|The West Highland Way|
Profanity for breakfast ....
Breakfast time. The scent of last night’s lilies was now underpinned by the slightly clinical tang of Ralgex that Colin and I had used on our stiffened leg muscles. It permeated the house somewhat and we hoped it wouldn’t hang around for too long after we had departed, like an unwelcome ghost of walkers past.
Overnight a weather front had rolled in from the west and the tops of the three Munro peaks across the loch, , Beinn Dhubh and had been subsumed into the lowering clouds. It had been raining for some time, possibly all night, and the forecast was for a lot more to come. Peering out from our bedroom revealed a gloomy, wilting garden and a day not at all designed for walking.
We all said our good mornings at the dining table and had just started to tuck in when the two walkers Linda had mentioned the night before entered the room. We recognised them straight away; last seen at the foot of Conic Hill - the guys who had chosen the easy way to Balmaha (except there had been three of them at that point). The burly Scot I had spoken to then sat next to me and grunted a greeting.
"And what do you suppose the weather will do today?" asked the elderly lady from Dundee by way of a conversational starting point.
The burly Scot grimaced. "Och - it's gonna poss doon!" he growled.
There was a silence, as brief as a hiccup, and then the elderly lady drew in a little breath. Ken drew in a sharp breath and the man with the electro-larynx let in a virtual breath. I avoided Colin's eye as I knew he was suppressing laughter. The burly Scot's friend smiled apologetically. And that's how breakfast progressed for the morning: The burly Scot (name of Ronnie) continued to pepper his conversation with naughty words whilst the three wise scholars stared down into their scrambled eggs. Ronnie's friend (name of Shugie) continued to smile vaguely. I’m sure the three erudite students were uncomfortable with Ronnie’s cussing but of course they were far too polite to make an issue of it.
We learnt a few things about Ronnie and Shugie during the meal, starting with the news that the third person in their party had pulled out of the walk just beyond Conic hill with a hamstring injury. They were both retired Scots Guardsmen, Ronnie was a publican and Shugie a police officer. Both of them had remained in Windsor once their military careers were over. Ronnie, it transpired, was doing the walk for charity and Shugie seemed to have tagged along for moral support and to smile apologetically for his bluff companion’s idiosyncrasies.
Breakfast over, we said goodbye to the three photography students who were left sitting over their coffees, probably with a sense of quiet relief. We had been an unexpected diversion and now we were about to hit the road again, leaving them to the peace and quiet of the Lodge and profanity-free breakfasts. I left Inversnaid Lodge with a degree of sadness. Our stay had been brief but I had liked it's remoteness, the grand interior of the house, and it's mildly eccentric ambience. It was certainly the classiest place we stayed in all week.
But now we had thirteen miles to cover and the weather was against us. We kitted up in full rain gear whilst sheltering in an outhouse and then trudged, a little reluctantly, away from the house, down its Rhododendron-lined drive and then down the long tarmac road that wound all the way back to the Inversnaid Hotel. We picked up the sign for the West Highland Way, shouldered our rucksacks and set off for the start of the day we later dubbed Wet Tuesday.
Wet Tuesday ....
We had taken the time to put on our full waterproof gear before we left the lodge because today there was no option but to use them; the rain was relentless and we would just have to swelter inside of our waterproof jacket and over-trousers. The pitter-patter of rain on my hood was at first soothing then enervating and finally just one more soggy sound in a world full of water-based noises: Splash, trickle, gurgle, hiss - Scottish rain, we soon discovered, was determined and insidious stuff. The path continued along the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, at first a nice level track running through old pine plantations, but breaking up again after about thirty minutes. We soon returned to the part-walk-part-scramble of the latter half of yesterday's walk except this was possibly more of a challenge.
Years of walking have taught me a thing or two about my strengths and weaknesses whilst on the trail. I'm perfectly ok on the straightforward bits; a nice, level track and I can trundle along all day like a reliable old pack-horse, but I’m not so terribly clever on the incline. I’m not really built for it to be honest, being of large frame and the reluctant participant of an on-off smoking habit. I have a lung capacity that could best be described as average and hills make me struggle. The morning had developed into a series of upward gradients and a number of rocky ledges had been added to the fun, so my joy knew no bounds. The rain had made it all the more difficult as the rocks were slippery and the path was turning spongy with mud. We made slow progress over this section - or rather, I made slow progress and Colin forged ahead and then waited patiently for me to catch up. I began to mutter and grumble to myself again. A couple of things occurred to me as I laboured.
