Loch Lomond and Balmaha from Conic Hill

The Caledonian Sleeper is a brilliant way to travel. Ok, it doesn’t have the flexibility of a car, it’s more expensive than a coach, and it’s slower than a plane. It does however save the cost of a hotel overnight but more than this, much more, the sleeper has bags of something none of the others have at all. Soul! After checking in with ‘reception’ on the train I headed for the lounge carriage and a cold can of Deuchars IPA was my reward. As the train was really hot following a day under the sweltering sun one just wasn’t enough. Two might have been but for being gainfully employed washing haggis, neeps and tatties down. So it was necessary to go for a hat-trick and that proved to be a good call. At 11 I headed to my berth and was delighted to find the person I was supposed to be sharing with hadn’t turned up. Maybe he’d heard about my snoring, poor chap. After booking a wake-up at 5:40 it was head down and off to sleep. There is something completely wonderful about sleeping on a train. Of course there are frequent disturbances and, on the London to Fort William route at least, several stops and a major decoupling/reconfiguration effort in the early hours. But it doesn’t seem to matter. There is something comforting about this and the squeaking and squealing of the brakes and connections that seem to accompany the work. Best of all when the train is travelling along the rails it ‘sings’. I don’t know how it does so, but believe me it sings and it is delightful!

A bottle of orange juice and 2 Dundee shortbreads having accompanied my wake up call the train duly stopped at Westerton at 5:55, exactly on time, and I jumped off. It was a coolish 9°C and in the puddles on the road there was evidence of recent rain. The forecast indicated overcast until midday then heavy rain so I resolved to get a move on to minimise the time to be spent in waterproofs. Much to my delight 30 minutes later while I was making my way on foot the 3 miles or so from Westerton station to the beginning of the West Highland Way (WHW) in Milngavie (pronounced something like ‘mul-guy’ and definitely not sounded phonetically) the sun came out and remained out for much of the day. While not part of the WHW this short walk was actually quite enjoyable in the early morning sunshine with hardly anyone around and little traffic despite Milngavie being part of the north-west conurbation of Glasgow. Had I travelled later I could have got closer by train or bus but to be honest I wasn’t that bothered about a ride. I was about to set off on a 95 mile walk so what matter an extra 3?

At just before 7:00 I located the grey granite obelisk in the centre of Milngavie that marks the beginning of the WHW. Presumably so as not to discriminate against the cartographically challenged there was also a huge wrought iron gateway proclaiming ‘West Highland Way’ at the entrance to the walk too. At about 7:05, with a selfie of me and the obelisk safely in the can, I strode through the gateway in brilliant sunshine, grin firmly fixed in place. I know embarking on a classic long walk may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it sure is mine and in making those first few steps I was tingling with anticipation of adventures to come. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow but come they will. They always do.

The first part of the walk was along footpaths through Mugdock Country Park. I read subsequently that Mugdock Castle, the ruins of which are in the country park, was the stronghold of the Clan Graham from the middle of the 13th century. I didn’t see them however, and didn’t see a sign. I suspect that I was simply enchanted by Mugdock woods which were alive with the richest most beautiful birdsong. Living in London I am delighted that there is a blackbird that sings within earshot of my bedroom window and from time to time we hear a robin too. Just the one. Well the chorus in Mugdock woods was symphonic! Blackbirds, robins, chaffinches and cookoo were easily identified but there were others and it was truly uplifting. Add to this the rich green-ness of the grass still holding droplets of rain from an earlier shower, the elegant stands of silver birch amongst an otherwise ancient and beautifully managed woodland, and the bluebells. Oh, the bluebells! I have never seen such profusion of this iconic wild flower as in these woods! The path was clear and true and apart from some early dog walkers I had this to myself and I was spellbound. No wonder I missed the castle. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a long distance path is about graft and pain as it doesn’t have to be. The WHW can be done over as many days as you wish, or even in stages over a number of years. I chose to go for 5 days. Some do fewer, most do longer. This first section was worth the journey alone and about as far from the commute that I would normally have been engaged in at this time as it is possible to imagine.

