Great Glen Way Day 1

The Great Glen Way
By Mark Walford
Day One

Route: Fort William to Spean Bridge
Date: Sunday September 4th 2011
Distance: 16m (25km)
Elevation: 3ft (1m) to 413ft (126m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 617ft (188m) and 394ft (120m)

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See Route on ......

Somethings afoot ....

I woke refreshed and eager for the day to start and found the others seated and waiting for breakfast in the dining room. There were a couple of Scottish ladies who were going home that day, having completed the West highland Way and we got chatting to them over our bacon and eggs. They had thoroughly enjoyed the week and were determined to do more long distance walking in the future. They had never heard of the Great Glen Way (a surprisingly common response throughout the week) and wanted to know all about it, which given that we hadn’t actually started out we couldn’t be too informative about. We told them that it had three lochs joined together by a big canal and there was a difficult bit towards the end and you finished in Inverness, and that was about as descriptive as we got.
Breakfast was a hearty affair, with the round of fried haggis that you get in Scottish full ‘English’ breakfasts for which Bod and I have a bit of a passion. Colin, determined to maintain a health-conscious attitude to the week ordered … well I can’t really remember now … but it wasn’t laden with cholesterol that’s for sure; scrambled egg on toast possibly. I admired his fortitude but doubted it would last all week. We gave the meal a generous 8 out of 10, thereby creating a rating system that we honed and perfected for the rest of the week. A pointless exercise really, but such minutia take on a whole new significance during the long hours on a trail. Ask Beethoven - he wrote complete symphonies whilst out on a ramble.
I retired to my room to perform studious Foot Therapy because I was absolutely determined to have a week free of foot injury following on from my painful experiences on the Kintyre Way and Offa’s Dyke. I had decided during my pre-trip planning that prevention was better than the cure and I had spent a small fortune on various plasters and tape in the local chemists,
GGW Day1 Pic 1

An impressive start

soliciting a few odd looks from the sales assistant (her suspicions apparently confirmed when I completed my shopping spree by asking for wax ear bungs) and so today I started as I intended to go on. I cosetted my unlovely hooves as though they were the delicate feet of a ballerina. Blister packs on each heel, a good dousing of talc, plasters on known trouble spots, a couple of winds of Micropore tape. The end result portrayed a man with an obvious foot-binding fetish but I didn’t care - just so long as I didn’t grow any nasty pain spots.
It was time to set off, so we lugged our baggage into the foyer to be carried to our end point and went out onto the terrace to don boots and rucksacks whilst people sat scoffing breakfast gazed at us incuriously through the large picture window. The Scottish ladies came out to wave us off and wish us well. We had discussed the fear of blisters earlier and one of the women presented me with an unused roll of grey duct tape.
“Some long distance runners recommended this to me at the start of our walk. They swear by it for preventing blisters”, she said. “I used it on my feet and didn’t have any problems at all. This one's not been unwrapped, so you take it ok?”
I did, gratefully, and in return she insisted on having her picture taken with Bod and I. She was a wee woman and Bod and I stood either side of her like over-sized bookends. The photograph must have made her look impossibly tiny, or us improbably large.

Caol, canoes and canals ....

We left the B&B and made our way to the official starting point to take photographs. I have always had a bit of a moan about the start or end points of the various long distance routes. My first introduction to a start point, in Milngavie on the West Highland Way, rather spoilt me and perhaps set the bar a little high, for it was a sleek grey granite monument with carved lettering set on a stepped plinth. By comparison the WHW end-point was a cheap plywood affair resembling the finishing post of a horse race, The Offa’s Dyke committee had opted for lumpen brown boulders that looked as if they had been fly-tipped, and the Kintyre way had nothing at all to mark the start or finish of the trail (and God knows if any walk deserved some sort of recognition at its end it was that one – ask Colin). So imagine my delight at finding that the Great Glen Way started with a ten foot high wafer of dressed sandstone carved into elegant curves at its crown and inlaid with colourful and informative plaques telling you everything you might want to know about the journey you were about to take. It even had colour photographs. Approached from the main road it stood proudly erect in a field of emerald grass with a misty mountain forming a romantic backdrop. It could have been a scene from a remote and enchanted glen in the middle of the Highlands. However if you walked past it and turned around it presented a different aspect entirely, with a Morrison’s supermarket, the questionable backdrop of Fort William’s commercial precinct and the busy A82. Naturally we took our photographs from the approach.
We left the start point and began to wend our way out of Fort William. I had already experienced this stretch a year before, during my driving duties in support of a three peaks weekend, and I knew that for at least an hour the walking would be unremarkable. At the time I was obliged to take an alternate route through some back streets due to flooding, whereas today we were able to follow the official route and it was a more enjoyable walk as a result, along little bays formed by the river Lochy, and through young plantations of Rowan and Birch.
GGW Day1 Pic 2

