Today I gave myself a lay-in. Uncommonly lazy I hear you say but in my defence it was in a very good cause: breakfast at the Oak Tree Inn didn’t start until 8:30 and the lady on reception assured me it was worth waiting for. And so it proved. Now, I recall that there are those amongst you who aren’t remotely interested in my eating habits and, frankly, I have some sympathy. However, as there are others who enjoy such detail then let the record show that bowls of grapefruits, then Frosties (they’re gggggreat!), accompanied by orange juice, were followed by sausages and bacon, scrambled eggs and baked beans, all lightly garnished with ketchup (of the rip open a pouch and squirt the contents over your trousers variety) and eased down with a pot of coffee. Thus it was with my belt loosened a notch I headed north at 9 a.m. well stocked up with carbs, protein, and caffeine, and uncommonly well rested.
I was looking forward to following the eastern shore of Loch Lomond all day today as this Loch is a jewel among the many beautiful Lochs which depict Scotland at its bonniest. I was not expecting that within 10 minutes of leaving the breakfast table I would be climbing a steep little hill. However the viewpoint a Craigie Fort was splendid affording expansive views in all directions and exhibiting an even greater profusion of bluebells than yesterday.
Once more at sea level there was sheer joy in walking a section of the WHW along a wide, stony beach. Following the strand for a while and passing several little private-ish stony beaches, and thinking how gorgeous it would be to take a dip in the water, I was reminded of an incident a few years ago in this very spot. Clare and I were in Glasgow visiting her folks and had taken the opportunity to catch up with an old friend. It being a scortching day we took a drive out to Balmaha. Not expecting this weather, well you wouldn’t in Scotland would you, we hadn’t thought to pack ‘bathers’ (swimsuits to us sassenachs). The call of the loch on this sweltering day proved too much for yours truly who deployed his improvisation skills in fashioning a pair of trunks from a supermarket carrier bag. I put holes for the legs in the bottom of the bag pulled them up and waded in. I maintained my modesty, just, by holding the bag up by the handles. All was fine until I tried to return from my swim to find the thin plastic not up to the job and it split, fairly fundamentally. My return to the beach was somewhat less dignified than the outward journey. Nobody outside of our group saw what was going on (or off) and mercifully the girls saw the funny side. The only damage was to my ego. The loch was, after all, freezing cold and the logo emblazoned on the bag was never more true: ‘Lightening the Load’.
Continuing along the WHW the path was firm and clear. Not dissimilarly to yesterday despite its proximity to the loch, hedgerows were peppered with a profusion of wild flowers and birdsong filled the air. Once more the grass and other vegetation was vibrantly green, putting the grey of the loch into sharp contrast. After the little wooded headland of Creag Mhor the route took a road for about a mile. I could see someone ahead but apart from noting they were carrying a sizeable rucksack in a purpley/cerisey colour normally reserved for ladies packs I though no more of them. That was until 10 mins or so later when the road straightened again by the Caravanning & Camping Club holiday park and I saw the walker again, barely closer than before. I was intrigued at this as it’s rare for me to meet someone travelling fast. Eventually, largely do to them stopping to take a photo, I came close enough to see it was indeed a female walker, flame red hair previously hidden by the upper section of her rucksack. I eventually caught her as the path once more went through woodlands and her reaction was similar to mine. ‘Wow – this doesn’t happen often’. We got into conversation and it turned out that Eleanor worked as a solicitor in Bristol and while she was predominantly a trekker of some speed she had done some mountaineering too. She was on the WHW with a friend who had got really bad blisters the previous day and so was taking wheels to the next overnight stop leaving Eleanor to revel in the speed walking that being alone permits. It further transpired that she had tried to climb Mont Blanc just 2 weeks after me in 2011. The date was fixed in her mind as that was the day of the Mont Maudit avalanche that killed several climbers and she was on Mont Blanc at the time. Talk of avalanche led me to refer to recent events on Everest and for the next 30 mins or so we walked together at a crazy pace while talking about treks and mountains. At Rowardennan, 7 miles into the day’s walk, we parted as she took a break and I pressed on.
From here the trail continued in the same vein as before. To my right was higher ground, heavily forested predominantly with pine. Every little while a mountain stream would tumble out of the woods cascading over rocks into a pool by the roadside. To my left, deciduous woodland of oak and birch with a thick carpet of fern with occasional pathways through to the pebbly shore of the loch. The most striking thing was the richness of the dark soil that could be seen from time to time and the dampness within the woods to my left.
Passing 2 guys with big packs and obviously planning to camp out rather than take it easy in a hotel room I asked where they were headed. Tyndrum came the response. Wow, respect guys. That’s 12 miles further than my target for the day giving them a total walk for the day of 33 miles. Mind you with their house on their backs if they didn’t make it they could stop earlier. Maybe I’ll bump into them tomorrow.
From the Ptarmigan Lodge the path headed away from the loch shore and up into the forest. It continued to run broadly parallel to the shoreline but at a distance of 200 yds or so. Also the deciduous woodland was less in evidence. For the next 4 miles or so I followed the forest road passing diggers and other forest management machinery from time to time. While it made a change from the loch side trail I was looking forward to returning there. I shouldn’t have as when I did the nature of the trail changed considerably. From relatively open, if not especially interesting forest tracks the way became much narrower and rocky. Climbs, not quite scrambles but close, over slippery rock became common as did the need to take great care not to trip or slip on the many large and gnarled tree roots. There was even a rocky section that involved edging along a ledge for several feet. While not technically difficult this section of the walk will probably have come as quite a shock to some after the benign woodland pathways of yesterday and the earlier section today.
