West Highland Way Day 1

The West Highland Way
By Mark Walford
Day One

Route: Milngavie to Balmaha
Date: Sunday September 3rd 2006
Distance: 19m (30.5km)
Elevation: 69ft (21m) to 1050ft (320m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 2,159ft (658m) and 2,287ft (697m)

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See Route on ......

And they're off ....

"You snored," stated Colin as we dressed for breakfast.
"Did I? I'm sorry, I had no idea - I was asleep at the time." It was a weak defence but true of course – you never hear yourself snore and are only aware of your habit when it’s pointed out to you by an unwilling audience. I’d already feared that my occasional bouts of snoring might become a bone of contention between us.
"Why didn't you use those wax ear plugs I gave you?"
He shrugged. "I tried them. They didn't work."
I was surprised at this as they had always proved infallible when I used them. The technique was simple; knead the pink wax pellets until they are nice and malleable, make them into a cone shape and then jam them into your ears. Instant silence, apart from the unnerving sound of your own heartbeat throbbing in your ears but you soon got used to that. Colin went into the bathroom so I took a look at the ones I had given him. I ought to have told him that you had to remove the cotton wool protective membrane before use. No wonder they hadn't worked.
Breakfast (the ticked-all-options version) was taken around a communal dining table. There were a couple from Newcastle doing the walk, like ourselves, in six days, two ladies from the Midlands who had an eight day schedule, and a young couple with a baby that, for its sake, I hoped were not doing the walk at all.
Conversation focused inevitably around the route ahead. The ominous words 'Devil's Staircase' and 'Rannoch Moor' were mentioned in muted tones – two of the more challenging sections of the walk ahead. It soon became apparent that the two Midland ladies were pretty gung-ho about the prospect of walking the West Highland Way. One of them began to explain that her husband was a keen walker, climber, and generally an all-round Superjock. She went on to point out that he had bagged all the Munro's, walked all the long distance paths, climbed Ben Nevis blindfolded walking on his hands - that kind of thing. He considered the West highland Way as being ‘too tame’ and had had left them to complete it on their own. Her eulogising swiftly became an irritant and if she was trying to impress us then she really had picked the wrong audience. Colin and I soon ignored her and attacked our porridge (ticked).
It was Dorothy, our landlady from the Croftamie, who gave us a lift back to Milngavie and a lovely lady she was too. She told me they had once lived in Bewdley in the Midlands, a place well known to me as I had often taken my family there on day trips. I tried to tell her this but she hadn’t paused to allow for a reply and had moved seamlessly onto the subject of the weather and began commiserating with us about how awful the forecast was and how terrible it would be if it continued all week (as was very likely, she added as an unnecessary aside, because after all this was Scotland). She continued with this rather gloomy outlook, concluding with an ‘oooooh dear Conic Hill is going to a trial, an absolute trial’.
I actually think she was trying to encourage us rather than worry us but I stared out through the steamy windows and conceded, reluctantly, that she had a point as, by now, the rain was getting into its stride and had moved from Steady Drizzle to Persistent Downpour. She deposited us at Milngavie railway station, wishing us heartfelt but (I thought) somewhat doleful best wishes for the journey. The ever-helpful AMS man then duly appeared to deliver on his promise of a waterproof jacket for Colin and added his own best wishes for our journey and then they all drove away and we were left alone with nothing else to do but walk north into the Highlands of Scotland.
We took shelter on the platform of the railway station and tried to pull on our water proof trousers with studied dignity as passengers aboard the 9:50 to Glasgow, waiting to be whisked away to their day of toil, peered out of the carriages at us. Most of them had seen it all before anyway and we were just a mildly interesting distraction until the train pulled away – I suppose it was either us or the Sun crossword. Just as we were completing our preparations the train’s diesel engine huffed noisily, coughed out a few billows of black smoke, and rolled its carriages slowly out of the station, Ten seconds after the train had left a young man dashed in from the street and watched in dismay as his only chance of making it to the office on time rattled out of sight. No matter where you are in the world there is always the person who arrives ten seconds too late for a train.
Swathed in Gore-Tex from head to toe, we headed for the precinct and the official start of the walk. It was an inauspicious beginning for such a wild and scenic route, a great example of not judging a book by its cover. We posed for the start of the walk (at the fancy stone plinth) in Milngavie high street , hemmed in by concrete and glass with a Greggs bakery in the background and local kids discussing how many Vodka Twistees they had downed the night before.
WHW Day2 Pic 1

