|The West Highland Way|
By Mark Walford
Route: Glasgow to Milngavie
Date: Saturday September 2nd 2006
Distance: 10m (16km)
Elevation: 43ft (13m) to 203ft (62m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 620ft (189m) and 607ft (185m)
See Route on ......
City to City ....
3:30 a.m. I loaded the last of my baggage into my car and performed a brief check that I had packed everything I needed, which amounted to no more than a count of the bag-shaped objects in the gloom of my luggage space. My dog, Bryn, had watched with bleary eyed puzzlement when I clattered downstairs in the middle of the night, lumbering about the place, as I washed and breakfasted and packed. I’d rudely awakened him at 2:30 a.m and I’d been at it for an hour, yawning and muttering and losing my novelty value fairly quickly. He was stoically attempting to ignore me and carry on sleeping and so I gave him a final pat on the head, quietly left the house, and allowed him to return to his interrupted dreams. I threaded my way through the empty streets of suburban Birmingham, letting Mike And The Mechanics keep me awake by telling me how lovely it was to be a Beggar On A Beach Of Gold and arrived at my parents' house to pick up my brother. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Colin was ready and eager to be off; apparently everything was packed and nothing of import had been left behind at his home in the West Country. We loaded up his gear, and then on impulse stole some of our father's whiskey from the bottle he kept for playing Poker on-line, filling our hip-flasks with furtive haste, before setting off on the long slog north to
"I have a bad chest," Colin informed me as we gained the M6. "I'm going to cough at night. Sorry." We were sharing rooms all through the week.
"I snore," I admitted. "Sorry."
Part of my itinerary had included a box of wax ear defenders, packed almost as an afterthought but now taking on the mantle of sublime foresight.
We soon left the urban sprawl of behind us, the orange glow of the sodium lamps fell away and the motorway became a ribbon of green cat's eyes winding out hypnotically into the night. There was hardly another vehicle to be seen. "I'm amazed you remembered to pack everything," I said presently to Colin. By his own admission my brother was prone to the odd bout of absent-mindedness.
"Yeah," he nodded, "I took my time over it and it's all there. I double checked."
He became thoughtful for a while after this, no doubt running through a checklist of all the vital pieces of kit required for the week ahead and checking them off mentally. Suddenly, no more than ten miles later, he made a strangled noise and clasped his hands to his face. I chanced a sideways glance and saw his eyes shining at me in the darkness.
"We're not going back anyway," he said in a small voice.
I knew where this was going. "What have you forgotten?"
"My weatherproof jacket."
"You're right," I nodded emphatically. "We're not going back".
"I'll have to buy a new one in Milngavie," he muttered with all the bitterness of a student forced to spend money on things not related to beer.
The CD changer swapped disks randomly, playing an eclectic collection of music for our pleasure, and the miles passed by under our wheels as the night faded away. Dawn began to break as we travelled along the eastern edge of the Lake District. In the uncertain twilight the grey humps of the hills rose, like whale backs, from the formless land, their peaks hidden under rolling banks of soft white nimbus. I pictured myself up there in the cold and clammy embrace of the clouds, trudging across a desolate waste of damp grass and cloying mud, with only morose sheep for company, and then I speculated on how the elements would hold up for us in Scotland. We were prepared for the worst, notoriously fickle as Highland weather could be; a six day trudge through pelting rain was an unwelcome but entirely feasible scenario and so we had brought suitable clothing (Colin’s weatherproof jacket notwithstanding), but we both harboured hopes of fairer walking weather. We would be all the happier for seeing sunlight playing on the mountain flanks, the glens cloaked in purple shadows, majestic peaks framed against an arching blue sky – just like the pictures embossed on tins of shortbread or the Technicolor splendour captured in movies like Rob Roy.
"I'm hungry." announced Colin, and after picturing tins of shortbread so was I. We had a full English (Scottish?) breakfast, just across the border into Scotland, in a motorway service near Carlisle. It was noticeable how the accents immediately became Scottish once the border was crossed. No hybrid Anglo-Caledonian thing going on here - ten miles down the road you lived in a town, here it was a 'toon'. I often wonder what demographic rules apply when defining the boundary lines of regional accents and I’m always fascinated by how local speech can alter so much within just a few miles of travel.
There was a large black bird strutting around the grounds as we walked back to the car.
"Do they call crows McCaws up here?" I said, attempting lame humour.
Colin studied the bird. "Actually," he said, "I think you'll find that's a McRook."