1. I needed to improve my hill climbing and
2. I needed to practise the art of scrambling.
The first part was easy enough; there were hills within easy driving distance of Birmingham, but how to create this sort of terrain at home? I could, perhaps, place random objects on the stairs, forcing a scramble every time the loo was needed, or arrange all the furniture so that I was forced to climb up and over large objects in order to access the fridge, but I had other people in the house to consider, and the dog wasn't getting any younger. There was always the garden:
"Sue - I'm going to build a rockery. A very big rockery with a waterfall, a lot of mud, and some feral goats."
I soldiered on and consoled myself that one day I would look back on this moment and laugh [note: not yet I haven't] and picked my way carefully along the path. The ground fell away sharply on one side, a long drop down to the waters of Loch Lomond and I proceeded cautiously - in fact this was the only section of the whole week where I felt that a slip or trip could end in tears: A sopping wet swan dive to an exciting but messy end.
The Portuguese Scouts from yesterday re-appeared and passed us by, chain smoking Gauloises and chattering loudly. It was difficult to tell whether they were annoyed with each other or just discussing the relative merits of the Turks Head Knot when securing woggles. It was all at the same volume. We played a cat and mouse game with them for a while, we passed each other several times along the way until finally they pulled ahead of us and disappeared, never to be seen again.
At the apex of one craggy rock climb we stopped to allow a couple of guys to pass us. A soggy bundle of blue Gore-Tex was following in their wake. It was McPlucky.
"Oh hello!" she said from within the depths of her hood, “a fine day for it!”.
She stayed with us for a while telling us that she had spent a reasonably comfortable night at the Inversnaid Bunkhouse, but that she was having to sleep with her feet elevated on a mound of pillows to stop them throbbing, and that her camera's batteries had died. The two guys we had let pass were some Germans she had fallen in with earlier. She went on to add that she had walked much of the previous day with a chap who was roughing it along the way, camping out all week in a small bivouac. I looked up at the rain-laden skies and felt sorry for him, reminded once more of the comfort we had enjoyed at the Inversnaid Lodge. Colin gallantly offered some spare batteries he was carrying for her camera and suggested fitting them at the next stop. The next stop came almost immediately as I had a loose shoelace to attend to. Whilst I retied the lace (an activity I was forced to repeat every mile or so on those particular boots ) Colin fished about in his rucksack until he had retrieved the spare batteries. "Here you go," he said cheerfully.
But McPlucky had gone, vanished like a waterproof phantom into the mist and rain.
"She's in a tearing hurry," he observed.
Leaving Lomond ....
We struggled on - over rocks, up rocks, down rocks, over tree roots, under low tree branches, as the rain hissed all around us. Yesterday, in the sunshine, the loch had taken on an almost Mediterranean blue; it had looked cool and inviting. Today under the leaden skies it looked like a vast sheet of slate; cold and unwelcoming and not a single boat braved the elements out on its exposed surface.
The guide book had talked about the feral goats we might expect to see towards the northern end of the loch and quoth 'even if you don't see them you will smell them'. I stopped to take a picture of a waterfall that leapt enthusiastically down the face of a rock wall before emptying itself into the loch. As I set the picture up I was aware of a horrible stench that seemed to coat my tongue and nostrils. I had smelt nothing like it before - the closest comparison that sprang to mind was a hot day in the primate house at Whipsnade Zoo, but even that didn't really rival the potency of this noxious pong.
The lair of the stinky goats
Finally, after an unduly long time spent threading our way carefully along the broken shoreline, we began to see the end of this troublesome section. The loch was narrowing, the wooded confines of Loch Lomond's shoreline drawing together, allowing the trail to eventually break out onto more open ground, pointing the way ahead into Glen Falloch.
Presently we came across a deserted beach, the final one before we parted company with the lake, and stopped for a drink of water. I had a duty to perform. Whilst on holiday in Cornwall a few weeks before I had picked up a shiny black pebble from the harbour at the foot of . I had carried it all the way back to Birmingham and thence north to Scotland with the intention of throwing it into the waters of Loch Lomond. Why? I don't really know. It just seemed a fanciful notion that I had picked something up from a beach in the far south west that had probably been washed by the Atlantic for millennia and was about to deposit it under the waters of a lake over four hundred miles north where it would presumably lie forever. Or maybe I just wanted to give the geologists of the future something to think about. Whatever the reasoning, the time had come.
I had to pull my waterproofs down to my knees in order to obtain the pebble from the depths of a pocket in my trousers. I held it aloft and studied it for one last time. Then I kissed the pebble, Colin kissed the pebble, and with a cry of 'good luck' I hurled it away into the water.
It made a phish sound as it went in.
"There it goes then," I murmured.
A noise behind us made us turn around. We had not been alone after all. A studious looking young man was seated on a log drinking from a water flask. He was staring at us uncertainly. I hoisted my waterproof trousers back up.
"Allright?" I offered cheerfully as we walked past.
"Uh-huh," he replied guardedly.
Three's company ....