Colin at the Poncy Stone Plinth

The grey pall of the sky and the dribbling rain turned the town centre into a damp and rather sombre place. It’s not that we didn’t like Milngavie because it seemed like a harmless wee town, but it didn’t really herald the beginning of such an epic route as the West Highland Way with any great panache. It was asking rather a lot of the place, we felt.
We were not alone on this early morning in Milngavie. Other groups of walkers meandered about, swaddled in rain gear, peering into shop windows (all closed because it was a Sunday morning) and hanging about uncertainly by the steps leading down to the car park. We were a crowd with an unspoken common purpose and we pottered about exchanging shy nods and smiles. Colin drew out his guidebook and stood beneath the Granite Finger getting his bearings - in fact the way out of Milngavie was clearly marked but he seemed to be so completely absorbed that I let him read on. I took Colin's picture as he was thus engaged, using my digital camera, and then handed it to him for my turn at posing. I didn't clearly explain how it worked and the photo never happened – it seemed that I was going to be thwarted in recording myself setting off on this adventure; I hoped there would at least be one of me arriving at the finishing post. I also took my first short video and recorded myself grumbling about the weather and sweeping the camera along the high street. Listening to it now I sound inordinately miserable, as if I was about to go down the pit for a shift rather than off for a nice ramble in Lanarkshire. Even more walkers joined the milling crowd, turning the precinct into a sea of glistening weatherproofs, and then, like a flock of birds reading some invisible signal, we all moved as one and strode purposefully down the steps and into the car park. Colin and I were at the back end of this mob and we let most of the swarm ebb away before we strode out. We found the post carrying the waymark of the West Highland Way (a thistle enclosed within a hexagon) and gained the green and leafy trail leading through Mugdock Woods.

A blistering pace ....