We flew along the M74 in light traffic and although we overshot the exit ramp for Glasgow and had a 30 mile loop added to our journey as a result we still made it into the city by 10 a.m. We had made good time and were busily congratulating ourselves on this even as we became enmeshed in a traffic jam on the M8 that held us up for nearly an hour, joining the bumper-to-bumper gridlock of Glaswegians enduring their morning commute, but at least allowing us the opportunity to have a good look at the city, which neither of us had visited before. Eventually, via a series of side-streets and wrong turns, we found our long stay car park and our marathon car journey was concluded.
We had selected AMS, a small local business, to act as our booking agent and baggage courier and, as arranged, the guy was waiting for us. There followed a brief interlude where his broad Glaswegian brogue and our mildly Brummie twang bounced off each other. He spoke to us twice and we replied twice and nobody understood a word of the exchange. By the third attempt we finally tuned in, using our internal and managed to decipher our respective accents, after which there was a flurry of activity which involved a lot of baggage being heaved about and cars being moved around. The guys staffing the long stay car park were all burly geezers in blue serge uniforms but they were genuinely interested in our planned journey and saw us off with a friendly wave. We set off back through Glasgow, this time being driven by the AMS guy. From what little I saw of it, I liked the look of the city. It had obviously undergone a renaissance of sorts and in common with many other British cities was in the process of re-inventing itself, ditching its old industrial heritage in favour of a modern cosmopolitan image; clean, glass-clad modern architecture and pedestrianized streets being very much in evidence. To drive home this makeover, and also to reassure would-be visitors, it had given itself a new handle - The Friendly City, which didn’t really shout out ‘Glasgow’ to me after all those episodes of Taggart. Sadly, I wouldn't be finding out if this new tag was justified as we were paying the city the briefest of visits.
During the short car journey to the helpful AMS guy offered Colin the loan of one of his weatherproof jackets, sparing Colin some considerable expense, and then we were dropped off at a flight of granite steps leading down to the park. Our walk had begun.
It was raining.
Park Life ....
We were deposited beneath an imposing monument - a weathered bronze statue which depicted a Bengal tigress feeding her cubs an exotic lunch of dead peacock. We learned later that this was the Kennedy Monument, presented to the city by a former Glaswegian - John S. Kennedy of New York - in 1867 with a replica also erected in Central Park at the same time. The tigress glared down upon us from atop a solid square pedestal, well above head height and there was a sheltered space behind this edifice where tall shrubs flourished in perpetual shade. Dressed as he was in casual clothes Colin chose this place to prepare himself for the walk ahead and disappeared from view, emitting a series of furtive rustles and clinks to re-appear, minutes later, as a fully-fledged hiker.
Photographs needed to be taken and only then did I realise that I had packed my digital camera away in my luggage and that it was now with the AMS guy, on its way to our Croftamie B&B where it would no doubt nab the best bed and use all the hot water up. Luckily Colin had a disposable camera stashed in a pocket so this important moment would not be lost to posterity. I posed first and became aware that the statue's plinth not only played host to a variety of interesting graffiti but also a very active wasp nest. I'm not particularly spheksophobic but this was a very energetic nest and Colin seemed to take forever to frame the shot. The resulting image probably has me posing awkwardly, wearing a strained grin and with my eyes slewed sideways as I watch wasp after wasp emerge from the nest buzzing just a few inches beyond my right ear. I say ‘probably’ because I have never seen that picture, nor do I even know if was ever developed, and neither have I ever asked to see it as I doubt it’s a very edifying portrait.
We shouldered our rucksacks and set off along the park, following a path alongside the river Kelvin as it wound its way northwards out of the city. A group of steaming, shaven-headed blokes snorted by, pounding along stoically as their trainer barked at them repeatedly to "close the gap!" It was either a rugby team in training or a day out for Glaswegian bouncers and they exuded an aura of physical fitness that made me feel puny by comparison: The whole group looked capable of running the West Highland Way before breakfast. It quickly became apparent that there was an appealing, secluded atmosphere about the park, in large part due to its topography. The park snakes around the contours of a large hill on which is sited the Park district of the city. As a result the bustle of Glasgow all takes place above the green oasis of Kelvingrove and most of central Glasgow is invisible beyond its steep embankments and trees. Occasionally we glimpsed the rear end of some Victorian building or heard the rumble of a bus, but mostly we walked in a sunken, arcadian world of lush vegetation and mature trees, the chuckling Kelvin leading us along. Whether this was the intention of the parks architect (the Englishman Sir Joseph Paxton) or not, the effect was one of pleasant isolation from the vast metropolis around it. Given that the park was created in 1852 to allow an escape from the clamour and grime of Victorian Glasgow it’s an achievement that serves equally well today as it did almost two centuries ago.
