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Written by
Neil
Neil

Tony&'s West Highland Way Blog

This is a guest post by Tony Thomas who walked the West Highland Way from 8th to the 13th of September 2011 with his friends Patrick and Mavis Powell. Their West Highland Way walk was organised by Macs Adventure walking holidays and he was kind enough to share this detailed account of his adventure on the West Highland Way with us. Over to Tony....

The West Highland Way 8th  to 13th September 2011

The journey began at about 9.30am on the morning of the 7th September the weather was cloudy and rain was in the air. The journey was some 309miles according to the sat nav and we were scheduled to arrive late afternoon allowing for a stop enroute. The main rush hour traffic was over so the conditions on what was dominantly motorway travel were good throughout. Occasional showers and the odd bright spot in what was for the most part an uneventful journey. After some two hundred miles Patrick I took over the driving for the final leg and it was on this leg whist skirting the south and the east of Glasgow that we were introduced to a customary scotch kiss albeit by an animal rather than a human. As I drove through what seemed to me to be a fairly depressed area with graffiti and some very tired looking shops a dog ran straight at the side of the car head butted it and returned apparently unharmed to the pavement. We  at that time could only hope that the door panel also had suffered no harm. Our destination was Milngavie (seemingly pronounced  Milngavie) Premier Inn at which we were to spend the first night before the start of the walk. Having checked in we ventured to the village and took shelter at the Costa Coffee then some general orientation so that we lost little by way of time in terms of the start the following morning. The hotel were helpful and allowed us to leave the car in their car park for the week in exchange for a donation of £5 to the air ambulance which struck us all as fair. It was next door to the police station and had 24hr CCTV so all in all a good deal. Rooms were as one would expect and the food at the next door Beefeater was also good, breakfast as booked was continental with the option to upgrade. The upgrade on this occasion was declined as we figured we would have plenty of opportunity to distort the cholesterol balance during the walk.

Day 1: Milngavie to Drymen: 12 Miles

The morning kick of was to be 7.30 on the grounds that the weather was scheduled to be good early on and deteriorate as the day went on. With the kit that was to be sent forward duly left in reception we set out for the start in the village. At the obelisk which marks the start we were taking the start pictures and were approached by a gentleman from the “I” unit nearby who offered to do the photography on the basis we would just pop into the “I” office which we duly did. The guy in the office explained they were anxious to set up a data base of lodgings and also would welcome any information on the state of the trail. For £5 we were also furnished with a Passport which showed the route and the various places where stamps could be obtained on route with a certificate collection at the end of the line in Fort William. The money goes towards the upkeep of the trail which it seems is one of the most popular long distance trails in Scotland. So having done all that was required we stepped out into the drizzle and the start of the walk. The first day is a fairly gentle walk through woodland and field margins with the final section on roadway. A few modest climbs and an opportunity to visit a distillery if you wish just south of Dumgoyne our first stop for refreshments at the Beech Tree Cafe and in my case a change of gear. The trail was well marked and the rain had saturated it so in parts it was muddy and in all wet. The showers were on and off all day so it was good to see the village of Drymen from the hill as we approached it. This first night was to be at Braeside B&B which was directly opposite the local pub. First task was in my case a  beer Pat had Ginger ale and Mave orange we all had and a warm and then checked in at the B&B. The rooms were good and the hosts Joe and Cath were very helpful and a hot shower was most welcome. I was able to dry some kit and it was on that point that Mavis caused a bit of a stir. As is normal we took our wet boots off at the front door and Mavis took one of hers upstairs to stuff it with paper to aid the drying process. Having had an extended break we then explored the village and got our Passports stamped at the nearby Great Western hotel before returning to the B7b with an agreed kick off at 5.15pm for the pub and some drinks and food and an early night. Joe had it seems hunted all the local bins thinking that someone had stolen the boot from the porch as a joke. He was very relived when in the morning he found out what had really happened and needless to say Mave was a little embarrassed. The evening meal at the pub was good and the breakfast at the B&B was also good.