At first it was a bit like the start of the world’s slowest marathon, with a lot of jockeying for position amongst us all, performed at a sedate walking speed but with a certain frisson of competition in evidence. We passed slower walkers, were overtaken in turn by others, and tried not to get incorporated into any organised group. After a while we settled into our own pace and within a few miles the gaggle had thinned out so that we walked along in relative solitude. Mugdock Woods or Mugdock country Park as it has been recently re-christened, was a pleasant enough stroll even in the rain and the path wound through plantations of deciduous and evergreen forest which grew to either side. There was supposed to be a castle in the vicinity, also called Mugdock, but we never saw so much as a turret of it. What we did encounter, being so close to Milngavie, were locals walking their dogs. I'm convinced the dogs were smirking at us – recognising us by our gear and smug in the knowledge that they were heading off home for a nice snack and a snooze beneath a radiator and not walking all day in the rain. Soon though the rain eased up considerably and a wan sun made its presence felt. As the day warmed we began to slowly boil inside our waterproofs. We decided that it was better to be cool albeit a little damp rather than stew in our own exertions, so we stopped to take our waterproofs off just as a group of Americans wandered around the corner to be treated to the sight of us removing our trousers in public. Once they had discovered us we couldn’t seem to shake them off again and they stayed with us, consistently, for the next several miles, chatting to us occasionally but more often than not keeping an awkward distance which made them intrusive without actually crowding our space.
As the morning wore on we progressed steadily along tree-lined pathways, climbing gently all the while, passing little communities of timber-clad holiday chalets and passing alongside the occasional small woodland lake. It was easy walking and for that we were both grateful as we felt we were being eased into the more challenging walking that lay ahead. After a short hop along Broadmeadow road, we climbed a stone stile into the pretty Glengoyne valley, a place of rough grassland flanked by low hills with curiously knobbly profiles. The Americans asked if they could take a picture of us and we duly obliged, with me sporting the bush hat I had purchased for the trip. Sadly that picture has persuaded me never to wear the hat in public again. I'm a little disappointed in that hat to be honest. In the sporting goods store where I bought it I thought it made make me look all rugged and outdoorsy, echoes of Indiana Jones perhaps. Unfortunately the effect was rather more that of a middle aged scoutmaster called Cyril Jones, or a ‘special’ person out on a jolly with Colin as my care worker.
I still have the hat somewhere but it’s never sat atop my head again.
Colin tried to strike up a conversation with the American ladies, but his sore throat made it sound as if he was barking at them like a Highland Terrier on twenty Woodbine a day; it was unlikely they understood much of what he said. Eventually Colin and I pulled ahead of the Americans and left to our own devices we began chatting about Marvel super-heroes and how they had evolved since the days when we used to avidly collect the comics back in the seventies. I appreciate that, to many, this would be a conversation to sidle away from if confronted with it at a dinner party but it was terrifically absorbing to us. So absorbing indeed that we walked past the clearly marked left-turn we should have taken and found ourselves instead walking along a busy trunk road. It gradually dawned on us that this was perhaps off-route, as surely no self-respecting long distance path would offer Death By Juggernaut as an option. We stopped to get our bearings and realised that we either had to retrace our steps for about a quarter of a mile to gain an old railway line or continue down the road to re-join the rail track further along the route. We glanced about us - the verges were littered with road kill and pieces of broken vehicle so the former option seemed the more sensible. We turned back and discovered the American crowd also by the roadside, huddled around a map. They had broken a cardinal rule of walking: Never assume the people in front of you know where they are going.
"Were you following us?" asked Colin as we passed.
"Nope," came back the reply, but they didn't look us in the eye as they said it.
The old railway track was regained; a narrow tarmac path that ran arrow-straight for a couple of miles across a broad grassy plain, passing the Glengoyne Distillery and terminating at the Beech Tree Inn. We were on a tight schedule and had no time to visit Glengoyne - the only distillery on the entire route - which was probably just as well given our mutual admiration for all things single malt. It transpired that the place was shut anyway (it being a Sunday) so the moment of temptation never arrived. As we walked on, passing the whitewashed walls of the distillery buildings, we noticed a girl ahead of us - a very young girl we first assumed - swinging along, a mop of blonde hair visible above the rucksack. We caught up with her at the pub. She was reading the information board that waxed lyrically to any passing footsore hiker about how they could have once glided past the pub in stately comfort on board a steam train. We had been mistaken about her age as she was in fact a petite young woman. "How far is it from Glasgow?" she asked us in a mildly Glaswegian accent.
"About 17 miles," we replied accurately.
"17 miles? That can't be right!"
"Well it is - we've walked it."
Realisation dawned. "Oh! What I should have said is 'how far is it from Milngavie'?"
"Ah. About seven miles in that case."She looked crestfallen. "Only seven miles? Well it's better than the five I'd guessed it to be I suppose. Are you heading for Balmaha?"
We said that yes we were, and yes we intended to go over Conic Hill and not around it.
"Aye - that's what I'm hoping to do. Well I'd better get moving, loads of miles to do yet - see ya!" And off she went in a tearing hurry, walking poles clicking busily.
We took lunch at the Beech tree Inn and over a baked potato I made an ominous discovery. I took my boots off and felt my feet gingerly. There was an area of familiar soreness on the pads below my big toes. "I'm getting blisters," I informed Colin in the same tone used when one discovers evidence of an STI. Colin confessed that his feet were beginning to hurt as well. Only seventeen miles in and our feet were beginning to break down. It was a worry.
We struck out again after lunch, across a rural landscape that might have belonged to many a county in England were it not for the plateau of the Campsie Fells that appeared suddenly above the green fields, providing a scenic backdrop for much of the afternoon with their uneven contours framed against the sky, contours that were the ghosts of ancient volcanic lava flows in another age of the earth and down whose flanks the first ever man to ski in Scotland chanced his luck. We continued along winding tracks, crossing pastures and picking up well-laid footpaths with feet that began to complain ever more loudly that actually they had had enough for one day and could they be placed in front of a nice log fire on a comfy pillow for a while.
WHW Day2 Pic 2

The Campsie Fells and half a cow

We walked in solitude; the petite lady had forged ahead out of sight and the Americans had also gone - presumably taking another wrong turn. We never saw them again but we were to encounter the petite lady quite a lot over the next week.
Behind us the impressive flanks of the Campsie Fells marched away to the south west and ahead of us to the north east reared the knobbly-crested bulk of Conic Hill.
It looked a long way off, and indeed it was - about thirteen miles give or take. We knew that we had to climb that hill, an ascent of about a thousand feet, and then steeply descend the other side before we could rest. We also knew that beyond the hill lay the beautiful shores of Loch Lomond and a (hopefully) warm welcome waiting for us at the Oak Tree Inn. Despite what we had told the fellow walker at the Beech Tree, we had debated taking the easier route around the base of Conic Hill rather than going up and over the damn thing but had decided that the climb was still on. We were men, we were walkers, and, goddam it, we were going to conquer that hill if it killed us. It was a tiny little hill, a mere pimple compared to its Munro big brothers. It wasn't as if we were in danger of dying up there.
Then again, people have died running up the stairs.