The rain fell, soft but persistent, as we passed under the arches of a series of lofty Victorian road bridges and alongside the ruins of abandoned flint works. We muttered accent-neutral 'ayes' to the groups of blue-shirted people (volunteers we guessed) who were busily removing garbage from the embankments. Some of the garbage was rather strange, particularly the large blue plastic barrels that were strewn about in the undergrowth or were bobbing about in the river's margins. They looked like the sort of containers that might be used to store toxic chemicals in, or to brew lager on a commercial scale (a process that no doubt many fans of real ale would equate to the same thing). I observed with interest a wiry looking guy practicing Samurai sword movements with a blade of wood, under the shelter of a large chestnut tree. A young girl, possibly his fiancée, looked on with a mixture of admiration and embarrassment.
An hour's walking and eventually the city centre, the litter pickers, and the sword wielders were left behind. The embankments gave way to more open ground offering better views of our surroundings. This was not always a positive. We passed under the shadow of grim tower blocks surrounded by a bleak expanse of muddy grass and cracked pavements. The tarmac path we were following became ever more decorated with graffiti. We read all about the Valley Boys and what they would like to do to the 'Polis' and speculated on our chances should we meet the authors; local kids from the estate opposite most likely, bored and sullen and hunting in packs. A couple of Sassenachs in fleece jackets would have brightened their day no end. We decided that this was not a place to be having any picnics by the river or engaging in witty conversation with passing residents. This brief but less appealing area of the city had all the usual adornments associated with such urban surroundings - the aforementioned graffiti, a garnish of broken glass, a rope dangling from a tree terminating in something that resembled a crude noose (a Glaswegian version, perhaps, of a park swing). Thankfully, though, this less than glamorous chunk of Glasgow didn't last long and we soon ambled on into better tended neighbourhoods. It occurred to us, as we made our steady progress out of Glasgow, just how quiet the day was turning out to be. This city we were walking through was Scotland's most populous (over a million citizens) and yet it had no sense at all of being an overcrowded city - Milton Keynes high street on a wet Sunday in January might have boasted a busier atmosphere. Where were all the people? It was to remain an unsolved mystery as we left one wet deserted park (Kelvin) and entered another (Dawsholm); the river Kelvin fell away to the east and was temporarily lost to us. We wondered if the gloomy weather had kept people away from the open green spaces of Glasgow. If so, given the Scottish weather's inclinations, these parks must be practically deserted most of the time.
Finally we found ourselves on the outer limits of northern Glasgow. The buildings, modern estates for the most part, looked well-tended, and the graffiti both decreased in volume and improved in grammar. Green fields could be made out in the middle distance beckoning us onwards. To celebrate our liberation from the metropolis we ate blackberries we found growing on a railway embankment – and what lush juicy blackberries they turned out to be. We were to sample other blackberries along the West highland Way over the next week but none of them matched the quality of those we foraged from that railway bank in Glasgow.
A short hop across a playing field and a bridle track and we were away from the suburbs and out into rural Lanarkshire. We found the river Kelvin again. No longer hemmed in by austere Victorian viaducts and stone-faced embankments it seemed an altogether friendlier river. Playfully it bounded along, wild flowers and old willows growing along its verdant edge. Playfully we bounced along with it. I trod in dog poo.
The day seemed to be lifting its spirits with every step we took and even the rain gave up after another hour, allowing us to dry out and turn our faces to an emerging sun. We saw few people on this rural stretch of the Kelvin, a young man on a cycle who seemed both startled and a little wary at our sudden appearance, and a group of sodden fishermen boasting a day's catch that seemed to consist of six-packs of lager. Eventually we reached a fork where the Kelvin swerved to the east and the Allander Water, one of its tributaries, flowed in from the north. We joined the Allander and continued upstream along its banks for another few miles. The ugly tower blocks we had walked past earlier were now visible in the distance as tiny fingers pointing skywards, giving away the location of the city. Our walk through Glasgow had been interesting but now that it was done, with the promise of grander scenery and wild places before us, we were glad to leave it behind.
A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five ....
The day was a relatively short walk of ten miles over very easy terrain and we felt physically fine despite the early start. There was one mad section of riverbank which had been allowed to grow into a rampant jungle and we had to force our way forward through wet chest high vegetation, but other than that it proved to be (literally in many respects) a stroll in the park. As the afternoon slipped away we soon found ourselves ambling into the small town of pronounced Mull-Guy) and its railway station; our first days walking was done. Milngavie is the de facto start of the West highland Way but we had taken the guidebook's advice and started the West Highland Way from Glasgow city centre, adding an extra day and a few miles to our adventure. In truth, when compared to the impact of the scenery we were to experience over the ensuing days, it was interesting rather than spectacular walking and I can’t in all honestly recommend it as a ‘must-have’ when planning a walk along this route (I myself won’t repeat the exercise). However if, like ourselves, you have never been to Glasgow before than perhaps it’s worth the extra effort - just watch out for those Valley Boys.