Eventually however the woodland gave way to more open ground and the Campsie Fells could be seen ahead. Even though the land was more open its fecundity remained very evident. Moss continued to cover trees and stones in drystone walling and the reeds around the many little lakes or areas of standing water reached to over head height in places. It was at about this time that I came across the memorial to the Craigallian Fire which was a beacon of hope and companionship to young unemployed people from Glasgow during the 1930’s depression. The monument marked the spot where the fire burned and around its base the following was inscribed: “Long may old Craigallian woods, send forth abundance of their goods. May the fire be always lit, so that we may come and sit.”

As the openness became the norm the profusion of bluebells was replaced by a profusion of butterflies. In particular I saw orange tip butterflies in their hundreds, male and female. The male is predominantly white but with a dab of bright orange on the tip of both wings. The species has a wide range of habitats which include country lanes, hedgerows, riverbanks, woodland margins and rides, and damp meadows. All of these were present in one way or another so the prevalence of orange tip was not surprising. A little further on, as I passed Craigallian Loch to my right a deer broke from cover in a small copse and crossed in front of me to broken ground to my left. This was a relatively small animal and it was gone in a flash leaving me uncertain whether it was a female or adolescent male.

Wildflowers also peppered the grassy banks either side of the path. White, pink, blue, purple, yellow. I’m rubbish at identification and must do better but the effect irrespective of their names was magical. The richness of the flora was such that I barely recognised a field of sheep as such due to the length of the grass in their field. Indeed they seemed to be immersed in grass!

Having covered flowers, birds, and butterflies, perhaps I should mention insects. You may have been expecting me to be tormented by midges but they have been absent. In their place however were myriad mayflies, or something similar. There have been clouds of them and they were a pest in the woods. But in open ground they were less prevalent. Thus insects have not been an issue today.

Around 8 miles from Milngavie, with the Campsies getting closer and the ground now being sufficiently open to support cows as well as sheep I came upon Dumgoyach. This heavily wooded circular hill of around 500m diameter thrust sharply skywards to my right in a fashion not unlike Glastonbury Tor (except the Tor is not wooded). Indeed it is a volcanic dome. Almost as striking as it’s appearance was the hundreds of crows wheeling over it. While the collective noun for crows is, of course, a ‘murder’ there were so many here I think a ‘genocide’ would be more fitting!

Shortly after passing Dumgoyach the WHW then follows the route of a railway closed in 1951 with the A81 trunk road never more than 200yds away. The relative lack if interest along this section coupled with the road noise rendered this the least enjoyable part of the day and I shall therefore not dwell upon it. Under other circumstances I could have been persuaded to visit Glengoyne distillery or the Beech Tree pub but the earliness of the hour precluded both of these as neither were open. Although Killearn was signposted along the trail we passed almost a kilometre to the west of the village and this left me looking forward to getting a water resupply in Drymen, 5 miles further down the track and 12 miles from the start. It hardly seemed possible that I was only 7 miles from Milngavie with 13 still to go.

The disused railway ended at Gartness, a large farm notable for the squadron of house martins fizzing above my head. From this point the WHW follows a minor road into Drymen. While there was hardly any traffic, at a guess I saw no more than 8 or 9 cars during the 45 minutes or so I was on it, every single driver waved as they passed. Male or female, young or old made no difference. Ok, so I was being courteous about where I was walking but even so, I was amazed at their friendliness. Maybe I’ve just lived in London too long?

Towards the end of the minor road about half a mile from Drymen while car drivers are signed to Balmaha through Drymen the WHW turns right for a few hundred yards and then joins the Rob Roy Way heading north. This is because walkers approach Balmaha from the north east having climbed Conic Hill on the way. Drivers of course give Conic Hill a miss it being nearly 400m high. However I was in sore need of some water and Drymen was the only option. Checking the map it was clear that I could still get to the Conic Hill approach via Drymen so I went ‘off piste’ for a while. Remember what I said earlier about adventures just happening? Well, read on.

