong table ....
We woke feeling fresh and prepared for the day ahead. I ached in many strange and surprising places but felt more than capable of another fifteen miles. I was convinced we were in for an easier time today; after all we were walking along the shores of a lake - how hard could that be?
There were no obvious table numbers in the dining area of the Oak Tree so we chose the same table we had sat at for our evening meal because it offered nice views of Loch Lomond. Not sure of the protocol for obtaining a breakfast Colin wandered off in search of orange juice leaving me to watch the ducks and the boats outside. The large and rather formidable lady in charge of breakfasts approached me wearing a frown.
"Cullen?" She grunted.
"What?" I replied, nonplussed.
"Cullen?" she grunted again.
I was at a loss and she gave no further indication of what she meant but just stood impatiently waiting for a response. What was she saying to me in her broad Scots brogue? Cooking? Colin? Culling? I gazed blankly at her. "Cullen?" She repeated and this time pointed at me. The penny dropped.
She tutted and flapped her hand briefly towards another table nearby. "Och they've taken your table. You'll have to move."
I assume it was the Cullens, occupying our designated table, who were the root of the problem and I was about to ask why, if our table had been taken, I couldn't just stay put, but it would have been too complicated so I moved one table along. She went off and busied herself at a few other tables nearby, shuffling people around and I wondered if, instead of moving the wayward Cullens back to their proper table, they were now re-arranging everyone else to fit around them.
During breakfast we met the petite lady from the Beech Tree Inn again. Regarding us now as fellow West Highland Way pilgrims she approached our table for a quick chat. She looked ready for the off.
"So where are you two staying tonight then?" she asked us.
"A place called the Inversnaid Lodge we think." said Colin.
She smiled ruefully. "What - you mean the place I couldn't get into?”
It looked as if we had beaten her to the best of Inversnaid’s rooms which made us feel a little uncomfortable but she didn’t seem too put out.
“Oh well, it's the Inversnaid Bunkhouse for me. Still, it looks like it's going to be a nice day for walking, thank God.”
We agreed that it did indeed look like a sunnier day was in store.
She collected her walking poles. “Anyway, I'd better get going as I want to make an early start. Best of luck for today, see ya." and away she went. Minutes later she strode resolutely past our window, poles clicking. "You have to give her credit," I said, "tackling the walk solo like that. I'm not sure I'd enjoy it if I were a single female."
"Yeah I agree," said Colin bestowing an instant nickname, "McPlucky has balls all right."
We take the high road AND the low road ....
As she had indicated, it looked as if a fine day was in store. The forecast was good for the next twenty four hours and we had an urge to forge ahead and make some miles. Emerging from the foyer of the Inn we loitered for a while amongst the yachts and the ducks scattered along water front, breathing in the wholesome morning air. I waved the camcorder at some pretty scenery and gave a brief description of what we had accomplished so far and what we would be doing today. Colin stood to one-side as the video rolled and heckled me about whether we were on day one or day two of the week.
We set off, following the road out of Balmaha for a spell before turning off onto a footpath that meandered through stands of Scots Pine, hugging the shore of the loch. This nice lakeside stroll turned into a climb almost immediately, a twisting, turning gradient cutting its way through woodland. At the top we were rewarded with a nice view south across the water and then within ten minutes we lost all of the height we had gained and were walking along the shore again. After several more switchbacks we stopped for a few minutes on a tiny and secluded beach, an inlet where miniature waves lapped against the shingle and trees crept to the very edge of the shoreline, their roots reaching into the coldness of the lake like hesitant bathers dipping their toes in the water. the most southerly of the loomed in the east, rearing up 3,000ft above the lake, allowing the morning sun to daub its flanks with splashes of green and russet. I found a piece of shiny pink quartz at the water’s edge and pocketed it to take home for my wife Sue, snapping a photo of this alluring little spot as a reminder of where I had found it.
For much of the morning we continued around the shore, enjoying a pleasant meander through ancient woodland, with many secluded little bays affording pleasing views of the loch and the mountain beyond. Along one section of narrow track bordered by lush ferns we were surprised by a sudden steep climb that
Loch Lomond Shoreline
Around lunchtime the ground began to undulate more noticeably and my legs began to complain again, having still not fully recovered from yesterday’s long hike. We reached the settlement of and broke for lunch where I found that leaping from the road to the beach on stiffened legs was a surprisingly difficult task which I eventually accomplished with all the poise and grace of an octogenarian. Gratefully we sat against a low stone wall and stretched our legs out on the gritty sand. We munched our sandwiches as speedboats and jet-skis cut white scars across the water and a couple of opportunist ducks shared my ready salted crisps. The day was so still that voices carried across the loch from the Inverberg holiday park on the opposite shore, two miles away. Lunch completed and legs rested we refilled our water bottles at a ranger's station, where a group of foreign youths were preparing to set forth. They were an effusive, cosmopolitan crowd, Portuguese we thought, and there was a lot of gesticulating and shouting going on. They wore a scouts uniform of some sort so were presumably led by responsible adults though we never saw them. There seemed to be a fairly tolerant attitude towards governance as demonstrated by one girl we noticed, who looked to be about thirteen years old, leaning against a wall and smoking a Gauloise with great élan.