Coran Fearna mirrored in the River Lochie

We passed under the looming presence of Ben Nevis, its summit clad in smoky white clouds, and along the banks of the Lochy following it upstream and north eastwards. It was a sunny, still morning and the waters of the river were as calm as a mill pond. We crossed over a footbridge where a torrent of white water emptied into the river, released from an aluminium smelting plant a mile or so inland. We crossed Soldier's Bridge (I’m guessing this may be another reference to good old General Wade ) and marched down a suburban avenue, passing a school and some residential side streets until turning a corner onto wide grassy banks and sweeping views of Caol. It was our first real vista of the walk and as such deserved our full attention. The village of Caol ran along the edge of a wide bay formed by Loch Linnhe where the headland of Coran Fearna and the dome of Rubha Dearg island were reflected perfectly in its blue waters. We took this lovely view in gratefully as we made our way along the shoreline. We were joined briefly by a Giant Schnauzer and its owner, a woman lucky enough to live in one of the houses that looked out across Caol Bay. She was, like most people in these parts, friendly and interested in what we were up to, and she kept us company for a while basically agreeing with us that, yes indeed, she was very lucky to live in such a place. Her Schnauzer loped along beside me amiably until she called him away, wishing us luck as she headed off for breakfast. I bent down to say goodbye to the dog and he reciprocated by running his large wet tongue up my face before bounding off. That in itself wasn’t a problem – I have always kept dogs and I don’t have objections to the occasional dog-snog - but he had been eating something horrible and the smell stayed with me, slathered all over my cheek, for quite a while afterwards. The lady had helpfully indicated a short cut for us, omitting a corner of the bay, but we decided to stick to the route, so pretty was the scenery. We skirted the edge of Caol bay and then after a sudden right turn and a short incline we emerged onto the south bank of the Caledonian Canal.
Observation: It’s quite often the case that you spend your life surrounded by iconic images, fixing them in your mind’s eye with perfect clarity and lensed through your imagination, only to be surprised when you are finally presented with the real thing. For instance, I had always imagined that Big Ben would be on the scale of the Eiffel Tower but in the flesh it was disappointingly twee. I felt the same about Buckingham Palace and Ronnie Corbett (ok, not Ronnie Corbett – he was actually larger than expected but therefore still a bit of a let-down) and now here was the Caledonian Canal. Having being told it was designed for ocean-going vessels I had built myself a Scottish version of the Suez Canal in my head. In fact the Caledonian was just a little larger than your average Grand Union or Kennet & Avon. In terms of aesthetics, however, it didn’t disappoint at all – which was just as well as it would be a frequent companion over the next six days – with its avenues of trees, well-kept embankments and gleaming white ironwork. It had everything one would wish for from a canal apart from ships; it was deserted of traffic and remained so for the rest of that day. We struck off again, along the canal bank, heading north-east, on a well-made gravel path. It was flat and easy walking and I mused on the marked contrast this day made compared with Offa’s Dyke, which seemed to be nothing but hills from the very first step. Presently I began to fall behind the others, which was a familiar enough pattern and one I had grown used to during previous walks. There were good reasons for my tendency to take the rear seat: Bod, for instance, had a pace which I couldn’t match without risk of injury or guaranteeing blisters. Then there was the fact that I was forever stopping to compose a photograph or shoot a small piece of video; I soon found that even a minute’s pause placed me several hundred yards adrift. Colin seemed naturally inclined to match Bods pace rather than mine. And whenever a sharp incline was presented I tended to drop down a few gears to conserve energy and breath. As a consequence I spent much of the walk alone in a pleasant reverie; a sort of splendid isolation.
The canal wound on under a blue sky studded with fluffy clouds, it was bereft of activity save for a pair of canoeists who rowed at a slower pace than our walking. They kept me company all the way through to lunchtime, falling behind and then gliding past again whenever I stopped for a media moment. They looked strangely self-conscious whenever I overtook them. I don’t know why - I think they had the better idea regarding transport: Row all the way to Inverness? Yes please.
GGW Day1 Pic 3

