Bimbling towards the Big One: The West Highland Way

Prologue: First week of August, 1997. Kindrogan Field Studies Centre near Pitlochry, Scotland. Open University Summer School for S339, “Thermal and Tectonic Processes of the Lithosphere”

Unlike most OU summer schools which take place on University campuses (campii?) this one was based at Kindrogan Field Studies Centre. It’s remote location made it a particularly intimate week and in the evenings we had to make our own entertainment, which was assisted by (a) The Bar and (b) the “carry-outs” that we purchased each day on the way back from studying various localities.

Since there was a Welshman in the group (Richard Owen) singing became a large part of the night’s entertainment. “What we need boys, is a song to start every one off. A song that everyone knows. A song like Sloop John B”. And that is how I came to use my unique vocal talents in the Kindrogan Choir. Someone wrote down the words as best they could remember them, and arrangement was created and rehearsed, and then the performance was unleashed on our captive audience. The names of many participants have been washed from my mind in the years since, some remain. Jane of the lovely eyes from Skegness, Jacqui from Cumbria, Mike apparently a mysterious Squadron Leader from Towcester, Keith from the centre of the Universe, near Leeds and John who turned out to live not far from me.

Some nights we’d just carry on till dawn, even ending up in the Grave Yard up the hill behind the old hunting lodge that housed the Centre. The lecturers were not immune from all this debauchery, and we had distinguished professors of geology, such as the effortlessly languid Chris Hawkesworth standing on tables singing “Up On Sunny Mountain” or sharing a carry-out in the Cemetery. “Look, if I ask any questions today, the answer will be ‘Kyanite’ “. We’d get some recovery time as the elderly coach ground its way through the highlands, then a dose of fresh air and midges as we stumbled through the heather in search of a bit of metamorphics.

Towards the end of the week we realised that some of us were intending doing the course S338 (Sedimentary Basin Analysis) the following year. “Why don’t we have a reunion at Durham next year? First week in August. Be There”. Since the order was issued by The Squadron Leader, how could we refuse? And that is how Jacqui, Mike, Keith, John and myself ended up having reunions every subsequent year. When we ran out of summer schools we switched to going to Open University Geological Society (OUGS) Symposiums (symposia?), and in 2000 we arrived at Telford where Mike, Keith and I hatched a plot to walk the Pennine Way the following year. However in 2000 England was locked up due to an outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth, so we decided to go to Scotland and do the West Highland Way instead.

Glasgow, Tuesday 7th August 2001

Well I don’t know how he managed it, but Keith had obviously mastered the art of invisibility as he had managed to walk past Mike and I at Glasgow Central railway station. We had come up together on the train from Northampton, and Keith on a later train from Leeds. This being a time before mobile phones were as widely used as they are now, we waited and waited, shrugged our shoulders and said “Well lets hope he can find his way to the B&B”. So we went to the other station in Glasgow and caught a train to Milgavie (which for reasons not apparent is pronounced mul-guy) and found that the Invisible Man had preceded us there. I seem to recall some whisky being consumed that evening as we chatted and prepared ourselves for the journey.

Milngavie to Drymen Wednesday, 8th August 2001

The morning brought us the unalloyed comedy joy of Keith’s Sofa. In order to prevent undue chafing of his shoulders he had sliced up some large batons of foam which he slipped under the shoulder pads of his rucksack, and with a short pause for a photograph at the official starting point we ambled out of Milngavie on a pretty unprepossessing start through what passes for it’s suburbs, and then, almost imperceptibly out into the countryside.


Keith, the Ammonyte and Mike

A large part of this section is along a disused railway, and it was here that we first caught sight of another couple of walkers ahead of us, one of whom seemed to be wearing a shiny target on their back. Arriving at Drymen we found our billet for the night, and whilst squabbling over the best beds we were able to watch the deer through the Velux window of our attic abode.

Drymen to Rowardennan, Thursday 9th August 2001

A bit footsore we set out on a fairly bright day and after finding the Highland Boundary Fault at Conic Hill we began the utter horror of the long slog along Loch Lomond. Who ever decided to precede Loch Lomond with the appellation “bonny” clearly never had to stumble along the tree-root riddled path, each stumble sending shocks of pain through aching feet. The shoreline itself was frequently punctuated by piles of rubbish, bottles and cans and the remains of bonfires, discarded by people who had driven up from Glasgow for a day out and a picnic.

The Highland Boundary Fault

The Highland Boundary Fault

We caught up with the walkers we had seen they day before, a husband-and-wife team who were doing a mixture of B&B and camping. I don’t now recall their names but it was something along the lines of Richard and Judy. And boy could she natter. Over much of the rest of the trip they, and a couple of sisters from Holland (one of whom had a dicky hip) would pass us or we would pass them. We came to feel sorry for Richard and kept plotting ruses to whisk him away for a blokes evening at some point in the trip.

