Bye Bye 2012, Hello 2013

Well the sharp, sunny days of early December didn’t last long and, since I penned my last blog post, I doubt there has been a day free of rain in this part of the world.

Shiny new bike about to get soaked!

At least 2012  has been consistent, certainly as far as the weather was concerned, and the first month of winter has followed the same dreary pattern set out in the summer and autumn. So, little chance to get used to the new bike and the few recent rides I have attempted have characteristically ended in soaking rain and/or complete darkness.

So, without dwelling too long on the 2012 negatives – take your pick from, amongst others: fracking and the undermining of the green economy, more cycle deaths and serious injuries, increasing polarisation of the haves and have nots – number one hope for 2013 is for a drier, sunny year. Although one positive, if  idiosyncratic, effect of the extreme weather, is that more people might just begin to accept the reality of climate change.

Celebrating some of our Olympic heroes

But 2012 hasn’t all been doom and despondency: indeed, the past 12 months  have produced some amazing experiences that lifted the spirits and defined the year in a really positive way. Danny Boyle’s sublime Opening Ceremony that perfectly and spectacularly epitomised, to a global audience, the true achievements of British history, kicked off an unbelievable Olympics. And, while in no way diminishing the fantastic performances of the competitors, for me the greatest achievement of the Olympics was its inclusiveness; that it was about all of us, not just the traditional, ceremonial Britain of Tudor monarchs, Winston Churchill and the Red Arrows.

One of our greatest cyclists - and a superb role model for cycling

My particular sporting highlights? Celebrating the continuing supremacy of Britain’s fantastic cyclists, particularly Bradley’s wondrous Tour victory, was certainly near the top.  Andy Murray’s deserved gold medal and first grand slam were more than worth the wait and the perfect response to the ‘once a year tennis “fans”’ who rate media friendly drones over true talent and authenticity. And, for a dyed-in-the-wool Hoops fan, seeing Celtic beating the best club side in the world was as incredible as it was wonderful.

Away from my grand stand seat in front of the telly, 2012 will always be a landmark year for me, as it marked my long-awaited release from having to work for someone else. And I sure took advantage!

The idyllic Crinan Canal

Freed from the constraints of crowded, expensive school holidays, I travelled to Argyll in early March and enjoyed the best weather of the year, visiting some of the UK’s most important pre-historic sites in Kilmartin, before walking the length of the delightful Crinan Canal.

A belated return to Florence, four decades after its treasures first blew me away as an impressionable schoolgirl, followed in May. It did not disappoint and nor did the train journey there and back, a weekend in Rome, a week’s eco-camping at the delightful Kokopelli Camping in the breathtaking Majella National Park, followed by taster trips to Bologna and Turin.

Rooftops in Florence

Italy in the spring, courtesy of western Europe’s superb high speed rail network, would be difficult to beat and it took another landmark trip to compete. Walking the West Highland Way in early September realised a lifetime’s ambition and it too did not disappoint. Loch Lomond, Rannoch, Glen Coe and Ben Nevis all lived up to their legendary status, but for me, the highlight of the trip was to walk from Scotland’s biggest city along the drovers’ paths and military roads, beside the shimmering lochs and magnificent mountains that encapsulate the history of my native country.

Another day, another view on the West Highland Way

So, as we say goodbye to 2012, what hopes are there for 2013? On a personal level, loads more travel, finances permitting. A return trip to Knoydart (preferably in winter) is top of the list, followed by another mountain trek: the East Highland Way looks interesting. Scandinavia and Poland are possibles for 2013’s European Rail Odyssey and hopefully the immediate winter days will be lightened by a forthcoming trip to God’s Own City either to enjoy Celtic Connections or February’s Film Festival.

Let’s hope the new year sees far more joined up thinking about the priorities of all our road users, particularly cyclists and pedestrians and a halt to the decline in public transport services, particularly in rural areas. Transport poverty is a real, but under-publicised, issue and one whose solution could also provide answers to the equally-important problems of inactivity and obesity. And encouraging as many of us as possible to swap our cars for our bikes and walking shoes  could well be the the most effective and longest-lasting legacy of 2012.

Happy New Year, hope it’s drier!

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The West Highland Way

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to walk  the West Highland Way (WHW). Indeed, even before the route was conceived as a long distance footpath (LDF), the thought of walking from the edge of Glasgow to the heart of the Western Highlands stirred my anticipation. There are plenty of other LDFs, some nearer, some longer, some more technically difficult, but none can compare in terms of drama, romance, scenery and diversity of landscape. For anyone who believes that the best way to travel is under your own steam and combines this with a feeling for history, a love of literature and a passion for the great outdoors, trekking from Scotland’s largest city, along the banks of her most iconic loch, past the head of her most historically (in)famous glen, to the slopes of her highest mountain, on routes laid down over the centuries by soldiers, drovers and emigrants, the WHW would be difficult to better.