Drymen looked like my kind of place in that the number of pubs seemed to outnumber the shops, but I think this was a dehydration-induced hallucination. I purchased a 2 litre bottle of water and a monster Snickers bar from the Post Office Stores and saw off the latter and half the former in rapid order on the little bench seat outside the shop, next to the post box. Depositing the remaining water in my water bottle and suspending that from my rucksack waist belt I headed north out of the village in the direction of the approach to Conic Hill. The route took me through a forest but as it was well crossed by paths and rides I figured it would be easy to negotiate. In the event there were huge sections that had been felled and I reflected on the necessary devastation and was sanguine about it if it was being properly managed. Pressing further I then found that the path I needed was in a section that had been felled but not cleared. What faced me was a veritable assault course of trees blocking my route. The only alternative route would have seen me retrace my steps back to Drymen and that wasn’t really viable. So I set to climbing over and under a multitude of trees laying horizontal. They hadn’t been stripped of their branches and foliage and it was often these that prevented progress rather than the bough. Within the confines of the woods the wind didn’t blow and so there was nothing to cool me. I ended up soaking wet from sweat and my trousers were wringing from crawling along the ground when climbing over wasn’t on. What a mess!

After about 30 minutes I emerged back onto the WHW, looking like I had just been dragged through a hedge, which was about right! Naturally there were loads of people around now all of whom saw fit to comment on my appearance. Welcome to my walk. Now you know why Clare doesn’t do this stuff.

I figured the best thing now was to put my head down and fly along, thereby convincing those encountered that I was in a hurry and not open to conversation. All went well for about 10 mins until I saw ahead a lady of a certain age engaged in conversation with 2 older gents. As I was about to pass the lady, who I later found to be called Patricia, she literally flagged me down like a cab. It turned out she was from New York which explained her forthright technique. It transpired that she was one of a group of 6 female New Yorkers and the other 5 were some distance ahead (about a mile as it turned out!). Patricia was determined to finish, but unable to move at the pace of her compatriots. Seeing that I was going faster even than they she asked me to tell the others of her group that she was fine and that they should not wait for her. I found this amusing given that they clearly hadn’t waited for her already. Anyway, agreeing to carry the message I set off on a mission, glad to have a reason to go pell mell other than to avoid discussion of my dishevellment. Finding 3 of the NY team at the base if Conic Hill I duly passed Patricia’s message, much to their relief. Another was caught half-way up and similarly advised, while the final lady, Valerie, who had to be 65 at least, was caught at the summit. Jeez she was shifting! I actually felt quite sorry for Patricia. Valerie explained that they had all been here last year on a 6-day trip and hadn’t been able to complete the full walk in that time. As a result they had gone through some serious training and were back to try again this year. Maybe some of the group had been less diligent over their training than others eh Patricia?

From the top of Conic Hill it was a fairly quick, if uncomfortable on the toes, canter down to Balmaha nestling at the shore of Loch Lomond. Finding my hotel, the Oak Tree Inn, not ready for check-ins just yet (it was after all only 2pm – told you I’d been motoring) I availed myself of some of Mr Bellhaven’s Best but only after downing a pint of orange and lemonade. Just after 3 I checked-in and found that I was not in the main pub building but in a cottage up the road that had been converted into several rooms. My single room was delightful. Freshly decorated with a bright clean bathroom with a shower I immediately stripped off and threw my clothes into the shower with me to wash them. I have only 2 sets of gear so everything has to be washed and dried every night if I am not to attract all the insects for miles around.

Freshly scrubbed and wearing my spare everything (except for my footwear as I have no spare) I returned to the Oak Tree Inn for some more refreshment and a burger. I then set about writing my blog and, as you will have noticed, it turned into such an epic that I have just had dinner too: a massive chicken and bacon Caesar salad followed by a Mars bar cheesecake. I just love Scottish cuisine!

Breakfast tomorrow morning is from 8:30 to 9:00. I can’t help thinking these places do breakfast deliberately late so they can charge for it confident that many people will want to get away early and therefore not stay to eat. Were that not the case then they would offer a ‘no breakfast’ option wouldn’t they? Anyway I won’t gripe because the room is great and the price very reasonable for a place like this right on the WHW.

It’s now just before 8 and although it’s still very light it feels much later. The 6 a.m. start is probably to blame. As I sip the last dregs of my coffee I can see through the window a fairly clear sky and the trees being blown quite hard. The forecast says dry tomorrow so we might have another midge-free day. But this as Scotland after all and mountain forecasts are notoriously bad. All I know is that I have 21 miles to walk to my room at Inverarnan tomorrow and whatever the weather that’s where I have to go.

Stay with me. Who knows what adventures lay ahead?