We sat and waited for our ride to the Croftamie guest house, our first overnight stay of the week, and observed the activity around us. The station was disgorging a variety of walkers at regular intervals, dressed in an array of multi coloured Gore-Tex garments. They were, like us, acolytes of the West Highland Way, shortly to embark on the long pilgrimage to Fort William. A small group came out bearing oversized backpacks enclosed in brightly coloured waterproof sacks. They looked like exotic beetles as they trudged off towards the town centre in search of the official start of the walk, burdened by the weight of their enormous loads. Watching their labours confirmed to me that our decision to take an easier option of using baggage handlers, staying in accommodation, and walking with lighter rucksacks was a sound one. Bear Grylls might have tutted at such an approach but I tried to imagine walking with the weight of a small adult on my back for 100 miles and recoiled. I then tried to imagine walking a hundred miles at all, and balked again. This was my first long distance path after all, and I’d elected to complete it at a time when youth was just a warm memory and fitness was a hard-won battle and yet here I was about to tackle a 100 mile walk across some challenging terrain. One hundred miles would have taken me from my house back home in Birmingham all the way to London and if somebody has suggested that I should take a week's annual leave to clump all the way to Marble Arch I would have laughed them out of the room. Of course, I had every confidence of completing the walk, but all the same I did harbour a nugget of trepidation.
As we sat and kicked our heels, watching Milngavie go by, we noticed that British Rail had erected a board proclaiming itself the starting point of the West highland Way which was in direct opposition to the other declared (and official) starting point in Milngavie high street. The latter was a solid finger of granite with engraved lettering and the Thistle badge of the route embossed on its polished stone face, the former was a white piece of hardboard with wonky stick-on lettering. I couldn’t help feeling that British Rail were on to a loser with this battle and sure enough the hikers emerging from the platform read the board, shook their heads, and went off in search of the Granite Finger to have their photo taken. I’m not sure why British Rail found it necessary to try and grab the attention of passing long distance hikers – to make them dally long enough so that they became tempted by the canteen’s tea casserole and plywood sandwiches? Doomed to failure.
It all seemed a little unreal being there in that small Scottish town when we had started the day by tumbling out of our own beds in Brum. As if to heighten this sense of dislocation, bagpipes began skirling in the middle distance, but we never did locate the source.
Presently a car pulled up and John Reid, a genial ex-accountant, introduced himself. We piled into the back of his car and set off for Croftamie. There was no overnight accommodation to be found in Milngavie itself as Robbie Williams was entertaining a sell-out crowd in Glasgow and there wasn’t a bed to be found within ten miles of the city. Selfishly we feel, he never checked to see if this would clash with our schedule. Of course Mr. Williams wields a fair degree of power and influence and even the Scottish national football team had been forced to play football at a secondary venue that night in order to make way for the show – which was taking place at Hampden Park.
John drove us northwards in the direction we would be travelling the following day, taking 15 minutes to cover a distance that would take us half a day to walk come the morning. John pointed out various landmarks as we wound around and about country lanes and up a perpetual long slow incline, he built us up to a finale by telling us that over the brow of the very next rise we would see Conic Hill in the middle distance and the highlands marching off into the blue yonder. We crested the rise and saw a vague grey blanket stretching out before us. The rain clouds had closed in and hidden all sight of the mountains. In a sort of Jim Bowen-esque 'this is what you would have won' style he continued to describe details of all the things we couldn't see.
The Bed & Breakfast run by John and his wife Dorothy was a small neat whitewashed cottage on the A809 between Milngavie and Tyndrum, We settled into our pleasant twin room and then pondered over the complexity of the breakfast questionnaire. Did selecting bacon mean we only got bacon and no sausage? We noticed a tick box for tomatoes but not a corresponding one for baked beans - did ticking tomatoes mean we wouldn't get beans at all? And if we selected porridge did this mean we would only get porridge and no fry up? It taxed our tired brains. Leaving these difficult choices until later we wandered off down the road to the and had a delicious, if pricey, meal of poached salmon. It was a convivial little place and we sat in the glass conservatory so that we could stare up at the doom laden skies overhead. Colin forgot himself after dessert and allowed a considerable amount of wind to escape via a burp which echoed impressively across the room and drew dark looks from the other diners. At least he had the decency to look embarrassed.
A couple of pints of real ale and a couple of single malts later we wandered back up the lane and found ourselves lying on our beds watching England thrash the mighty Macedonia 6-0 at football. Colin went downstairs to ask the proprietors to unravel the mystery of the breakfast menu. It was, after all, simple enough. You just ticked everything.
I fell asleep leaving Colin to watch live boxing on the TV. He fell asleep without watching it.
Maybe I snored during the night.
See Route on ......