Mountains, lochs and woods: a classic scene from the WHW

Thursday September 6th dawned damp and drizzly and, following a short, but efficient, luggage hand over at Milngavie station and the obligatory “start pic”, I was on my way. I’ve done all the first part of the section – as far as Dumgoyne – and some of the remainder before, but it was still a thrill to walk past the Craigallian Fire and visualise the depression days of the 1930s when it was a beacon of warmth and companionship to the many who tramped the hills for recreation, or as a semi-permanent escape from the iniquities of the Means Test.

A 12 mile, relatively flat, segment looked nothing compared to the demands of the later stages, but mid afternoon coffee and cake In the Drymen Pottery was a welcome end to the day’s walking, particularly as it had been raining steadily for the last hour. The Clachan Inn though, was a slight disappointment. It was clean and the staff eager to please, but maybe the restrictions that come with the tag of Scotland’s oldest pub, make it difficult to cope with the demands of a full house of walkers – wet wayfarers all turning up at roughly the same time put a strain on the shared facilities – and restricting cooked breakfasts, even a bowl of porridge, until after 9am scuppered any plans for an early start.

 

Friday September 7th and the sky glowered threateningly, but, unfortunately, although the rain kept off for the first part of the morning, when the heavens did finally open, many were at the top of Conic Hill hoping to enjoy the dazzling views over the south end of Loch Lomond. However, the umbrellas at the Oak Tree Inn kept out the rain and by the time I had completed the first afternoon mile alongside the loch, the rain had eased and the mist was lifting.

The banks of Loch Lomond

This, however, was to contribute to my first, major, faux pas of the trip. Shedding successive layers of waterproofs as the sun appeared shyly in mid-afternoon, I dropped my map wallet and failed to notice until a couple of miles further on. Although I jogged back, there was no sign of it –  another walker had picked it up and handed in at the next campsite, which although very kind of him, was not too much use to me as I was going in the opposite direction and had no means of getting back there. And, as just reward for my stupidity in leaving my holiday details in the wallet, I had no idea of how to get to the rest of my accommodation! Fortunately though, a combination of Andy’s efficiency in the Absolute Escapes office in quickly emailing the details and Fiona’s kindness in giving me a new map, ensured there was no lasting damage.

Fiona was my host at my next overnight stay, near Rowardennan. Her home, Coille Mhor – comfortable, commodious, with a luxury exclusive bathroom and breakfast to die for –  was everything the first night was not. This, plus her family’s willingness to go the extra mile for their guests, laid down a challenging marker for the rest of the accommodation en route.

 

Ben Lomond

Saturday September 8th: just a glimpse of brightness on the way past the Rowardennan Hotel, but enough to lift the cloud off the summit of Ben Lomond, at least for the moment. This, the WHW veterans had warned would be the toughest stage; not in terms of exposure or altitude, but because of the obstacle course that is the 2-3 miles north of Inversnaid. With this in mind, I made good pace first thing and took advantage of the wide forestry tracks to arrive in Inversnaid by lunchtime. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the path, slimy with recent rain, began to swerve up and down, over rocks and tree routes, at times about to seemingly splash into the loch itself. It was torturous going and, making good use of my new map, I used Island I Vow as my landmark and vowed not to stop until I was at least level with it.

On and on, the path veered one way, then another, and progress continued at snail’s pace – even the fit-looking lads with military-style gear didn’t overtake me with quite the same verve by mid afternoon – until I met a mountain biker travelling in the opposite direction. Taking the opportunity for a few minutes chat (not least to find out how he intended to deal with the hurdles to come) he reassured me that the path would level out in about 400m and, sure enough, round the corner of a delightful, sandy bay, the route stretched out, wider, straighter and flatter.

View from the head of Loch Lomond

Climbing up from the head of the loch, it was clear that the broad leaf woods of the shore were now behind me; in front loomed the muscular peaks of the Southern Highlands. This stage of the route also sees the most optimistic, or ambiguous, signpost of the walk. “Beinglas 2 miles” it says. Well, an hour and a half later, after the longest two miles I’ve ever walked, finally, the foot of Glen Falloch came into view. Tonight’s accommodation, at Beinglas Farm, delivered more than it initially promised: keys only on deposit, bags dumped in a communal shed didn’t auger well, but the chalets were very comfortable, food good, staff attentive and Murray’s semi win was available on TV.

