|The start of the world renowned West Highland Way in Milngavie.|
A smooth drive with no traffic jams of around 500 miles had seen us arrive in Milngavie at 4.15 the previous afternoon, with plenty of time to rest and settle in. Feeling very relaxed after dinner, we sauntered to the local pub, The Talbot, for a couple of pre-walk beers - with the idea that we would be safely tucked up by around 10 pm. Ahem, well, that didn't happen as we were 'ambushed' by Scotland's very own chuckle brothers, a pair of mischievous old codgers who insisted on buying us far more beer and whisky than was entirely sensible for us to consume the night before a walk of such magnitude, that not paying full respect to it would inevitably lead to a rude awakening as we plodded through torrential rain on rough ground.
At precisely 9.50 a.m., undaunted, we stood by the sign in Milngavie (pronounced 'Mulguy') town centre, smiled through fuzzy hangovers for the camera, and set off through Mugdock country park in, initially, light drizzle.
After some three or four miles of pleasant, though relatively uninspiring woodland, the path opened out to give a rather marvellous taste of what was to come over the next few days. A few tough miles ahead lies a rare treat, a treat that is known throughout the world; ahead lies the most bonny of all the lochs, Loch Lomond, and beyond there The Trossachs, Glen Coe and Glen Nevis.
Before that though, we had a few more miles to negotiate, with the weather only ever being as good as the picture above - cloudy with light drizzle was as good as it got, with plenty of heavy showers and an ever increasing strong wind.
|One of the many tributaries of Endrick Water on this section of the route; full of water.|
Now, as mentioned earlier, we thought we had been fairly well prepared - hmm, maybe not! My old boots, a very sturdy pair that had served me very well for more than ten years and thousands of plodded hill miles, were much closer to their final demise than I had dared to think. After completing my John O'Groats to Land's End walk two years previously, they had been used almost every night on my milk round as well as for several spells of digging on my allotment. Stupidly, I ignored the ever widening holes in the soles of said boots, and the paying of a heavy price was looming as large as a mud-filled puddle that accelerated the end for my faithful old daisies.
As if this wasn't problem enough, the heavy bags upon our backs, the increasing amount of precipitation and howling winds, added to Stev's ankles that were inexperienced in the discipline of hill walking over rough terrain, we reached the twelve mile point at Drymen feeling somewhat wet, tired and disheartened.
|Stev taking a little weight off of aching ankles near Drymen.|
This section of the walk should be a really rather pleasant stretch, with undulating rather than steep terrain being the order of the day. However, in high winds and heavy rain, it became, for us, a nightmare at worst and a necessary chore at best. The rain got heavier, the wind grew stronger, and we became more disheartened. However, stopping was not an option - save for the odd five minutes here and there for a swig of water and a puff on a sodden ciggie - we needed to get to Balmaha; as quickly as our struggling legs and feet could manage.
We cleared the forest and Conic Hill loomed large ahead, staring at us like a demonic monster; standing firm, swathed in sodden mist and steadfastly refusing to give. This late afternoon giant would not surrender easily and we had no option but to tackle the beast head on; a fight to the death which we knew we just could not lose, sore feet or not. This battle had to be won, or the war would be over before it had even begun. Six o'clock arrived in high winds, carrying on it's wing a maelstrom of rain, ever increasing gusts and the ability to shut down normal sight in a single thrust of hail-ridden mischief. This beast was resisting stoutly, aided by that most powerful of phenomena, Mother Nature herself. We needed to dig deep, and dig deep we did.
|A distant view of Conic Hill.|
A decent rest and marvellous breakfast behind us, we left Balmaha at around 9 a.m. on the Monday morning, hoping to add rather more smoothly to the previous day's 19 miles, with what promised to be a somewhat better walk alongside Loch Lomond to Inverarnan. We had 21 miles to negotiate and hoped for more clement weather, not least for helping my boots to remain in some kind of state to get me through two more days.
|Loch Lomond at Balmaha; looking calm and serene, but with rain clouds gathering above.|
Spirits were not as dampened as my boots and the kit of us both, but with every new downpour the distant target of Inverarnan appeared to be that little bit further away. Along the first section of the day, some 7 miles to Rowardennan, we found ourselves walking in company with quite a few fellow walkers whom we swapped tales with about the previous day's exploits, and that devilish beastie that was Conic Hill. One particular group of four had been struggling as much as us, descending the hill only half an hour or so before us in an equally fed up and sodden state. These four intrepid lasses - two Scots, a Geordie, and their leader from Ireland - were particularly amused by our stories of Saturday evening in Milngavie with the chuckle brothers feeding us whisky on the back of "hey pal, are you Razor Ruddock?"
Now, Stev, in my estimation, does look a trifle rugged, and the weathered whiskers certainly add to the image. Mr Razor Ruddock was the tough tackling no nonsense footballer who plied his trade a few years ago with Liverpool Football Club, as well as West Ham United and England. Razor was usually unshaven and could look quite menacing to opposing players. I am of the opinion that Stev looks far more like your favourite uncle, but the walking ladies did find the whole thing rather amusing as they plodded their way through the woods and alongside the loch - "hey Razor, give us a smile or a growl!" was heard several times. It was all in good fun and helped an ever harder day go a little better. I christened these determined girls The Nolans, mainly for ease of indentifying who we were talking about as by now there were many groups of three, four, or more walkers plodding the route with us.
