In part one of this series of blogs on my West Highland Way walk I had reached the first stop at Drymen. Still ahead of me would be 7 days of walking and some of the most challenging sections of Scotland’s most popular long distance path.
Day 2: Drymen to Rowardrennan
My first night under canvas (or rather whatever synthetic material tents are made from these days) was reasonably good considering. The sound of fellow campers going about their morning ritual got me up and moving. There had been a fair bit of rain overnight so had to take care while packing up. Today was a fairly long walk but fortunately had a lunch stop at Balmaha on the way so there was less of a requirement to pack lots of food.
with the forecast for the day not looking good I donned full wet weather gear and after dropping off the bag (and paying for the nights camping) I set off. Considering that my walking experience up to now had been doing one off mountains or trails I was surprised that after the second day I was not suffering as much as I had expected. The early stages of the walk brought me up onto a wide forest path, not much to see but in this grey wet weather it made little difference.
At this stage in the walk there is a choice of paths, walkers can either follow the traditional route up and over Conic Hill, a minor peak which gives you a good view over to Loch Lomond and its many small islands or you can choose to miss this out and take a small road down to the village of Milton of Buchanan and along the road to Balmaha. Having looked at the weather I thought that I would be lucky to see anything from Conic Hill and also considering Rowardrennan was a long way off I decided on the latter route.
On the descent from the forest track I felt my knee begin to twinge a little, this was going to be a day to be endured more than enjoyed! The small town of Buchanan is pleasant enough with a couple of interesting buildings including Buchanan Castle and an old mill house. With the weather not improving though I decided to head straight for Balmaha, a fairly dull trudge along a minor road where I had to time my walk to ensure I wasn’t alongside any large puddles as the cars came towards me at speed. The only highlight of this stage was watching some farmers with their working dogs as they herded some sheep into a farmyard pen.
After a long trudge I reached the village of Balmaha. The name Balmaha derives from the Gaelic Bealach Mo-Cha, ‘the pass of Saint Mo-Cha’. These days its a popular tourist spot with walking routes into the forest or boat trips out to the many small islands in Loch Lomond for his was also the point where the route made contact with the shore of Loch Lomond. The loch is the largest stretch of inland water in Great Britain (in surface area at least) and would be my companion for the next few days. This is where in geological terms the highlands and the lowlands meet, the loch forming part of the huge geological fault line that separate the two.
Having made pretty good time I found myself in Balmaha a little early for lunch. The Oak Tree Inn at Balmaha is well known to walkers on the way and a welcome rest stop so I nursed a coffee for an hour until it was a respectable time to eat and then ordered lunch. The pub was quite busy but it was clear that pretty much everyone here was also on the same mission. Matching muddy boots and walking poles, maps in plastic cases hung from string and faces that were perhaps new to me now but would be pretty familiar as the week progressed.
Fed and watered it was finally time to move on. This section of the way was very familiar to me having camped nearby in the past so I set off at a confident pace, taking a slightly rougher shoreline path which cut out another short climb over a fairly unnecessary hill. Possibly my over familiarity with this section put a little too much spring in my step and I’d later regret that early eager pace. Just past the small camping area at Cashel the path has to negotiate a couple of small hills right on the shoreline, while the road on this section has the luxury of cutting through a tight valley the West Highland Way does not and there was no alternative but to get the head down and work my way slowly up through a series on steep ascents and descents.
This is a lovely stretch of forest mostly planted with native tree species. All part of an ongoing nationwide initiative to bring back more diversity into the environment and leave the swathes of pine forest to the job of producing timber on an industrial scale. Unfortunately most of this beauty was lost to me as I tentatively picked my way up and over these steep paths, the downhill sections playing real havoc with knee joints and feet in equal measure.
Eventually after a few punishing miles the Rowardrennan Hotel came into view, not my home for the night but a good place to sit down, have a well deserved pint and a quick rest before the short walk to the Hostel where I would take a break from the tent for the night. The youth hostel at Rowardrennan is a gorgeous former hunting lodge, one of the many large buildings that sprung up during the Victorian era’s love affair with the Scottish Highlands. Run by the Scottish Youth Hostel Association it affords inexpensive but comfortable accommodation. For anyone who can remember the SYHA from their younger days its very different now, cooked evening meals, breakfast and even a packed lunch can be laid on. Proper beds with bedding provided and a well stocked little shop make this about as good a stop on the West Highland way as you can get in terms of value for money. Much to my joy I also discovered that the shop sold tubes of ‘Deep Heat’ which worked wonders on my aching knees.
With a little time to spare and the feeling coming back into my feet after a shower and the application of several plasters I decided to take a stroll around outside. There is a small jetty by the hostel which offers a ferry service across the loch at certain times and also nearby is a small visitor centre. Normally quite busy with tourists they had mostly all departed by now. By the centre there is a monument which was erected to the memory of the fallen from the First and Second World War. (indeed the whole area here is designated as a ‘memorial park’. The monument created by the artist Doug Cocker is a contemporary piece of sculpture, while I like the design I’ve always found it rather odd in that it looks to me like the view through a gun sight perhaps an odd choice of metaphor.