We climbed a rise and turned back for a last look at Loch Lomond. It had been, at times, a challenging two days but I knew I would miss the loch all the same. There's something calming about the presence of a large body of water as you walk along. Of course we would still be near a large body of water for the next eight hours but unfortunately it would be falling down at us from out of the skies. Turning our back on Loch Lomond we made our way along the banks of the River Falloch, passing a bothie full of student-types who had presumably spent the night there; they were washing pans in the nearby stream and seemed completely unconcerned about the miserable conditions. They chattered and laughed merrily, a fiesta of bright clothing – a youthful collection of bon vivants totally at odds with their surroundings and as a result both uplifting and irritating. At the top of the next rise we caught up with McPlucky again. She was anxiously examining her camera, hoping to coax some life back into it so Colin came to the rescue with the batteries he had dug out for her earlier. The three of us continued together. McPlucky asked us where were heading and when we said Crianlarich she asked if we minded her company along the way, to which we said she was most welcome. It certainly wasn't a day to be out on your own. She formally introduced herself as Kath, eliminating the need for any more nick-naming.
A while later we stopped for coffee within the shell of a derelict building, sheltering from the rain in the lee of an old wall. Glen Falloch spread out before us, its steep flanks diffused in the drizzle, the white threads of streams carrying the rainwater off the mountains to join the fuming waters of the Falloch as it lurched along the valley floor towards Loch Lomond.
We did a little profiling as we sipped our coffees and it greatly impressed us to learn that Kath was a TV producer, the first and only one we had ever met. She was a native Glaswegian and had opted to do the walk alone as she was between contracts and couldn't find any of her friends who could take the time off work, or were adventurous enough, to walk with her. She’d handed me a route map as we chatted and I had been studying it.
"According to this we should be near the ruins of an old croft," I announced gormlessly and looked around. Kath gestured to the wall we were sitting against.
The path washed away
I hadn’t, at that point, gotten around to describing my job but she was right; a detective I was not.
I have to confess that the middle section of this day’s walking has since fused into one vague passage of time in my memory. When we set off again we followed a well-made drover’s road that ran along Glen Falloch, a track that undulated over folds of pasture land, heading roughly northwards along the valley. The river Falloch was an ever present and boisterous companion below us. The world about us was a sort of green, dripping haziness drenched in the sound of water - running water, white water, dripping water, pattering water. We were in a world dominated by the stuff and only creatures blessed with gills or webbed feet could have found it enchanting. In clear weather, of course, this would have been a pleasant and pretty section of the walk, but the prevailing conditions had made the scenery a little anonymous. But for the presence of so much rushing water I felt that I could have been anywhere vaguely rural like, say, a traffic island on the A45. It was a bit of a plod.
My clothes began to lose the battle against the wet persistence of the rain, I started to slowly saturate from north and south, hood downwards and boots upwards. I calculated that the two tide marks would meet joyously at my midriff by mid-afternoon after which I would not, indeed could not, get any wetter. My boots had taken in water very soon after leaving Inversnaid - entirely my fault for wearing trail boots rather than my Brashers and neglecting to use my Gore-Tex gaiters - so my feet were squelching about unhappily long before we had left Loch Lomond. Amazingly, my blisters all but disappeared during this day, a weird but happy side effect of walking with boots full of water. Trench Foot could have been the other less happy consequence but I was lucky to get away with that.
Kath devised quizzes to pass the time.
Favourite movies ...
In what year did ...
Famous quotes ...
We stopped for a break at a camping centre in Inverarnan. We sought refuge in the laundry room where we ate a soggy packed lunch and I filmed the deluge outside. I also took the opportunity to change some of my base layer clothing in a toilet cubicle which was rather like wrestling an octopus in a phone booth. As we sat and contemplated the prospect of going back out into this monsoon two young German lads arrived dressed in shorts and tee-shirts completely plastered to their skins. They looked affronted that the weather had dared to take such a turn for the worse, as if the Scottish weather should have been predictable like a BMW engine or beating England in penalty shoot-outs. As they stood dripping and confused another pair of young men sprinted across the lawn outside carrying a fully erected pole tent. I wondered if there was a third person inside.
We took as much time as we could over lunch but there's not much you can do with a cheese sandwich other than eat it so, finally, we had to shoulder our rucksacks and set off again, passing the rear of the main building where a chef in greasy chequered trousers smirked at us over his cigarette as we filed past and out into the deluge. Leaving Inverarnan the track led us back into the same valley and the same dripping green haze, the same sound of white water running swiftly by. We met two bedraggled women travelling in the opposite direction who warned us that the path had been completely washed away by storm water a few miles ahead. They advised us to head up the wooded hillside near to the breach to where the river ran through a storm culvert and then back down to the other side. It sounded like a joyless manoeuvre given the conditions.