The Hostel at Rowardennan itself was a blessed relief at the end of the day and a lovely spot to sit in the evening sun, swatting midges, looking at the views across to The Cobbler.

The Cobbler

The Cobbler

Rowardennan to Inverarnan, Friday 10th August 2001
Day three of multi-day walks is always the hardest. The first day is fine, you start well rested, fresh and eager for the experience. Day two you start stiff and a little sore, the third day begins in agony and continues pretty much like that the whole way though. At the end of it, you feel like you have had a visit from a Turkish Policeman. Most people give up on or at the end of day three. On this route the “Day three malaise” is compounded by the fact that you still have to slog the rest of the way along Bloody Loch Lomond. There is a special joy you experience as you pass Ardleish and pull up and away from the Loch, but it was also the point at which we left the best of the weather behind as you now head into the Scottish Highlands proper.

End of Lomond

Joy at leaving Bloody Loch Lomond behind

On the run-in to Inverarnan we find a bothy, and whilst investigating it, meet a girl in a hammock from New Zealand. Later we find ourselves in the Drovers Arms, an establishment run by two huge Jock lads in kilts, and attended by a waitress who has the longest legs I have ever seen. The Kiwi girl appears, looking for accommodation. By the end of the evening she has a job working behind the bar. She may still be there. The Drovers also has a collection of some of the tattiest stuffed animals I have ever seen.

Inverarnan to Tyndrum, Saturday 11th August 2001

Day four and you’ve been walking for a couple of hours before you realise that things don’t hurt! You weren’t particularly stiff or sore when you got up and the pain of the previous days has slipped your mind. You have walked your way to waking fitness. From this point on, barring major injury, you could carry on for ever. On this section you have the unbridled joy of slithering through a “sheep creep” to get under a road and railway line, though most of the day is spent plodding along the military roads created by General Wade for the purpose of sorting out the Scots.

A damp arrival in Tyndrum, and the proprietor of the Hotel has clearly been using Basil Fawlty as his role model. “Three men?” he says “Sharing a room together? Three men? Together?” he repeats, un-necessarily loudly. Mike is getting annoyed, and, as he signs the hotel register he leans forward so that the rain from the brim of his hat drips across the desk. We later learn that the owner is selling up as he can’t make a success of the business. I wonder why.

Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy, Sunday 12th August 2001

This was the shortest day of the walk, just seven miles. Bridge of Orchy is a very small place, we were booked into the Bunkhouse as the alternative was a rather expensive Hotel. We had arrived at lunchtime and consequently spent a lot of time in the pub. The room in the bunkhouse was small, so small in fact, that had there been fleas, it would have been cruel to keep them in a room so small. I had the top bunk, Keith the bottom, and Mike had the ledge at the end of the room, under a sloping eave. There was only room for one person to stand at any given time, so we had to choreograph entering the room and ascending the bunks. Due to the size of the room, the door opened outwards. And due to the length of time we had spent in the pub this had consequences when in the middle of the night I descended from my bunk and attempted to leave the room. The damn thing wouldn’t open. I fiddled the lock as quietly as possible and pulled and pulled as silently as possible, all to no avail, until a dim light dimly illuminated the darkest recesses of my brain that the door actually opened out. As I padded up the corridor to the toilet I could just discern the sniggering from my colleagues hiding under their blankets.

Bridge of Orchy to Kings House, Monday 13th August 2001

This is the crossing of Rannoch Moor, and as we experienced it, a more rank, midge-infested god-forsaken place, I have yet to find. You have to keep moving or the midges would descend, which was particularly unfortunate for Mike, as they seemed to prefer his Geordie flesh.

Bloody Rannoch Moor

Desolation, not Magnificent

The nearest thing to a view that we encountered was a glimpse of rain-lashed ski infrastructure near the end of the day.

The Kings House Hotel itself is a welcome sight in the gloom. A legendary retreat for climbers and walkers, every crevice stuffed full of history, the walls covered with photographs of the great and the good who have climbed in the area.

Kings House to Kinlochleven, Tuesday 14th August 2001

This was a wet day. Even by the standards of wet this was wet. So we never did see the classic view of Bucaille eteive Mor, while Glencoe was just a “rain-dirty valley”. We did see two under-dressed American girls wearing shorts and the rain-capes you get on the water flumes at Disney World, and while we were ascending the Devils Staircase a bus-load of tourists ran halfway up before sitting down to eat their sandwiches. Other than that it was a mercifully short stumble in the rain and a descent into Kinlochleven following the pipes of the hydro-electric system.