We pressed on. The track broadened out and became a wide and well-laid footpath with Loch Lomond to our left and dense woodland sweeping up above us to the right, towards an unseen summit. The day delivered on its early promise and the sun shone warmly down from a sky that was clear and blue. The path undulated over a series of long switchbacks and we fell into a pattern of ascent and descent that lasted for the rest of the day. We experienced long gradual climbs where the loch fell away to the left and boats became tiny dots on its blue water followed by equally long descents so that eventually we were walking along the water's edge again, the boats so close we could smell their diesel fumes. The trail was easy on our feet, there was no prospect of becoming lost, and the weather was being kind to us. It was, in fact, all going swimmingly well. At one point a clad in shimmering black scales, slithered across the path in front of us and obligingly allowed itself to be picked up and studied, whilst occasional Buzzards wheeled overhead, searching the canopy of the trees beneath them for their next meal. Waterfalls, secreted away in mossy channels, tinkled their way down to the Loch, and the trees that grew alongside the path offered dappled shade against the noontide sun. After a few happy hours of this idyll, towards mid-afternoon, Colin’s phone warbled. It was father.
Yes we're fine.
Yes the views are lovely.
No we're not walking too fast.
No really we're not.
What do mean you can tell we are?
You can hear my water bottle and it's sloshing too fast?
Yeah, ok dad.
Mum came onto the phone and Colin nodded.
Yes mum the old guy's doing fine.
They were talking about me of course. Dad had fostered concerns about this walk from the day we had announced it. He had worried about our fitness, the mileage we had to cover, the wild land we would be travelling. He had worried that I was no longer in the halcyon days of my youth. The fact that both Colin and I had been walking for several years, that it was Scotland not Outer Mongolia, and that I was many years away from drawing my pension did little to alleviate his worries. We were to receive regular calls from him for the first few days until he was satisfied that we could cope perfectly well and that he didn’t need Mountain Rescue on speed dial any more.
As the sun began to set we had a tea-break on a high and lonely bench set on a rocky outcrop overlooking the loch far below. According to our guidebook we had only a few miles to go, which was just fine as far as we were concerned as our legs had begun to tire and our feet were threatening industrial action again. We munched chocolate and supped tea on that seat high above Loch Lomond, full of confidence that this day was all but completed and that we would soon be enjoying a cold beer and comfy chairs.
Isn't optimism a wonderful thing?
The wrong hotel ....
We made our way down from the bench, following a twisty little track that led to a gate where a hand-painted sign was displayed. The Inversnaid Hotel - 2Km it read. That was less than a mile! We would be at our digs in no time. We passed through the gate and continued to hug the shoreline along the twisty little track, looking ahead for our lodgings.
We were to learn that the West Highland Way had an unfortunate habit of springing difficult roads upon you at the very end of the day, just when you are at your most tired and footsore. Today was the first of such lessons. We were so convinced the end was in sight that we allowed ourselves to relax a little, acknowledging the aching muscles and fatigue, embracing them in fact as soon they could be dealt with. However The West Highland Way had other designs on us. The path narrowed further and became rockier; soon it was scarcely more than a foot wide and it began to get seriously gnarly. Some parts of it became snarled up with tree roots or forced you to into a scramble over rocky ledges and it seemed to continue without any hint of an end in sight. Every bend around the shoreline merely offered yet another view forward and it was always more of the same. At one point we passed the Portuguese scouts who like us looked fatigued and distinctly unimpressed. As pretty as the passing scenery still was, we desperately needed to get off our feet and around the outside of a cold beer. The sign at that gate was most certainly wrong because it felt like much farther than 2km to the hotel (everyone we later met agreed on this point). At last, however, the Inversnaid Hotel hove into view. Perhaps with footsore Sassanach Hikers in mind, the architects of the building that stood before us had a penchant for installing steps as a great number of them now presented themselves to us. One steep set led us up to the
Colin looks optimistic
"You have a room for me - name of Walford." I announced confidently. The concierge was eyeing our shabby walking gear and dishevelled appearance dubiously. She leafed through several pieces of A4 paper. They had a lot of names on them but Walford wasn't among them.
"Are you sure?" she asked me doubtfully.
My smile faltered. "Well I was fairly sure until you said that."
Sensing our bemusement a young duty manager appeared as if by magic. "Are you sure you don't need the Inversnaid Lodge?" he suggested with the air of a man who has had the same conversation many times before.
Our crests fell further. "Ah .. so we're in the wrong place then?"