We walked on.
Kath invented more quizzes.
Name all of the TeleTubbies.
Who invented the light bulb?
Who has the wettest pants?
Sure enough, we reached the point where the path had been washed clean away. It was just a rushing torrent of foaming water which had bitten out a large chunk of the footpath on its way down to the boiling Falloch. As advised, we toiled up the wooded hillside, over a barbed wire fence, and slithered inelegantly down the opposite side. The river Falloch had risen noticeably so that we were no more than a few feet from its edge. The current was tearing along, fed by dozens of overflowing mountain streams. As we progressed we passed points where large torrents leaping down from the mountains would empty into the main river with a roar of water, thundering along rocky ravines to join the main confluence. Bridges carried us over rapids that made the ground tremble. We speculated on the survival time of anyone unlucky enough to fall into the floodwater - seconds, maybe.
We trudged on. Colin's trusty guidebook had been a casualty of the wet weather and was a soggy mass of pages, welded together into a papier mache cinder block, so we couldn't even read about our surroundings much less see them. Luckily we still had Kath's map and since the West Highland Way was clearly sign-posted we were in no danger of getting ourselves lost. Finally we climbed away from the river valley and emerged unexpectedly onto a metalled road.
Kath pointed. "Look - a cow. There's a photo opportunity Mark."
A dun coloured beast was indeed astride the path. It was blocking our way.
"That's one well-muscled cow," observed Colin.
"Och it's just a cow," Kath insisted.
"Do cows usually have that tufty thing down there?" I offered.
It was a bull of course. Why it was there we never knew. He was chewing the cud slowly and staring out across the valley to the misty hills beyond. He didn't seem to notice us at all. He had the air of someone who had made lots of plans for the day only to have them ruined by the rotten weather. He was ruminating, thoughtful. Colin went first, edging behind the beasts rear end. "If the bugger so much as twitches I'll be up that embankment in seconds."
I went next with Kath using me as a sort of human shield. We needn't have worried. The bull had loftier matters to consider.
The halfway point on Wet Tuesday
"You'll get e-Coli," muttered Colin darkly.
Some way along this long, soggy, grey trail we encountered a kissing gate. This was in fact the halfway point of the West Highland Way and was, as such, a landmark moment. Kath took a picture of Colin and I, clutching each other like drowning sailors but smiling bravely in true British spirit.
Quite how we finally limped into Crianlarich I can't remember. I think it involved a steep downward road through conifer plantations but I couldn't be sure. I was at that point wondering whether your skin could get so saturated that it simply slid off you. However, the small town finally appeared before us, or perhaps more accurately we appeared, wraith-like, before it.
We headed for the place we thought we were all staying. This was the hotel that Kath had managed to get a room in and we believed we were in the same place. Unfortunately we got the venue wrong again. We left Kath to check in and took directions from a guy lounging at the bar for a B&B next door that he believed was the right place. For 'next door' substitute 'on the edge of the village' and of course once we got there it wasn't the place we needed. By now I was having a sense of humour failure. This rain just wasn't funny any more. In the end I phoned up our B&B and insisted that they come and pick us up. They offered to do so but only if we walked back into Crianlarich, so we were obliged to slosh back into the village centre. The lady arrived and looked both nervous and unhappy as these two drenched strangers appeared out of the gloom to sit, steaming and sullen, in her car as she took us back to our room.
A sore subject ....
There was no food to be had at the bed and breakfast nor indeed were there any restaurants at our end of Crianlarich so we showered and changed, left our soaked gear to be dried (she didn't look too happy about that either), and took a taxi back to Kath's hotel. We had our evening meal with her there and I succumbed to the inevitable tourist temptation of haggis neeps and tatties which proved to be extremely tasty. The waitress was from Glasgow, she was working at the hotel because her uncle owned it, she was training to be an aromatherapist, and she was sweet but not the sharpest tool in the garage. She rattled on at Kath and I caught perhaps one word in three. Time perhaps for a new Babelfish.
As we took a taxi back to our room I discovered that I had managed to grow a generous chafe rash on the inside of my thighs - probably from the sodden seams of my trousers sawing back and forth as I walked. It was pretty painful so I administered surgery when we got back - lots of Sudacreme, plasters, and micropore tape. We decided to buy a small nightcap before bedtime and I offered to get them. I asked for a specific single malt that the man of the house had recommended earlier. The landlady fetched us two single shots and then charged us a total of eight pounds. I paid up without flinching. Climbing the stairs with such raw and aching legs - I was strapped up like an American Wrestler - was surprisingly hard work. My body had had enough and all it craved now was sleep. Gratefully I eased into bed.
Cool crisp sheets.
And I was dry again!
See Route on ......