As I sat on the shore watching the clouds drift over, the weather already beginning to break I thought about the day ahead. Tomorrow was the day I was most concerned about, considered by many as the hardest stretch of the walk the journey from here to Inverernan.
Day 3: Rowardrennan to Inverernan
Rested and fed I was able to get moving early the next day and once moving was able to push my worries about this section to the back of my mind. The first few hours of the walk sped by as I was caught up by another traveller, A retired gentleman from Jersey called James. James was a Scot, a former merchant seaman, and clearly a keen walker and we chatted away about all manner of things for most of the first half of the day. This was quite welcome as the first few miles cut through fairly dense forest on a wide path with only occasional views through the trees to the loch. The miserable weather of the previous day was a distant memory now with bright sunshine and far less threatening puffy clouds in an otherwise blue sky. At one small clearing in the forest I decided to take a little break so temporarily waved off my companion and took a minute to enjoy the view.
Once on the move again the path descended a little and back into the forest but now with the loch side never far away. after a few minutes I noticed a very powerful scent and reached a clearing where the hillside was completely covered in bluebells, the colour was magnificent in the strong sunlight and if I’d been a religious man I’d have been tempted to glance skyward and say ‘loving your work mate’.
One slightly odd feature of walking this section of the route comes from the loch itself, or rather those who make a living from it. As you stroll along the path the natural sounds of the birds and wind in the trees is sometimes accompanied by distant voices, at first you think it’s maybe a walker coming behind you so you stop to let them pass, but no one comes so maybe its a particularly LOUD walker so you sit down so they definitely go past, still no one comes. Then you discover the source as a pleasure boat drifts by just off the shore. The boat’s captain provides a commentary via loudspeaker for his passengers which shatters the peace of the loch side. Fortunately though it was not a regular occurrence and I was soon used to the sound.
After around three and a bit hours of walking the Hotel at Inversnaid appeared out of the trees. Inversnaid is a pleasant little oasis on this stretch of the walk, sometimes used as a way to break up the stage. A large hotel dominates with a pier for ferry and pleasure boats and the impressive Arklet Falls next door. This was a wonderful opportunity to take a break, enjoy a drink and attend to the state of my feet.
Having attended to all that I was up and ready to take on what is described as ‘the hard bit’. Describing it like this is like describing the pope as being ‘a bit catholic’! Things started off well enough. While this stage involves a lot of clambering up and over rocks and tree roots it is at the same time quite jaw droppingly beautiful too. It was quite a busy section also as walkers began to bunch up on the tricky parts. People I know have walked this section as part of a day out and have said that its not that bad but its one thing driving up for the day and having a little scramble along the shoreline and quite another doing it after having walked for two days with aching knees and blisters.
My guide book described this part of the walk as having two particularly rough sections and it was on the second of these that I encountered a number of walkers who were really struggling. I learned later the next day that a woman from one of these groups slipped and broke her ankle and had to be rescued from the loch edge, not a stage to be taken lightly. Eventually the path led down to a small beach and the hard part was behind me, or so I thought!
I took a short break, bathed my feet in the loch for a little and spotted a couple of wild goats grazing nearby, well aware of me but clearly well used to the walkers that pass this way.
After this the path diverts away from the loch which by now has narrowed a fair bit and climbs up over a low hill onto moorland. the going here was reasonable and the reward was a spectacular view over the north end of Loch Lomond and the small bothy at Doune. Beautiful though this was I was still concerned that my destination of Inverernan still appeared nowhere in sight and progress according to the map had not been that great. The day was far from over but it was then that the now familiar complaint of ‘nearly there’ began to take effect. Weariness took over quickly and the next few miles felt like ten as the path wound up and down over the moor. A landmark of power lines clearly marked on the map seemed to take forever to pass under and then as the path began its steep descent into Inverernan my knee joints complained bitterly at every step. Far below the river replaced the loch and I knew I couldn’t be that far but I was still aware that I had to get down to the level of the river and that was going to hurt. Suddenly the trees around me cleared and a couple of wooden huts and a gate told me I had reached Inverernan.
The Beinglass Farm campsite at Inverernan is one of a handful featured in the excellent ‘Cool Campsites’ book and it earns its place and then some. After walking this stage its nothing short of a camper’s paradise. Maybe not so much for the purists who like their campsites a little on the spartan side but Inverernan features a pub, and well stocked shop. It was late in the afternoon is a stumbled into the little beer garden outside the pub to be greeted by many faces familiar to me over the course of the day. Almost on automatic pilot I ordered a beer and collapsed down onto a picnic bench outside. As I looked round every face told the same story ‘good grief that was hard!’
and this was only day three – how on earth am I going to get up and do this again tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that?