The canal and the river

As for fellow hikers, we saw very few. It looked as if the Great Glen Way would be a far quieter route than the West Highland Way, with its continuous stream of day-trippers and though-walkers. Two women ahead of us seemed intent on going in the same direction as ourselves and in the time honoured tradition of giving names to people we bump into regularly on our walks we christened them The Cinderella Sisters (I won’t say why).
We broke for lunch near a small lock keepers cottage at a place called Torcastle, where we came across a convenient trestle table, and calculated an early finish to this first day. I remember commenting on the fact that the week would get tougher as we progressed which subsequently proved not to be the case, except for the very last day. Bod didn’t have an OS map of this route and seemed to be having withdrawal symptoms. He asked for Colin’s guide book, which carried a reasonable map of the route, and pored over it whilst he munched his sandwiches.
I made a video, tried not to sniff too much (for some reason walking always makes my nose run) and waved the camera at the prettiness of Torcastle. The canoeists glided by for a final time and I speculated on the pleasant if unremarkable walking we had experienced so far.

Commando crawl ....

After lunch we settled into a gentle walking rhythm again. We reached a stretch where the canal path was flanked on one side by the canal itself and on the other by the surging River Lochy; a much more dynamic river here at its upper reaches. Low green mountains chaperoned us to the north whilst pleasant open countryside rolled away eastwards, dotted here and there by farmhouses and crofters cottages. The miles ticked by, and soon we had walked into Gairlochy, a quiet little place consisting of a few dwellings and a swing bridge spanning the canal. It was only mid-afternoon so we had a short discussion about what to do next. Quite frankly we weren’t used to this – most of our distance walking demanded long days and tiring hill climbing and we usually finished in time to neck a beer, grab a pie, and flake out. This was different .. it was in danger of being more like a real holiday!
We had covered 12 miles and we knew that our Bed and Breakfast was a further 4 miles away at Spean Bridge. We could either ask to be picked up and have a half day resting or we could walk the additional 4 miles, taking in the Commando memorial at Lochaber along the way. We decided to walk on, making for a 16 mile day, and we soon discovered that it was road walking all the way, first rising above the River Lochy (by now a wide shallow fast flowing affair - a salmon-fisherman’s paradise) and then onto higher ground where the road took a sharp right at a water treatment plant and marched us eastwards, unravelling before us in an almost arrow-straight ribbon, offering a somewhat disheartening view of the distance we had to travel. The Grampians stood proudly against the southern horizon, Ben Nevis still wearing a crown of clouds, offering us some visual reward for our additional exertions. I passed a forlorn and derelict crofters cottage which must have looked pretty in its hey-day but whose state of abandonment was highlighted by the tree that had fallen through its roof. I tarried a little, taking pictures and video and often stopping just to admire the scenery and remind myself of how lucky I was to be in such a lovely part of the world on such a fine afternoon, even if my legs were now starting to complain a little about the extra miles I had asked of them.
So it was that Bod and Colin reached the end of the road and the memorial several minutes before I did. I learnt from the information carved into the memorial that the commandos were formed in 1940 and trained in this area before embarking on their first missions against the Axis powers during WW2. The memorial was quite impressive, with its three stone commandos standing shoulder to shoulder, gazing resolutely across the wild rugged landscape. Perhaps more poignant were the little personal memorials, pictures, posies and hand-made crosses that were placed in memory of soldiers who had served in the commandos. Quite a few were casualties of recent hostilities in the Middle East and Afghanistan. It was a busy place, with people of all ages and nationalities present. I remember wishing, rather disrespectfully I suppose, that an ice-cream van was present.
We chatted briefly to the Cinderella Sisters who, like us, were heading for Spean Bridge. We were a little unsure of where to go next so they pointed out the (rather obvious) path that ran alongside the A82 and so we set off for the last few miles, winding downwards steadily until the houses and shops of Spean Bridge hove into view. Our B&B was conveniently close to the high street (even if it was inconveniently distant from the Great Glen Way) and we were welcomed into an extremely well appointed house, scrupulously clean, and showing a certain flair for contemporary design in its guest rooms. I flopped onto the bed, suddenly aware that I had walked sixteen miles.
Annnnd relax!