 

Sunday September 9th was always going to be my big day. My itinerary said 12 miles along Glen Falloch and Strath Fillan to Tyndrum which, compared to the exertions of the previous day, looked relatively straightforward. Today’s forecast looked better than tomorrow’s, so up and out early, I made Crianlarich before midday, hurtled on to Tyndrum by early afternoon and, after picking up the bus/train times, took the plunge and headed off for Bridge of Orchy today, instead of tomorrow morning.

West Highland Way flora

In the event, all went well; the two Glaswegian veterans who marched me along at their lively pace, kept me entertained with their tales of past WHW exploits, the mist and drizzle didn’t really descend until the last 40 minutes and it was a pleasant surprise when the hotel and station came into view a little after 4.30 pm. At closer quarters, however, the hotel isn’t quite as welcoming to walkers – transport information was wrong, my companions found their booked accommodation did not materialise and a coach load of tourists seemed to be offered considerably warmer hospitality than us disparate wet walkers.

Fortunately, however, my accommodation lay in wait at Ewich House, back at Crianlarich. After bussing it back to an enormous fish and chips at the Rod and Reel  Ian picked me up and drove to the 200 year old farmhouse he and Deb have sensitively restored into a marvellous guest house, enjoying an unrivalled location, modern facilities – the imaginative en suite, complete with organic toiletries that soothed my aching muscles, took my vote – wonderful hospitality and a breakfast to rival Coille Mhor’s. All this, plus Ian and Deb’s commitment to operating in the most environmentally possible way, places Ewich House firmly at the top of my must-revisit list.

Bridge of Orchy

 

Monday September 10th: As I now had the luxury of taking the train to resume where I left off in Bridge of Orchy, I could digest my porridge at leisure and savour the scenery, albeit briefly, from the magical West Highland Railway.

The climb over to Inveroran that had looked daunting last evening, now proved to be an enjoyable hike, providing views back to Beinns Dorain and Dothaidh and then on to Loch Tulla and the Inveroran Hotel.

“You’re going to get wet,” advised an elderly gentleman at the gates to Forest Lodge, and, true enough, by the time I approached Black Mount, all wet gear had been put into use: by the landmark Ba Bridge, as the photos prove, the rain was driving straight into the camera lens. Rannoch was certainly living up to its reputation as a vast, inhospitable wilderness, miles from any semblance of civilisation. But for me, the feeling of being at the edge of the world, with nothing but my foot power between me and shelter, was absolutely exhilarating and I felt nothing but respect for the few brave birds and hardy species of flora that survive in this hostile environment.

The bleak beauty of Rannoch Moor

The damp was beginning to take its toll and I was already cold as I first glimpsed the Kingshouse Hotel from the crest of the ridge. As its outline became more definite, I thought of the generations of travellers, climbers and walkers, for whom it had offered a beacon of shelter after hours, or maybe days, of exposure to the elements. Kingshouse deserves its legendary status, but it is slightly disappointing that it its uncontested location has led to a complacency in maintaining standards of comfort. Tradition and character are rightly valued, but should not be excuses for sub-standard, shared facilities, ill-fitting windows and tepid water.

 

Tuesday September 11th: opening the curtain to a handful of deer grazing insouciantly under the window partially compensated for a chilly room (and not being able to share Andy Murray’s first major victory) and a wonderful full rainbow lifted the spirits before the rigours of the Devil’s Staircase. This was definitely  leather boots territory and I had good reason to be grateful to my trusty Meindls as we splashed along paths suddenly transformed into raging rivulets.

Glencoe sunset

This was a four-seasons-in-ten-minutes day and the combination of squally hail followed by blinding sunshine, slowed progress. However, the regular shafts of sunlight supplied some great picture opportunities over the Mamores and the descent into Kinlochleven was frequently spectacular. Although hardly a conurbation, I found a return to shops, banks and take aways, comforting, but slightly sad at the same time. However, some enjoyable pub grub, entertaining company and a decent bottle of wine, helped make this the best evening, so far.

 

Highland grandeur

Wednesday September 12th marked the last day of the walk, and perhaps as a reward for our efforts, it dawned bright and crisp: ideal conditions to showcase Highland grandeur at its best. The forest climb was strenuous, but soon repaid by stupendous views back over the Leven valley and the mountains beyond. The remains of Lairigmor provided a suitable wind break/sun trap – and in my dream world, an ideal location for a WHW B&B offering cakes and refreshments to hungry walkers!