At around 1p.m. I could see across the loch the telltale pipelines of the power station at Inveruglas. Not significant in itself but a marker for what was on this side of the loch but yet hidden by the trees: the Inversnaid Hotel, and lunch! 30 minutes or so later after much slipping and sliding along the track, the walls of a building could be made out. After crossing the wooden bridge over the small river called Arklet Water and marvelling at the waterfall that spectacularly marks its arrival at the loch, I sat at a table outside the hotel with not a little gratitude. The weather was still fine although not as sunny but perfect for taking lunch outside. Having ordered a pint of orange juice and lemonade and a beer (I figured I’d earned it), and a lunch of chicken burger and chips (that too) I got into conversation with two Scots ladies of similar age to myself who were also doing ‘the Way’. I had seen them yesterday in the area of Conic Hill and had a short chat about whether there was an alternative to going over the hill (there wasn’t) before pressing on to catch the American group. Anyway they looked completely banjaxed at lunch and still had another 7 miles to go as we were staying in the same hotel in Inverarnan. We talked for a while as they were quite chatty and I was in no hurry. It was clear however that while they were keen enough and thoroughly enjoying their adventure they had bitten off a bit more than they could chew in terms of daily distance. Or to put it another way, the company or person who had planned their walk did an appalling job. They were good for around 15 miles a day, not 20+. The previous day they hadn’t reached their destination until 9 p.m. Ok it was still light but that’s cutting it a bit fine and doesn’t really leave enough time for rest and recuperation before the next day. Anyway they said they were expecting to get to the hotel by around 7 and I said I’d keep an eye out for them. I left them to their Irn-Bru and hit the trail again at just before 3 having tarried a little linger than intended.
From Inversnaid the route started easily enough with clear paths through beautiful woodlands, bluebells and birdsong predominating among the lushness. Indeed it was so magnificent that it made me want to jog for a while. I know that might sound crazy when the more sensible thing to do would have been to dawdle, all the better to take in this beauty, and to limit damage to my feet. Well, welcome to Andyland. My heart was singing in the glory of this place and I just wanted to run. So I did. Just because I could. After a while though the way became more tortuous with frequent precipitous rocky staircases and slippery muddy sections. When the way was open it was easy but increasingly it wasn’t open. Fairly early on I found myself picturing my lunch companions struggling along here. They were after all built more for comfort than speed and if they were slow on the easy paths of yesterday this would be a serious challenge. I also guessed they were tenacious and would not turn back. With occasional glimpses of the loch through the trees I pressed on. Running or jogging at every opportunity, but increasingly infrequently due to the difficulty of the terrain.
Eventually reaching open ground I checked the map to find myself close to Ardleish, maybe 2 miles or so from my hotel. While the way eased a little from here there were still sections on which great care was required to avoid a twisted ankle or worse. I eventually reached the Drovers Inn at 5:10, having completed the 7 miles from Inversnaid in 2hrs 10 mins.
I checked in and found my room, in the lodge building across the road, and was delighted to find a large double bed and jacuzzi bath. Result! I’m normally a ‘run through the shower’ sort of person but in the circumstances the jacuzzi was perfect. After a short siesta, putting on my spare set of clothes and washing today’s walking gear so as not to look too disreputable tomorrow I headed over to the main hotel building. Quirky is the word that comes to mind. Dating from 1705 the walls of the Drovers Inn are festooned with all manner of historic artefacts and various dead stuffed things, including a bear just inside the main door that greets the unwary with a snarl. There are also a profusion of heads mounted on the walls. The bar area is similarly decorated but is warm and cozy featuring an open fire, and the traditionally-dressed staff could not have been more helpful. The receptionist even identified that I had been charged the wrong price for my room by the on-line system in that I paid for twin occupancy instead of single. I got a £37 reduction!
By this time it was approaching 7 p.m. so I settled down with a pint to write my blog. There was no 3G, indeed there were no Gs at all and while the hotel did offer wi-fi it was too weak to enable internet access. I was at least able to blog via a short email.
When 8 o’clock came and went I was a little concerned that the ladies I had spoken to at lunch had not turned up. When 8:30 passed likewise I figured that I’d better check with reception. The girl confirmed that the walkers were still missing. It was beginning to get dark so I figured I’d better do something. Heading back to my room I grabbed some food and chocolate bars, filled up the water bottle and put a head torch in my pocket. At 8:45 I headed back down the track. About 15 mins later I bumped into a group of campers who I had seen earlier and asked them if they had seen the ladies. They responded that they had, some time ago, and that they were going very slowly. Thankfully another 10 mins was all it took before they came into view, clearly very tired and with sore feet, but otherwise ok. They fairly fell upon the chocolate and guzzled the water. Needless to say they were grateful for my concern and one even commented that she had quietly wondered if I would come looking for them as I would have known how difficult they would have found the going.
We all got back to the Inn at 9:30. Irn-Bru was thrust into their hands while they sat on the foot of the stairs looking all-in. They were too tired even to stand at the reception desk and the kilted male receptionist was kind enough to bring the check-in forms round to them and arranged for their bags to be taken to their rooms. Too tired to eat they headed to bed immediately. Meanwhile I ordered fish and chips for my (belated) dinner, pleased at having done the right thing.