After a lunch stop at Rowardennan, the next section was an equally tough plod over more tree roots and up muddy woodland paths towards Inversnaid, with the rain becoming less relenting and my boots getting closer with every step to their last hurrah. Stev's ankles were also joining in the chorus of complaints...
Eventually we did reach Inversnaid - 14 miles of a 21 mile day completed at 5.0 pm, but with another 7 still to do. Thankfully the rain was easing after several hours of doing it's very best to dampen us - as well as The Nolan Sisters! - into submission. A brief stop for a bite to eat and collecting our thoughts...
This really is a quite magnificent pub hotel, perfectly set up for those walking The West Highland Way, with fantastic ales and food, comfortable accommodation and a roaring fire into which my sorry sodden boots were inserted, stuffed with newspaper in an attempt to dry them out for one final day of service before their final demise.
We had a good dinner, a good rest, an ale or two, and a very hearty breakfast the following morning before setting off from The Drovers for the (hopefully) drier and easier walk to Tyndrum, the village that marks the halfway point on the route.
|The splendid bar at The Drovers.|
|Stev, posing with a hairy chap in the foyer.|
|The majestic mountains above Crianlarich, standing proud with caps of snow resisting the spring melt.|
|Stev, now looking every inch the accomplished hill walker with his fancy new poles, check the beaming grin too!|
Newly kitted out, we made our way to one of the best guest houses one could ever hope to come across anywhere, Glengarry House.
|Far too quick for us, Bass and Jess - we'll see you there speedies!|
|The path leading down into Bridge of Orchy.|
|Quite stunning views to the snow-capped Black Mount on the descent to Inveroran.|
Our two intrepid hikers, posing at BA Bridge, some 5 miles from Kings House.
We duly arrived at this most wonderful of hostelries, eager to make use of that most wonderful of things - a hot bath. This was quite the most splendidly welcome thing, easing away several aches and pains as a prelude to a rather wonderful dinner, washed down with three pints of truly splendid Scottish Royal Stag ale, and a wee dram of course, purely medicinal. We found Bass and Jess here too, so enjoyed another good evening with them, as well as several other tired walkers, though we think The Nolans had bravely gone further, as we would find out later.
|A view from Kings House, quite splendid.|
|The Kings House Hotel, Glen Coe.|
And so to day 5, Thursday. We now had 72 gruelling but rewarding miles under our tightened belts, and were feeling pretty damn good; fit and raring to go. The morning weather forecast, however, threatened to put a large dampener on things. We had the steep climb up The Devil's Staircase to undertake, and the forecast was for rain, rain, and more rain, with high winds to boot. As a few dozen weary walkers resigned themselves to a wet and tough day, steadily appearing by the hotel door in full waterproofs, we waved goodbye to speedy Bass and Jess, and began our two mile plod through the drizzle to the foot of the climb. The scene did indeed look somewhat bleak.
However, my old friend Mother Nature is nothing if not a kindly lady, and she did the very decent thing of blowing the rain clouds away and ordering us some much brighter weather as we arrived at the foot of The Devil's Staircase; that was most kind of her and we were truly grateful for her generous gift as we climbed the quite marvellous path, with the views becoming steadily more wonderful by the minute.
|The foot of The Devil's Staircase, still misty and damp.|
|Halfway up, and clearing nicely.|
|Hardened hill walker!|
|The path stretching out before and below us, with magnificent views of the majestic mountains.|
And there we were, a good night's sleep followed by another hearty breakfast - Scottish hospitality really is quite the best, always - and we were ready for the final day. With 81 miles now completed, a further 15 would complete the 96 and see us safely into the capital of the Scottish highlands, Fort William.
The climb out of Kinlochleven was both long and tough, but with our fitness now at a much better level we took it largely in our stride, albeit a slow and steady stride. The rain fell a little up until midday, but not so much that would bother us too much, and the mist cleared to reveal more stunning views.
|Looking back down to Kinlochleven from around halfway up the climb.|
|Looking North on the route to Fort William.|
|Loch Leven, looking West.|
We had waved Bass and Jess off on their speedy way at the foot of the climb out of the village, but we had a most pleasant surprise as we began to level out at around 1200 feet; out of the clearing mist we saw The Nolans, invigorated and refreshed and pushing on determinedly to the finishing line a few miles to the north. They had two members of their foursome that had been struggling badly, but they had got through the bad bits and doggedly refused to quit. This walk is never, ever, anything other than tough, but the stories of determination to not give up and get through the pain barriers are plenty and inspiring. After some cheery exchanging of greetings and tales of aches and moans, the final few miles seemed somehow easier, with many a spring in many a step betraying the aches and pains behind them.
After a few miles up high, with the weather clearing nicely again, the steep and long descent into Fort William was achieved around 4.30 p.m., with a pleasant stroll of a mile to the finish at the Ben Nevis Woollen Mill.
We joined many others collecting their certificates, then headed off to our bnb, scrubbed up, and went in search of our friends for a celebratory pint or three. All in all, a quite magnificent walk, successfully completed in 6 days, with a tidy sum of money raised for charity. Well done Razor, a marvellous effort sir!
|Four proud walkers, after the successful completion of The West Highland Way, celebrating in The Grog and Gruel.|
Alec Hawkes May 2015.
Oh, a snippet of the most marvellous train journey can hopefully be seen here, assuming the link works! Enjoy.