Day 2: Drymen to Rowardennan: 15 Miles

Walk kick off was again set for about 8.45 and we decided to take the defined route back to the trail and not the short cut along the roadway favoured by many. In truth I suspect it is not that much shorter at all. The ground was  still wet but aside from a short shower this turned out to be the only full day without rain. The initial trail is on forestry tracks and then it breaks out onto the moorland and the climb up Conic hill and whilst we were getting accustomed to walking on wet trails we now got introduced to walking up streams a feature we were to get used to. It is inevitable that when in an effort to improve the trail stone is laid down without an element of drainage it becomes a watercourse. The descent was in parts dangerous where stones had been laid but tilted the wrong way so they actually created a danger instead of limiting the same. With wet boots and wet stones twisted knees would be all to easy to pick up on the descent if you did not take great care. The views on the ascent are well worth the effort and the loch presents some great photo opportunities. Balmaha is an ideal lunch stop and another passport stamp point with a pizza split three ways and liquids taken on board it was back out into the sunshine and up the stone staircase to track the loch-side to Rowardennan. At the top of the stairs is a great photo spot and good shots of the loch can be obtained in two or three places along the way. It is from here that the trail has in parts been cut to pieces by bikes and their point loading has made the trail very muddy and boggy at times to the degree and extent that where the track and the road abut I elected to take the road. As you get near the hotel there is a significant climb just at a point in the day when you frankly could do without it and given saturated boots due to the wet trail conditions I took to the road at this point. The hotel (The Rowardennan Hotel) was right on the loch and in good weather, the views would no doubt be spectacular but the cloud was low and foreboding albeit it had in all been a dry day. The usual boots off and check in to the rooms which again were good and having had our end of day beer it was time to shower/bath and get into some dry clothes in my case and have a hours relaxation before diner and a few drinks. Dinner was fish and chips and it was superb probably the best fish and chips I have had for a very long time in the U.K

Day 3: Rowardennan to Inverarnan: 14 Miles

Breakfast was set for 8am and that to was good in my case the full Scottish and Pat had Kippers with Mave having a slightly modified full Scottish. We all enjoyed this initial fuel intake for the day which looked as if it was to be a wet one. It is at about this stage of the walk that you begin to meet fellow walkers and the camaraderie starts to build. A couple retired with knee injuries at this stage and others were to drop out along the way either due to injury or simply the weather conditions. The first stage from Rowardennan was in rain and on a good walking surface through the forest. Early on there is a choice of either loch-side or stay on the forest track we elected to stay on the forest track given the rain and the notes which say the loch-side is challenging and only for the adventurous in normal conditions. Once the forest track comes o an end then the walking is different to say the least . The notes say you may smell the wild goats they do not say you will actually need to be one to do the rocks challenges along this section. Again and clearly in an effort to help stones have in parts been laid but again they are all no matter the direction you are walking tilted the wrong way so they enhance the danger not limit it. The danger is to the degree and extent that walkers have established trails either side of the laid stones. The thunder of the falls at Inversnaid and the Lochs & Glens Hotel were a welcome sight for the lunch stop. Timing was not perfect as a boat load of visitors had just arrived, but the warmth of the hotel and refreshments and a little snack made the wait for drinks worthwhile. The afternoon was spent doing more rock rambling in loch-side woodland before braking out into open moor land as we approached Inverarnan and a long anticipated stop at The Drovers Inn a place that should be listed in the great bars of the world guide. On the approach you pass through Beinglas Farm camp and cabin site which is also a passport stamp point. It is worth noting that the cabins look very good and were reported to us as being so by a fellow walker that stayed in the deluxe version having paid the £5 extra to do so. The Drovers Inn has accommodation in the main building but we stayed in the annex courtyard on the other side of the road. The rooms were functional and clean and the food at the Inn is very good. The staff were helpful and not a scot in sight all had the full kit kilts dirks etc but they were either Australian, English or of Balkan origin. It was here that we came into contact with a group of runners with husky type dogs and whilst that was of a concern in terms of the potential for night-time barking it turned out to be no problem. Having showered and rested it was back into the bar for drinks and general chat with fellow walkers who ranged from Dutch soldiers to an air Alaska pilot (Tom) and his partner a very well travelled lady (Bernadette) and of course some Scots. Drovers in is full of character from the erect stuffed bear to the smoke stained walls and ceiling it has character by the bucket full. They have a location that lends itself to opportunities and the current management try there level best to utilise that position all the beers are £3.80 a pint which is something of a premium but nonetheless it is worth a visit I suspect if I were to return it would be a cabin at Beinglas.

