Despite what my feet are telling me I can’t believe this is my last day already. I can also hardly believe that it’s bright and sunny outside. Again. While I am certainly not complaining there will be some who contend that a WHW with neither rain nor midges doth not a Way experience make. Doubtless I’ll think of a suitable response.
Following a wonderfully large breakfast the details of which I will spare you on this occasion, while conceding that fried eggs were involved, I paid my bill and departed The Macdonald Hotel at 8:10. I immediately recognised the chatter from beyond the hedgerow that separated the hotel from the road that headed out along the north shore of Loch Leven as belonging to ‘my’ ladies from Inversnaid and Inverarnan. By the time I reached the road they were a good 30m to my left and striding out. I called after them in cheery fashion of course enquiring as to their destination. “The West Highland Way!” Came the expected response. Now, I didn’t want to look like a know all so the next conversation had to be managed carefully. Er, “are you going to Fort William by road?”, I enquired. I could see they were getting confused so pointed out as gently as possible that they were going the wrong way. It turned out that they had been pointed towards this road and told to follow it by some helpful individual who neglected to advise them to look out for, and take, a right hand turn just before The Macdonald hotel. Given that route markers tend to indicate a change of direction rather than confirming the continuation of an existing direction had I not seen them they could have gone a very long way. We had a good laugh over this while retracing their steps to the real route. We established that we missed each other at the Kings House Hotel yesterday by about 15 mins in that I passed that location at 11:45 and they started at midday. After this revelation I said farewell as I needed to make faster progress. Given that it took them all day to walk the 9 miles from Kingshouse to Kinlochleven, their 15 mile route today could see them not arriving at Fort William until 9 p.m. or even later. There was nothing I could do to help as my train will depart at 19:50. However there are absolutely no navigational issues today and few hazards and I’m sure they will be fine. To their credit they were determined to finish and could have taken a cab or public transport to Fort William. Their hotel is expecting them late. These ladies, Mo and Geri, might lack speed but they do not want for effort or spirit. All power to them.
The first 30 minutes or so of today’s route was relentlessly uphill through fresh green relatively new forest.
The track was a mixture of stone steps and gravel but the pain was eased by the magnificence of the views opening in front as Loch Leven came into view. Once through the trees the way levelled out a little and heather moorland predominated. While there were trees from time to time, mostly birch, fir or pine, the terrain was mostly open while the quality of the track deteriorated. I could see a black-clad figure some distance ahead and it took hardly any time to catch them as their progress was very slow. It was a little old man whose bald head was burned the colour of copper. As I came level with him he turned to his right to reveal a neatly trimmed white goatee beard and sparkly eyes in a very weather-beaten face. He confided that his feet were more sore than he hoped would be the case, and that he was supposed to have been at work today but had called in sick. I wished him well while hoping he wasn’t due to work Saturday either as he might still be on the trail.
Wishing him good luck I moved on, pressing ahead along Wade’s military road through the valley, the huge and imposing Mamores to my right.
After around 7 miles the way turned distinctly right, towards the north, once more through beautiful forests. After about a mile through the forest, much of which had been felled, I caught up with a father and son moving very well. They were also on a 5 day trip having started in Milgavie last Monday as I had. The young lad was called Cameron and was just 11 yrs old. He declared without hesitation that he had really enjoyed his walking holiday with his Dad Robert, who looked on with immense pride adding that his son had kept up a really good pace. It was then that I noticed an older man approaching. Probably in his 60s this tall grey haired bushy-handlebar moustached florid faced man was grinning broadly. It turned out that he was Robert’s father and Cameron’s granddad. He had been dropped off on the small track that passes close to here so that he could walk the last 8 miles or so of this epic trail with his son and grandson. Doesn’t it do your heart good?
Hereafter, following a few hundred yards of open heathland, the trail once more delved into wet woodland and a few more hundred yards later an area of felling was traversed. With the last few miles now rapidly dropping away I found myself being relieved that my toes, which in truth had been a little more sore due to compression than I had previously admitted to myself, would soon be relieved, while at the same time wishing the adventure was not almost over. The sun continued to shine and the light breeze was perfectly cooling.
Finally I reached the top of the wooded section and commenced the descent. The character of this section was the now familiar wide rocky road made to support forest logging. It was neither good to look at nor to walk on. There was one saving grace though, the magnificence of Ben Nevis ahead wearing a cap of light mist.
My reflections on a journey nearly done were brought up short when my fairly routine ‘hello’ to a couple coming the other way was responded to with more enthusiasm than was customary from those just setting out. Only then did I recognise a couple I had seen (overtaking naturally) yesterday. Towards late middle age the man with a greying beard and spectacles and his lady with noticeably rosy cheeks they stopped for a chat in response to my surprised query as to why they were now heading south again. They explained that in booking late they had not been able to get the accommodation they needed to support a ‘straight-through’ south to north walk. They were therefore using public transport to juggle the sections of the route such that they could walk every section but not necessarily in the right order and sometimes back-to-front. They were doing the Way over 6 days rather than my 5 and today was also their final stage. They said that after a night in the hotel that I had used last night they would get a bus back up to Fort William and start walking the Great Glen Way which goes from Fort William alongside, among others, Loch Ness to Inverness.
My final encounter on the main walk was with an American chap who in the vicinity of Nevis bridge complemented we British on the quality of our bulls. My quizzical response received a nod in the direction of a small cow in the field alongside us. “It has udders” I said, trying not to hurt his feelings. It appears that he was confused by the cows horns into thinking it was male. We chuckled and I moved on quickly.
The final 2 miles or so was road and best skipped over (if only I could still skip). Stopping briefly for a selfie at the marker for the old end of the route outside of Fort William I went in pursuit of the new end marker in George Square in the town itself. I reached it at 12:45, 4hrs 35min after setting out.
So another adventure draws to a close. I predicted in my first blog that adventures would materialise, and so they did. I began by believing that the walk would be memorable if it was given a chance to be so, and so it was. Not however due to the scenery, magnificent and grand though it has surely been, and nor due to the difficulty of the route as I have not found it to be especially difficult (although bad weather would have made it so and I recognise that). It has been memorable because of the people I have met, and there have been many.
Everyone has their story and they are all worth listening to. Equally I thank those who listened to mine.
In drawing this blog thread to a close I remember that the driver of every car I encountered during the whole week outside of towns raised their hand to me in greeting. I remember how few pieces of litter I saw. I remember the group of ladies from New York who loved this route so much they did it twice. I remember young Cameron who I met today on the trail and again in Fort William at the end marker and who says to me that long distance walking is not the preserve of older people and that youngsters can enjoy it too if properly motivated and led. I remember the Kiwi couple who were just so glad to be walking free. I remember the Indian man visiting his late Mother’s country for the first time. I remember flame-haired Eleanor who was the only person to match my love of speed walking.
Of course I remember most of all the lovely Geri and Mo from Glasgow who I had the pleasure of helping once or twice. They seem to me to epitomise the character of this magnificent long distance path and those who choose to walk it. They were great fun, they were uncomplicated, and they were tough. As I write this in Fort William having finished my walk they are still out there somewhere. Please someone keep an eye on them and see them home safely.
Finally however, whereas the ladies were teetotal I think The Way would, if it could, take a wee dram in salute to all those who maintain it, know it, walk it, and love it.