The final hurdle ....

The weather had taken a mood-swing again and for a while we trudged along through close-knit rain showers until they petered out for a brief spell, about two thirds of the way to Balmaha. Taking advantage of this respite we rested on a grassy knoll in the middle of a meadow where an elderly man appeared from nowhere and began making his way, with methodical care, up the slope of the field. We wondered who he might be and what business he was about. I suggested he might be a farmer. Colin, through some peculiar process of lateral thinking, offered the idea that he might be a fisherman - I have no idea why because we were miles away from any lochs at that point. Just as the farmer-fisherman wandered off out of sight the clouds rolled back in again to chuck another shower over us so we shouldered our packs and began to climb into more isolated higher country, dominated by conifer plantations. At one point we reached a tiny hamlet and became momentarily lost, spending a few frustrating minutes debating if the route really did run through somebody's back garden with a right turn through their greenhouse. Another lone hiker approached our spot having taken the same wrong turn, and the three of us stood about uncertainly until a large group of Dutch hikers laboured past, bearing the sort of Day-Glo rucksacks I had observed back in Milngavie. One of their leaders, a wizened middle aged man, pointed wordlessly at the sign we had all missed, indicating the correct route forward. Our lone hiker friend muttered darkly - something about trusting the bloody foreigner to get it right - and then he loped off ahead to vanish into the trees. It was not to be the last we would ever see of him. We set off ourselves but soon became enmeshed in the Dutch convoy and, try as we might, we couldn't escape them as we wound our way up a forest track, right in the middle of their caravan train. There were rather a lot of them in this grote bende van wandelaars, and we soon found that they were an insular, dour bunch and spurned all attempts at communication either with us or each other. They looked miserable and tired, weighed down by their enormous back packs with their gaudy coloured coverings. It soon began to rub off on us, and we marched along with our heads down, not talking to each other and toiling along like refugees on the march rather than the jolly West Highland Wayfarers that had sallied forth that very morning. The forest trail climbed steadily and started offering us some decent views through the gaps in the trees. We saw the first tantalising glimpses of Loch Lomond in the distance, a landmark I had heard about, talked about, and even sung about over the years but had never seen in person. We knew it was to be our ever-present companion for the next two days of walking and the first glimpse of its waters lifted our spirits no end. After what seemed like hours (but was probably only thirty minutes) the Dutch convoy decided to stop for a breather and we took the opportunity to get ahead of them. They watched us with deep suspicion as we walked on, and our cheerful goodbyes and waves only drew sidelong glances between them. We could only assume that they were having a bad day, maybe because of the weather or the lack of distilleries, or deteriorating Dutch-Scottish relations over fishing quotas. Who knew.
We were now in the midst of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park – all 41,000 acres of it – and its vast pine woods closed in on both sides now, impenetrable and oppressive. The floor of the forest was a stygian gloom of discarded pine needles and green furred moss and it was hard to imagine anything being able to live in such perpetual twilight. It evoked images of Tolkein’s Old Forest or tales from the Brothers Grimm and its muted, watchful atmosphere nudged at our imaginations. As often happens on such occasions we suddenly found ourselves alone with no fellow walkers in sight. It was an eerie, silent passage of time. It was an opportunity to strike up a conversation and of course there was only one topic to be discussed.
"How's your feet? I enquired.
"Sore. How's yours?"
"Bloody sore."
And that was the end of the dialogue.
We passed a large pile of abandoned logs by the wayside; a great example of absent-mindedness. It was as if years before some lumberjack had felled them, stacked them neatly, and then forgot all about them and although they were probably of no great age they looked as if they had lain there for centuries. They were bright green and fuzzy with moss and in such a place of muted light and colour they looked cheerfully festive.
WHW Day2 Pic 3