Day 4: Inverarnan to Tyndrum: 12 Miles

The next day in good weather would undoubtedly be scenic on a bad day however it is something else rain still falling and visibility is poor but the trail is better than yesterday. It tracks the road for the most part and there are several burns that have to be crossed on the way. Given the volume of water that has fallen in recent days the burns are at full bore and on occasion the crossing of them is fraught and risky. At times these crossings are positively dangerous and all it needs is two planks at the high spots on the banks on either side to remove this unnecessary risk. At one point four walkers turned back simply unprepared to take the risk. As it was flooded boots were the order of the day despite one guys claim that his were waterproof he soon discovered once the entire boot is under then proofing has nothing to do with it. At Carmyle Cottage I decided that I would take the road to our lunch stop at Crainlarich and Pat and Mave pressed on with the trail which was to cross seven more burns before lunch. The road was no shorter but I was wet both in and out as usual due to my diabetes and the paddling was beginning to get me down. On the road I met one of the dog team leaders and he said he was calling it a day once he got to the next stop at Tyndrum we walked together and chatted till we got to the station at Tyndrum and there he pressed on and I stopped for five minutes before carrying on to the local hostelry for a sandwich and a warm. Mave and Pat turned up about ten minutes later and once refreshed we agreed to walk on and go back up to the trail through the woods. This turned out to be a bog climb in the rain but Pat & Mave felt it was shorter than the route they had descended by. A steady climb through woodland on varied track some flooded some watercourse and some raging torrents to cross which again were at times risky. Descending to cross the A82 road and wander across fairly flat field tracks past St Fillians Priory and the Wigwams of Auchtertyre (sounds like a song title). Coffee at wigwam land and then back to the trail again I took the road and Pat and Mave took the trail to our next accommodation Glengarry some 500mtrs short of Tyndrum but an excellent B&B. Andy met me at the door and showed me to the room and offered coffee and a piece of flapjack once I had got sorted out. His wife did a full load of washing and drying for £5 which got me out of a clothing log jam built up due to lack of ability to dry kit fast enough. One of the running dog girls was staying at the place and she said she hoped to do the next stop Kings House by early afternoon the following day. Pat & Mave arrived about half and hour later and once we had all had our rest and showers we decided to go to the village for a meal at Paddy Bar. Andy kindly offered to drop us in the village on the basis we would walk back. Into the Chelsea tractor we all get and all hell breaks loose hi turns out he is a part time fireman and the call out signal has just gone off. First time for a long time he has been caught like this, no matter his good lady stepped in and took us to town and a friend took him to the fire station. At Paddy’s bar some familiar faces were to be seen it was busy and we had to wait a while until we could nip in and get some seats. A large group we had seen before arrived and a little old lady who I marked out as Mrs indecisive was at the bar to commence the process of making a decision as to what she was going top drink. The group leader wore a bandana and they were I suspect American but I never got close enough to confirm that. Once we had ordered the food it arrived fairly quickly and it was good fare at a fair price. Once fed and watered we ventured up to the Green Welly and bought a bottle of wine as a nightcap. Wandered back to the B&B and with glasses from the lounge cabinet settled down for a quite drink. Then Pat realised he had left his glasses at the bar and had to shoot back to recover the same so we delayed the glass of wine until he returned mission accomplished. The weather forecast for the following day was not good 80mph winds and torrential rain so breakfast was the only high spot to look forward to. At breakfast Andy was able to explain what the emergency was all about it seems some idiot had decided to go for a swim in what was a raging river some 50 metres wide and had managed to cling on to a rock whilst help was sought. The fire service arrived and were happy to do the job but they got lucky as the air ambulance was in the air nearby and they winched him out with his clothes torn to shreds muppet!!. Given it was contributory negligence they should have charged him for the chopper.

Day 5: Tyndrum to Kingshouse: 20 Miles

Overnight the weather forecast had been downgraded but we were still to get wet and windy treatment. The trail today is in the main on hard surfaces with small sections on open moorland it follows the track of a river and sits in the river valley so the inclines are gentle and the surface is good with no burns through to the Bridge of Orchy. At The Bridge of Orchy Hotel we get passport stamps and a hot drink then a steady climb on forest trail with a few raging burns to cross on the ascent and the descent one of which had a bridge. At the base of the descent is Inveroran Hotel where most walkers had already passed through that day and we caught up with umbrella man who for his fiftieth birthday was doing Lands End to John O’ Groats. I say umbrella man because he preferred a brolly to a pole and made for an odd sight with his green brolly. Running girl with the dog we never saw so we could only assume she had thought better of it and retired. We had a 30 minute start on her and she had not passed us and did not appear at the next stop so I reckon our conclusion was good. Anyway drinks and sandwiches toasted variety were the order of the day. Fed and refreshed it was time for the crossing of Rannoch Moor. Good surface and rain all the way with stream walking on several sections. Visibility was poor so picture opportunities were very limited one mist is pretty much the same as another mist except this is Scotch mist. Little by way of shelter on this section and perhaps an emergency hut might be considered for shelter in severe conditions. It was on this section that a blister developed and burst on the ball of my heel aggravated by wet socks and wet boots. The descent down to Kings House had some raging burns and it was a walk in a stream all the way. So by the time we reached the Kings House Hotel we had walked the river Rannoch and were looking forward to dry gear and some warm surroundings. Kings House is a key location on the route and it is clear that it suffers from a lack of investment it is tired and in need of significant capital input. The rooms are clean and functional and the food is fine with breakfast served on plates so hot the eggs cook before your very eyes. I checked my foot and had some concerns but I was determined I would get to the end of the trail. The large American group were looking at a, b, c, plans most of which involved not going any further. The weather was forecast to be high winds and heavy rain for the next day so we settled in and enjoyed our evening in a hotel where the chef definitely leaves at 8.30pm so be warned after that its crisps and no sympathy.