Buachaille Etive Mòr

Buachaille Etive Mòr

We were billeted with Elsie Roberstson, and though we were again early due to the short distance of this stretch she welcomed the bedraggled trio on her door-step in, took our sodden kit from us and ran it through the tumble-drier. Once dry we wandered into the centre of Kinlochleven and spent the afternoon drinking in the sticky linoleumed splendour of the working men’s club. To be more accurate it was the non-working men’s club as it had not been long since the Alcan plant had closed, and not yet been redeveloped into the Ice Climbing centre.

Elsie likes to cook. Boy, does she like to cook. We had elected to have our evening meal at the guest house. You could not see the table-cloth for dishes of food. At the end of the meal I could not stand up straight, I was that full. Elsie said that a Belgian girl who had stayed there the week before had insisted on photographing the table. Apparently people return to her guest house year after year. I am not in the least surprised.

Kinlochleven to Fort William Wednesday, 15th August 2001

The final day of the WHW dawned with the largest full Scottish Breakfast imaginable, vast quantities of sausages, bacon and black pudding lay very heavily upon our stomachs as we made our way out of KLL. The first section is an sharp unfriendly pull from sea-level to 258 metres through the woods which we took at a very gentle pace. From there it was pretty much just a long plod along a Military Road with Mike frequently dropping off the pace. Keith and I took a short diversion to explore the Dun Deardail Iron Age Fort, Mike was just fixated on the route. Finally after the plod through the Nevis Forest we emerged for a foot-sore tramp along the road to the finishing post out side a woollen shop.

The Finish

The Finish

At the B&B the reason for Mike’s lack of pace became apparent when he removed his boot to show an ankle so swollen an elephant would have disowned it. Somehow he mad managed to conceal this and the difficulty it was causing him for several days.

For dinner that night we went in search of the exotic. There is only so long a man can exist without recourse to a Chinese or Indian meal.

Climbing Ben Nevis, Thursday 16th August 2001

If you have walked 95 miles from the outskirts of Glasgow to Fort William, then naturally you will want to take the opportunity to climb Ben Nevis, even if your ankle does resemble one belonging to a pachyderm. So we struck out up the tourist track, past a widely ignored sign that like a nightclub bouncer says “No Trainers, No jeans and no sandwiches in carrier bags”. the lower slopes were pretty busy and it was bright and dry, and clouds hovered tantalisingly above the summit.

Just shy of the saddle where Lochan Meall an-t’ Suidhe nestles, the well-made path runs out and it was here that Mike admitted defeat. he knew that he would not be able to manage on the loose scree-based rubble of the upper tracks. So a rather subdued pair continued upwards, and as we approached the Summit the clouds descended and though we walked up to the cairns and memorials that cover the summit in shirtsleeves, freezing sleety rain began to fall. Fleeces and waterproofs were quickly donned and we looked smugly round at the shivering tourists in their trainers and jeans. There is a good reason a helicopter takes up position in Glen Nevis.

Photos, lunch, and a quick look around the disappointingly trash-strewn summit and it was time to descend. Within a couple of hundred metres we were out of the cloud and back to shirtsleeves. Near Achintee there is a pub and we had a subdued drink. We would have given almost anything for Mike to have been able to accompany us to the summit. Mike himself was waiting back at the Guest House, and after a shower we were back out into Fort William in search of beer, food, and chatting about the Pennine Way

Summit of Ben Nevis

Keith and The Ammonyte

The Journey Home. Friday 17th August 2001

The train back to Glasgow winds its way through the Highlands, across Rannoch Moor stopping at remote stations where fishermen swaddled in anti-midge netting alight. Chatting to a girl on the train we agreed that it would be a better trip earlier in the year, before the midges came out in force, or in early Autumn, if you catch a fair-weather window. In Glasgow itself, Mike and I had a longer wait than Keith for our train, so we bade K farewell and spent some time wandering round a couple of art galleries. The street lights appeared to be on during the middle of the day, but curiously, many of them seemed to be emitting an Ultra-Violet light. My original plan had been to stay overnight in Northampton and then drive home the following day, but such was the descent to reality that I chose to drive straight back home after a meal. Though we did not know it at the time, it was the last time that the three of us would walk together.

Well, that’s the way I remember it anyway. Time has fuzzed out some of the detail, but not the memories.

~ by @mmonyte on January 25, 2010.

One Response to “Bimbling towards the Big One: The West Highland Way”

  1. Im glad you journalized this to remind you how much love and laughter you have had in your life. Some spectacular experiences with friends, and a full journey. You have touched many… including me. Love you bunches!

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