Colin and the fuzzy logs

An hour later the trees drew back and began to thin out and we came to the end of the forest trail. More open land lay before us, rough heathland in the main, and Conic Hill now dominated the skyline and demanded our attention. It sat there defiantly, right on the Highland Boundary Fault – the geological divide between lowland Scotland and the Highlands, a product of that dim distant time when northern Scotland rammed into southern Scotland and volcanoes reared up to cover the land in lava flows. A series of Conic’s lesser brothers marched out into the southern waters of Loch Lomond, only their tops visible as tree-clad islands off the shoreline of Balmaha. There was no great height to the challenge before us – Conic Hill is just over a thousand feet in total, but it looked to be a sharp ascent and we had by now covered almost twenty miles on foot. A trio of tired looking men were ahead of us, poised at the divide in the trail which forced the issue, looking both ways and gesticulating. Finally they made up their minds and turned to the left. As we came within earshot one of them, a burly looking Scot, called out.
"This is the easy way."
"I know," I replied resolutely, "but we're going this way," and I pointed to the right hand trail. The burly Scot eyed me with sympathy and (I like to think) not a little admiration.
"Oh aye? F*ck*n' fair play to ya!"
We picked our way across the hummocks and hidden marshy hollows of the heathland and eventually began to climb the slope on the south flank of the hill. It was a tiny trail, uneven and very rocky and the blisters I had been cultivating all day began to throb, forcing me to stop to pay them some attention. A quick dousing of talc and a change of socks and we were off again, toiling upwards on weary legs but appreciating the ever improving views that our altitude rewarded us with. Nearer the summit the trail sprouted its very own babbling brook and we were obliged to slosh through it in order to gain the top, thereby soaking our feet for the last few miles of the days hike. At last we levelled out, breathing hard and eager for a well-earned break only to find that the trail didn’t really take you to the very top of the hill but skirted below it, some twenty metres shy of its crown. The real summit was another five minute scramble, a climb which Colin elected to tackle but I thankfully declined; I'd had enough of hills by now and so I sat down gratefully on a rock and tried not to think of toes, mashed and bloody and squashed into a boot like plums in a bottle. I was watching Colin trudging resolutely up the last few meters to the very top of the hill when my mobile rang; it was my father. The wind was whipping around fiercely at this height and so I was forced to bawl at him, yelling against the wind and trying not to sound as knackered as I felt.
Yes we were fine.
No we weren't walking too fast.
Yes we had enough to eat.
Yes the views were lovely.
After the conversation ended I took my camera out and recorded the aforesaid lovely views because they simply had to be committed to film. From this vantage point atop Conic Hill, at the end of a full days walking, we were treated to the first of the many Highland scenes that would beguile and bedazzle us over the next week. Looking down on the southern end of Loch Lomond from a height of a thousand feet or more, with tree clad islands floating on its plain of bright water, a rainbow arching gracefully across the sky and the setting sun falling slowly behind the distant mountains was a real picture postcard moment. Tins of Shortbread? Check. Scenes from Rob Roy? Check. It was totally inspiring after a long days hike, and the knowledge that we had days and days of walking through such scenery ahead of us lent new energy to our legs as we found the trail that led us down from the hill.
Our new-found energy was to be short-lived. We thought we had completed all the hard work on the ascent but we hadn't reckoned on the descent, which was sharp, rock strewn, and interminable. On fresh legs we may have bounded down this tiny little track like mountain goats but after such a long walk and subsequent climb we were soon reduced to the pace of a couple of hamstrung sloths, inching our way downwards.
WHW Day2 Pic 4

Lovely Loch Lomond

I began to mutter and swear to myself - a sure sign I was beginning to run on empty in terms of energy and patience and, as always seems to happen when you are at a low ebb, someone younger, fresher, and fitter appeared to caper past us, offering a jovial hello before leaping Gazelle-like down into the greenery below. I felt an uncharitable resentment towards the guy. There were plenty of rocks lying about; I could have cheerfully have brained him with one or two.
After a small eternity we made the car park of the Oak Tree Inn. with the large windows of the place all cheery with warm light and the great flat expanse of Loch Lomond fading into twilight beyond. We had become sullen and our heads were down but the sight of the Inn, no more than fifty yards away, and the imminent prospect of a shower and a beer magically revived us. I felt the tiredness lift as we celebrated completing the first hard day of walking. Certain parts of my body had the most to celebrate on this achievement as they were to be relieved of duty for at least 12 hours and I had the weird mental image of my feet applauding.
There was a large party of French walkers in the restaurant that night. We knew they were walkers by the way some of them limped to and from the bar. We knew they were French because they spoke it. My rolling John Wayne-esque gait was greeted with Gallic gestures of sympathy and much pursing of lips. We managed a hearty meal, a beer, and the obligatory whisky before hauling our sorry asses off to bed. "Hey look," said Colin just before lights out, "a breakfast menu."
Wearily we began to tick boxes.

See Route on ......

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