Day 6: Kingshouse to Kinlochleven: 9 Miles

We awoke to a downpour and so like the condemned man enjoyed our moment of warmth and a good breakfast. It was somewhere in this section that Tim a friend of Pat and Mave enquired as to how we were doing on the Jacques Cousteau memorial walk. Well the misnomer called the Devils staircase waited for us so we were about to find out. The winds were high and the first burn saw a group turn back one assumes on safety grounds. We press on and the wind does as well. The conditions slowly deteriorated as we climbed the hill and the rain was at one point in dispute with itself as to whether to turn into sleet. The staircase in dry conditions would have been straight forward but with a heavy pack and rain and high winds it was for me a slog but the top was made and then the burn assault course commenced. Patrols up and down stream to identify the best spot and then the camaraderie surfaced and all helped one another with those across holding out poles for the next to grab onto. We were all soaked cold and wet with some taking of their boots and emptying them of the flood waters. The exposure on the top was testing and I think everybody fell over or into a burn edge at some stage. It was at this point I was beginning to question my sanity. I knew the views would have been great if they were there but they were not and had not been for some time so this had now become a challenge of a different kind. We descended into what has been described as that thoroughly nasty town of Kinlochleven and unwarranted accolade from what I could see. The descent takes in some good waterfalls and ends at a pub where the soup was first class. The accommodation was Tigh-na-Cheo a B&B just of the main road and with good drying facilities where we were reunited with some fellow walkers we had been with along the way. The rooms were very good and the bathrooms first class. The land lady appeared to be a little nervous but the place was well run and breakfast was good as usual. Usual routine and then down to the nearby pub for a meal and drinks after a fairly challenging day. My foot had deteriorated and the tendon was inflamed with the calf muscle on the same leg feeling like concrete so I had to give serious consideration as to what next.

Day 7: Kinlochleven to Fort William: 14 Miles (for some)

In the morning I decided that the risk to my Achilles was not worth taking so I advised Pat and Mave that I would not be doing the final leg much to my regret. One of the Scots girls was also not doing the last leg so we caught a bus together into Fort William and Pat and Mave pressed on in the pouring rain with the wind in their faces to the finish. There was an alternative route which cut about 2,5 miles off the journey and Pat had decided that they would take that at the intersection point which they duly did. I arrived in Fort William and had coffee at Morrison’s and then went to our last stop Guisachan B & B which in truth was closer to a hotel than a B7B with an onsite bar. The rooms were large and good and on this occasion we would not be taking breakfast because we had an early train to catch back to Milngavie. The owner dried our external kit and made us a breakfast bag with fruit, a drink and sandwiches. Mave attended to the final passport stamp and certificate and we all went to the finish post for the final photo. Our kit arrived at about 4pm as this was the last stop at the end of the line, the kit transfer process had been spot on throughout the trip and the overall standard of the accommodation was good with the only question mark being the Kings House Hotel. The journey had been booked through Macs Adventure and I could recommend their services to anybody they provide great information and clearly know the accommodation well so if you book early you will not be disappointed.

In Conclusion

The track itself must generate significant revenue opportunities for all the businesses on the route and I would have thought a £1 a night charge per person would not deter the walkers but would help pay for some of the works the track needs. If it is not the track that generates the income then the government needs to recognise and acknowledge the part it plays in the economy and give the support it needs. Emergency foot planks for the burns would not cost big money but would improve walker’s views and perceptions of the walk. The “I” set up need to synchronise its act we bought passports at “I” Milngavie but Fort William “I” does not finish the job.”I” should link up with the other public body site west -highland-way .co.uk If the “I” set up linked up with the website mentioned then you start to build a force to be reckoned with. The way is a major cash and tourist generator that needs to be exploited in a professional manner. For me, I did not finish the West Highland Waterway but I will return and do the last leg when I know that I do not have to be a penguin. A challenging week in which we met some great people and the camaraderie made for a great holiday despite the weather conditions We returned on the train from Fort William and arrived in Milngavie late morning, collected the car and returned to Leicestershire. A.G.Thomas September 2011  
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