As the afternoon wore on, the miles predictably seemed to get longer and, even as the bulk of Ben Nevis came into view, it was still a salutary reminder that there were over six  miles left. But the mountain path eventually turned into the forestry track and the long descent into Fort William began; the campsites of Glen Nevis finally followed by the guest houses and B&Bs on the outskirts of town.

The track past Lairigmor

But, the WHW was still to have the last laugh: reaching the original obelisk, we found the official end of the way has now moved to the town centre. Eventually, we all made it and, while some retired to the pub immediately to celebrate their achievement, the long walk back to Glen Nevis for a welcome shower and snooze, made the return into town that bit harder later in the evening, although aching limbs and weariness were soon forgotten in the happy celebrations.

 

Epilogue:

So, despite my misgivings about my foot I made it, without any apparent ill effects and feeling considerably fitter at the end compared to the beginning. Seven days of historical, emotional and cultural connections in an environment of such beauty that frequently took your breath away, added to some considerable kindness from complete strangers, new friends, good company and camaraderie combined to make the experience all I hoped it would be; plus some more.

Made it! End of the Way, September 12 2012

Highlights – the whole route, but if I have to choose:

  • the gorgeous broad leaf woodlands on the banks of Loch Lomond
  • the ravishing red berries drooping from the rowan trees along the route
  • crossing Rannoch Moor – walking along its western edge and then home on the railway on its opposite side – feeling very insignificant in the midst of such an awesome wilderness, with my respect for the engineers and navvies who built the roads and railways reinforced
  • being lucky enough to enjoy breathtaking views of the Mamores and Ben Nevis on a clear, sunny autumn day
  • getting my kit list just about right and now knowing my waterproofs and boots do actually deliver what they promise
  •  Ewich House  – fantastic facilities, stunning location, warm hospitality and a tariff that doesn’t unfairly hammer single guests – the kind of B&B I would love to offer!
Some walking companions along the route

Advice:

  • if your luggage is being transported, seriously consider taking two types of boots – multi-activity shoes are ideal for the early stages, but I would have struggled without my leather boots on the final two days
  • look carefully at your schedule – particularly the stage over Rannoch – and don’t be afraid to make minor amendments, depending on weather conditions and personal fitness
  • get copies of bus and train timetables – particularly between Crianlarich, Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy – as you can use the buses and trains to travel between start and finish points, if you amend your itinerary
  • check all your accommodation stop-overs carefully before you confirm – use websites or, better still, personal recommendations to get some idea of their facilities and atmosphere
  • remember to book in advance if you want to take the steam train (now universally known as the “Harry Potter” train) from Fort William to Mallaig at the end of your walk – I didn’t get round to this in Glasgow and lack of WiFi en route, meant it was fully booked when I finally accessed the site

 

Thanks to:

Absolute Escapes for organising my trip – and, in particular to Andy for sorting out my lost accommodation details, and Fiona at Coille Mhor for donating me a new, indispensable map.

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Two Munros in Three Days

View on the Ascent of Beinn Dorain

Idyllic weather (yes, even at the end of July!) and a not-to-be-missed opportunity to climb two of Scotland’s classic Munros over a long weekend. As both are  accessible by public transport from Glasgow, rather than add  to the already packed and dangerous A82, you can sit back, relax and wonder at the stunning landscape along the West Highland Railway, before and after your climb. Both hills also  enjoy good, well-surfaced paths and don’t demand any real technical abilities.

 

Beinn Dorain:

Ben Nevis from the Summit of Beinn Dorain

Blessed with the clearest summer day in memory, according to our expert guide, Beinn Dorain’s ideal, central location in the Southern Highlands  ensures a superb 360 degree panorama; so distinct today that the solid mass of Ben Nevis, jutting majestically out of the north end of Rannoch Moor, seems within touching distance rather than 40 odd miles to the north.

Round to the west, the spear-like triangle of Ben Cruachan is shadowed by the mountainous outline of Mull, Ben More obvious in the background;  a few degrees to the south west, Jura is recognisable by its three iconic Paps;  and with a further slight turn to the south, it is just possible to make out the craggy horizon of the Isle of Arran.

Westwards from Beinn Dorain

A view to die for and worth every step of the 1076 metre climb necessary to get here.  Beinn Dorain and its slight lower twin, Beinn an Dorthaidh, tower over the River Orchy and the small settlement round the eponymous bridge, and give visitors a tantalising glimpse of the wonders that await, northwards, to Rannoch and beyond.