Spean a long day ....

It was nice to have the luxury of time; time to take a shower, time to make a cup of tea, time to sit and relax in the lounge. I took a wander around the garden where I discovered hens clucking softly inside an old coop. The eggs would be fresh for breakfast, then. Sometime later we ventured out in search of food and a cash point. Spean Bridge wasn’t a large place but it did have a couple of hotels and indeed possessed an ATM - an empty ATM which meant my finances were going to be a little constrained until we reached Fort Augustus. Spean also had a fish and chip shop where you could sit outside and we decided to be frugal and use the place.
GGW Day1 Pic 4

Bod and Colin relaxing at the end of day one

A strange little place it was, with nonchalant service and oddball presentation (I ordered a pickled onion and it was handed to me in a sealed tin foil container). The food wasn’t much to shout about either to be honest but we were hungry so we ate with gusto. Afterwards, we took a stroll further into the village and headed to the Old Station Restaurant, as recommended by our host, and found a tucked away little place that used to be the railway waiting room. It had a bar and served nice food (we missed out there I’m afraid) and we settled to a pleasant evening of beer and chat. Trains still rolled up outside so where the passengers now took shelter was a bit of a mystery. At some point a group of local musicians turned up and played Celtic music to an appreciative audience with one of them, a young girl, being particularly adept on the harp. I do like a bit of harp.
There was a large engineering drawing of the Forth Bridge on the wall opposite and Bod studied it for a while. He leaned forward.
“If I started colouring that in”, he mused, “… when I got to the end would I have to start again?”
It was easily the best one-liner of the week.
I got into a conversation in the gents loo (as you do) with a man from London who was enthusing about his holiday and wanted to know if we were touring by car or bus. I said neither, we were walking. He looked taken aback until I explained all about the Great Glen Way (he’d never heard of it either). Then he looked a little nonplussed, obviously thinking it highly unlikely that human legs could cover 73 miles in just six days.
It was a nice evening and we enjoyed a few more beers than we had planned (or budgeted) for. We enjoyed a pleasant stroll back through the quiet streets of Spean Bridge to our digs. I was sharing with Bod so I took the precaution of jamming wax ear defenders in place before falling almost instantly asleep. Perhaps I snored and kept him awake, but if I did he never mentioned it. My last thought before blackout was a happy one - we still had five whole days of walking before us and the best was yet to come.

Daily Tweets

Twitter from @Corriepaw (Colin)
I had the pleasure of bod's enormous snores, but slept fine thanks to some gooey ear plugs.

Twitter from @Corriepaw (Colin)
Now off for our first day's jaunt, to Spean Bridge. Weather seems to be favouring us.

Twitter from @Corriepaw (Colin)
Lunch at . . . .don't know where. The day contains plenty of sunshine and a few foot hot spots. Very pretty scenery here, discounting my walking companions.

Twitter from @Corriepaw (Colin)
Just finished. Had a 4 mile trudge off route, to our digs. All on hard road.

Twitter from @Corriepaw (Colin)
Today, we walked through the suburbs of Fort William & along the Caledonian Canal. Ben Nevis looked on over our efforts.

Twitter from @Corriepaw (Colin)
Staying at the Distant Hills View B&B: very modern and clean-looking. Time for a coffee. @Darkfarmowl has gone for a power nap & bod is reading. I've retired to my room to rest my throbbing knee & watch spiderman 2.

Twitter from @Corriepaw (Colin)
Showered, shaved & 1st aid administered to feet, which basically amounted to mummifying my left little toe in plasters. Painfully reminiscent of the Kintyre Way. I have the single room tonight, o yas.

Twitter from @Corriepaw (Colin)
A fish & chip supper is on the cards, possibly with a cheeky visit to a local bar.

Twitter from @Corriepaw (Colin)
Ate a venison burger, which tasted no different than the bovine variety.

Twitter from @Corriepaw (Colin)
A fine evening filled, I suspect, with far more ale than was good for us, considering tomorrow we have to walk.

Twitter from @Corriepaw (Colin)
14 mile walk to Laggan tomorrow, with Loch Lochy as a constant critic. Really must consider sleep as a positive option.

See Route on ......

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