I last walked the West Highland Way (WHW) in June 2000, with a group of 8 friends. I have vivid memories of some parts of that walk and some photos, but cannot find details now of where we stayed etc. That time, we used a booking agency to arrange accommodation for us. This time, an old University friend of mine (JF) did the booking and I was a late replacement, his previous companion deciding, on health grounds, not to go a few weeks before the planned departure date.
My journey to the start of the walk was quite dramatic as a result of extremely high rainfall in north-east England. My train should have taken me all the way to Glasgow but stopped in Leeds with an announcement, “Because of flooding the train will now terminate here”. The Leeds station staff were totally unprepared for this influx of anxious passengers and were delivering quite conflicting advice. “You had better find a place to stay overnight”; “You could wait outside for a coach, but the main roads north are closed, so I don’t know if these are running” are two examples I heard. But there was also a rumour that the west coast line to Scotland was still running and because of the disruption, tickets were being accepted on all services. So I took a train to Manchester and then reached Glasgow and Milngavie, the start of the Way, about 2 hours later than planned. In all I was travelling for just over 11 hours and took 7 different trains to get there.
On one of the trains I found a freebie mens fashion mag (Mode Issue 4, 2012) which, of course, I read avidly. I was surprised to read, and am eager to pass on, the tip that it is now “unexpectedly fashionable” to wear a blouson over a suit. This is rather academic for me because at present I routinely wear neither but it was a bit of a shock. Apparently “Blousons and bombers like this would only be worn this way by office juniors and estate agents… but the rules are there to be broken.”
I also discovered that the railway station at Penrith, built in 1846, has been renamed by Virgin Trains “Penrith the north lakes”. Apparently it was also named “Penrith for Ullswater” for a period up to 1974.
I arrived at the station in Milngavie in the rain and soon met JF and quickly visited a chippie and a pub before retiring to my B&B which was very comfortable, if a wee bit twee.
The next day had a good weather forecast and, after a hearty cooked breakfast, JF and I set off. The walk to Drymen is about 20km according to the guidebook, so we were in no rush. We called in at the tourist office at the very start of the walk and, strangely, ended up talking about walking tours in Spain with the lady attendant who sat beneath a large map of Spain. We met two other WHW walkers in the office. They were carrying camping equipment and had come from Israel to do the walk.
No sooner had we reached the start of the trail than we were offered leaflets on baggage transportation. We were backpacking all the way so declined, possibly not very gracefully, but embarrassingly then set off on the wrong path and were called back by the smirking leaflet man with a cry of “You are going the wrong way”. He was correct, and we did not see the funny side of it!
The walking through Mugdock wood and along by the side of Craiggallian Loch was gentle and easy underfoot. Slowly the scenery grew more dramatic with developing views of Dumgoyne (hill) and the Campsie Fells.
We passed by The Beech Tree Inn round about lunch time but, despite the now welcoming sign for walkers,
we did not stop. During my previous WHW I can recall being roundly abused for picnicking at that spot despite asking first and buying drinks there. I like to think that perhaps I played a part in changing their “walker policy”.
The walk continued to be easy-going, following an old railway track and passing a whisky distillery that did not tempt us to deviate. We arrived early in Drymen, our first destination. We had a quick look around the village to see where we might eat that evening then found a cafe for a drink and cake. While eating, there was a sharp shower; the only rain of the day. Our B&B turned out to be the most comfortable and well-equipped of the whole walk. We had a bedroom each with wall mounted TV but also a living room with massive TV (that we never discovered how to work) and DVD player with a range of DVDs and a self catering kitchen. We ate that evening at the Clachan Inn where the piped music allowed us to reminisce about music events at University. We both ordered “pork loin gratin” from the special board and were surprised to be served gammon steak. When we queried this, the chef gave the waitress a packed joint of meat with a “Pork loin…” label to show us. It tasted fine and we argued no further but remain confused to this day. The beer was pretty good but, at all pubs, seemed more expensive than either England or Wales. I think the cheapest pint we had was £3.20 and the most expensive £3.90; most priced at the top end of this range.
Next day we had a slightly longer walk to Rowardennan (guidebook distance 22.5km). Before we left we paid the landlady while eating a very full, but not cooked, breakfast. Strangely she asked for less than she had quoted when the booking was made and, while we would have paid the quoted amount quite willingly, she urged us to pay less, which we did. She was a very trusting lady, departing before we did and telling us to leave the front door on the latch when we left so the cleaner could get in. We were in no particular hurry and saw the cleaner arrive before we left. We then called in the Spar store for some lunch and started walking. We had to retrace our steps out of Drymen back to the trail and soon we entered forestry, and signs about path deviations.
The deviations were clearly marked and explained that the deviations would take walkers around forestry operations. Pretty soon on the deviated path we saw two male walkers ahead (one dressed in bright green) who we had glimpsed the previous day and nicknamed “Robin Hood and his merry man”. After a while, the path was blocked by fallen trees; large ones and lots of them. Robin Hood left the path to walk around the obstruction, as did we all, but the off-path conditions were very boggy and very uneven having just been cleared of forestry. We must have spent nearly half an hour negotiating a safe passage round these trees. Later we re-joined the proper path and noted that this appeared completely clear and that the forestry operations looked to have finished several weeks ago. When we met walkers going the other way we advised them to ignore the diversion signs and use the proper route.
After a short walk in open moorland we climbed Conic Hill and deviated to the top where we could see “Robin Hood and his merry man” some distance behind, by this stage. On the top we met 4 Americans and a Scotsman who, in a very short time, identified all the landmarks in the area, told us why he was there and where he lived, and again spoke about walking tours in Spain! The views were quite spectacular and we had a rapid lunch stop there; the sun had gone in by then and the wind was quite chill. We did not linger.
We stayed that night at the Rowardennan Hotel. It was very expensive and poor value, I thought, at £60 per person per night B&B. The bar food was limited and poor value also. I guess that there is virtually no local competition so they can charge what they like and get away with it. We met “Robin hood and his merry man” in the bar and said “Hi” but did not introduce ourselves. There was a Spanish helper in the bar on her first day at work. She was clearly struggling with the language and the system of working. She served me with a glass of red wine (there was no draught beer available) which never appeared on my bill, in view of the exorbitant cost of B&B I did not venture to point this out next morning when I paid. I had a very mediocre burger with chips for supper.
In the morning, while breakfasting, we saw, rather sadly, the Spanish lady getting into a car with suitcases and leaving. I think the job did not work out and she was leaving.