The Spectacular Panorama from Beinn Dorain

The 9.07 Mallaig train from Glasgow’s Queen Street arrives in  Bridge of Orchy, at 11.23 (This train runs Monday-Friday until September 23. On Saturdays and  Monday to Friday from September 26, the service leaves Queen Street at 8.21, arriving Bridge of Orchy 10.46.)  It takes about five hours from the village station for the climb and descent; factor in an extra 45 minutes or so  if you want to climb Beinn an Dothaidh as well. That should give you more than enough time to complete the route and have some refreshments before catching the return train to Glasgow at 18.56, but do monitor timings carefully and take into account possible changes in weather conditions.

The Bridge of Orchy Hotel is your only refreshment option in the village. It serves drinks as well as bar and restaurant meals and is right across from the station where you end your walk.

A cool drink in the pavement table outside the hotel, admiring the impressive hill we have  just climbed, ends a memorable day among spectacular scenery in ideal conditions.

 Info:
Travel –  www.firstscotrail.co.uk
Maps – OS Landranger 50, OS Explorer 377
Refreshments –  www.bridgeoforchy.co.uk

 

Ben Lomond:
The weather, not only holds, but improves. So, with a one day window left before I go home, I’m up and out by 7am and it’s already warm and sunny. What’s not to like?

Ben Lomond, "Glasgow's Munro"

Ben Lomond, the most southerly of Scotland’s Munros is widely regarded as “Glasgow’s Munro” and, given that it’s less than two hours out of the city by public transport – admittedly not your average commute, but an hour on the magical West Highland Railway, then a water bus across Loch Lomond – it’s an appropriate and well- deserved accolade.

Leaving  Queen Street on the Oban train at 8.21, arriving Arrochar at 9.35, we turn left out of the station for the 10 minute walk down to the pier at Tarbet  to catch the water bus operated by Cruise Loch Lomond  (between April and October) that links Tarbet with Rowardennan and Inversnaid on the eastern shore of the loch.

Crossing the Loch

Sailing at 10am, the boat – fellow  passengers include ornithologists, photographers, sightseers, walkers for the West Highland Way to Inversnaid, climbers for the Ben, cyclists for the heart of the Trossachs and Rufus, the black field spaniel, who looks up for all of these activities – reaches Rowardennan in about 45 minutes. From the pier a few steps through the car park towards the toilets brings us to the path marked “Ben Lomond”.  And, from here, we  just stick to  the obvious, well-surfaced path. But remember, it can still be a bleak and potentially dangerous climb in poor weather, so do ensure you always carry a map, navigation aid, wet weather gear and adequate food and water.

The Northern Shores of Loch Lomond

The climb starts in woodland, for about a mile until we emerge into the open hill through a gate. Don’t be too surprised if you meet some unimpressed-looking Hielan coos monitoring your progress at this point.

Sharing the Slopes of the Ben with a Resident!

Although fairly steep to begin with, the route levels out along the Sron Aonaich Ridge and after about two miles, we reach a final, steep section of switchbacks  to the summit.

Loch Katrine from the Summit of Ben Lomond

After some well-earned rest and another wondrous circular panorama – this time taking in the Arrochar Alps, Lochs Lomond, Sloy and Katrine, the Campsie Fells to the south and Lomond Hills to the east –  either retrace your steps , or head north west from the summit, descending steeply along a rocky ridge, then across some stepping stones to the Ptarmigan Ridge. Here you will enjoy more breathtaking views of the loch  on a straightforward route. Both paths finish at the car park.

Loch Chon from the Summit of Ben Lomond

The return boat sails from Rowardennan at 16.45, so it is essential to work out your timings carefully, particularly if the weather turns inclement:  in our case, despite spending too long sunbathing and admiring the views from the summit, we make it back with enough time to enjoy a cold drink at the Rowardennan Hotel.

View of Loch Lomond on the Descent

Arriving back at Tarbet Pier at 17.30, we take full advantage of the gorgeous evening, chilling out with  fish and chips and a great vista across the loch, before taking the short walk back to the station for the return to Queen Street at 20.08. (On Saturdays between March and September, an additional train calls at Arrochar at 18.02, arriving  Queen Street 19.20.)

 

 

 

Info:
Travel
– www.firstscotrail.co.uk  www.cruiselochlomond.co.uk
Maps – OS Landranger 56, OS Explorer 364, Harvey Maps; Glasgow Popular Hills
Refreshments – light refreshments are available on board the water bus, you may have time for a drink at  http://www.rowardennanhotel.co.uk/ and there are a number of hotels, restaurants and tea rooms in Tarbet

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