He nodded and our spirits sank. Our hiking was not yet over for the day. "Yes sir, I’m afraid that this is the Inversnaid Hotel. The Inversnaid Lodge is further up the road, about fifteen minutes’ walk. Follow the drive out onto the road and you can't miss it. It’ll be on your left."
We had to turn and limp back across the lobby, saying farewell to the plush carpets, gleaming chandeliers and unmistakable whiff of luxury. We were sure to end up in a dump now, sharing our room with a healthy case of damp whilst being chewed by midges.
'Up' the road was right. A steep tarmac drive swept away from the hotel leading to an equally inclined road heading up into a conifer plantation. Soon we were toiling up it moodily, convinced that we were the victims of some jest designed to make walkers suffer, devised one night over a few drams between the local sign-writers, architects, and hotel managers. After fifteen long minutes we made it to the and had time to register that we were going to spend the night in a beautiful Regency house set in a peaceful acreage of garden. It looked stunning – could this really be our quarters for the night? We were looking about for some sort of catch, perhaps the owner of this property coming out to inform us that it was the Inversnaid Grange and that Inversnaid Lodge was the shack just visible on the crest of the hill. Warily we approached the entrance and the door opened revealing a smiling lady who greeted us warmly. I heard the words Lodge, Chicken Casserole, Beer and Shower in amongst the unimportant stuff. I fell in love with the place there and then.
The right end to the day ....
Our evening meal was, it has to be said, an odd experience, albeit odd in a good way. We both had a feeling of sensory dislocation. One minute we had been labouring along the loch's edge, covered in sweat and dead flies, the next we found ourselves showered, dressed in clean clothes, and seated in an elegant Georgian dining room with Clannad playing softly in the background, the heady scent of Asiatic lilies perfuming the air. The house, with its elegant Georgian façade, had proven to be every bit as impressive on the inside as its exterior had suggested. Every corner of its cool interior presented a mounted stags head, every turn a gilt framed oil painting. The hallway boasted a beautiful sweeping double staircase of polished mahogany. A number of well-fed cats padded across plush carpets. There was no TV to be found in our room that night. They would have looked wrong; it just wasn't that sort of a place.
Where's my hotel?
As we waited for our fellow diners to arrive our hostess, Linda, explained to us that the lodge's main business was a photography school and that they currently had three photography students staying as guests. She and her husband Eugene had moved here from London twenty years before. There were seven rooms letting rooms available and West Highland Way walkers were a steady income for them.
"You two look in much better shape than the other couple of lads that are staying tonight," she said as she handed us a cold beer. "I really thought we would need an ambulance for them."
"West Highland Way walkers" I asked?
"Yes - but they've gone back down to the hotel for a meal. Apparently they don't like chicken."
The three photography 'students' arrived for dinner; they were all folk of a certain age. We made our introductions - a woman from Dundee, a man who had an artificial voice due to a laryngectomy and a third man called Ken from Nottinghamshire. We had a tasty three course meal and the conversation flowed along easily as they were gentle, good natured people and we found them most pleasant company. We relaxed under the influence of a few more beers, warmed by a cheerful open fire and with our mood softened by the many candles lit around the room. To think we could have been roughing it under canvas or, like poor McPlucky, holed up in some dingy bunkhouse. Ah yes - this was what I called a walking holiday!
After dinner we all retired to the lounge, sharing a whisky with Linda, her husband Eugene and the others. The conversation turned to the subject of photographing local wildlife and birds in particular. Colin is a confirmed ornithologist and he engaged Eugene on what birds we might expect to see in the Highlands, talking knowledgeably on the subject whilst one of the house cats targeted me for its attention, rubbing around my legs and fixing me with a green sardonic stare. Inevitably after a long walk, a decent meal, and a couple of drinks I had become drowsy and settled further into my large overstuffed armchair. This was such a nice place; so comfortable and relaxing. I could easily imagine spending the rest of the week here rather than marching halfway across Scotland. Perhaps Sue could catch a train; she’d be here by the morning. I went into a pleasant muse, imagining the two of us wandering around the gardens during the day, pointing at mountains and tripping along the loch’s shoreline. We could sit around an open fire each evening sipping wine and stroking cats and Sue could knit me a kilt. Maybe we could even become students, take up photography - collect snapshots of all those idiot walkers toiling past on their way to Fort William with their merry band of blisters.
I came out of my reverie to notice that Colin had gone.
Linda breezed into the room. "The prints are ready." she announced, apropos of nothing. This elicited much excitement and Eugene and the three photography students made an eager exit. It was now just me and the cat, who sprawled on a vacant armchair and seemed to care less whether I stayed with it or not.
Colin and I retired, much to our chagrin, long before the older residents, although we did have the reasonable excuse of having walked all day. There was still no sign of the other two walkers Linda had mentioned who had presumably enjoyed a chicken-free dinner down at the hotel and were still making merry.
As a coda to the day, Linda had already asked us what we wanted for breakfast so there were no boxes to tick. We rather missed the challenge.
See Route on ......