West Highland Way: Day Five

23rd May 2008 – Tyndrum to Kingshouse – 20 miles

Synopsis: A mostly wide, flinty surface along the old military road begins the Way today, as far as Bridge of Orchy, from where we pick up a stony forest track for a short distance. Leaving the forest behind we then follow a cobbled drovers road across the beautiful and barren Rannoch Moor and down to Kingshouse

It may be worthwhile, at this juncture, to just take inventory of myself. Since the second day of walking I’ve been popping double strength Ibuprofen every four hours, followed two hours later with max strength Paracetemol. This just about manages the pain from the Tennis Elbow I’ve been suffering with for about 6 weeks now. It started out as a slight weakness in the arm and a pain in the elbow as if I’d banged my funny bone, but gently progressed to a constant, intrusive pain and the arm is almost useless for lifting anything heavier than a kettle half filled with water. It’s at its most painful when I have to twist it into the sleeve of my fleece and today I had to put the fleece on four times at various points of the walk.

The loneliest and possibly the most spectacular cemetery I've ever seen. A single occupant has the view to himself, Beinn Odhar looks on.

The loneliest and possibly the most spectacular cemetery I’ve ever seen. A single occupant has the view to himself, Beinn Odhar looks on.

My feet are equally blessed and cursed. The Inov-8 shoes have been very comfortable and I’ve not had the slightest sign of a blister or even a hot spot. I don’t know if it’s solely down to the comfort of the Inov-8s or whether it’s also because I’ve been using some foot cream before each day’s walking. I apply a thin layer of Gerlachs Gehwol cream to the feet before I set out each morning and that seems to help a lot. The massaging action of rubbing the cream into the foot is part of it I’m sure and my feet feel warm and happy as I put my socks on.

However, the other side of the coin is that the Inov-8s provide no protection whatsoever from the hard underfoot surface of the tracks I’ve been walking on for the past few days. By the end of each day’s walk the soles of my feet feel sore and bruised. It takes upwards of an hour or maybe longer for them to stop throbbing at the end of the day. I find myself hobbling along in my evening trainers as I walk to the pub for tea. By the time I’m ready to walk back to the B&B everything is fine though.

I’ve been seeing a physiotherapist for the past 3 months, trying to sort out the problems I’ve been having with my back. I’ve had traction (which is a story in itself) and manipulation and been given complex exercise routines to follow (which I don’t do) and before I left for this walk I was beginning to see some improvement. Now, five days into the walk I feel like I’ve had a back transplant. The constant exercise is obviously what I needed. The pain has gone, the lack of flexibility has gone, the waking up in the morning feeling like I’ve been thrown down the stairs has gone! Damn I love walking!

The time I’ve spent in the gym in the past 12 weeks has paid dividends. I’ve mainly been working on my stamina; long periods on the bike and the cross-trainer have also increased my leg power though and I find myself tiring less quickly on climbs. I hurt less after a long day walking and I recover quicker, both after a long climb and also at the end of the day. This results in complete confidence that I can handle pretty much anything this walk can throw at me.

Today was going to be the longest day of the walk so far at just under 20 miles over the wildest and most remote section of the walk; Black Mount, the western-most edge of Rannoch Moor. There is no shop or tea room during the day, unless you leave late enough to catch the Inveroran Hotel open at lunch time, so carrying enough water and food is essential.

Beinn Odhar

Beinn Odhar

The day started grey and overcast with low cloud smothering the tops of the hills alongside the path. It was deceptively warm though and almost immediately upon leaving Glengarry House I had to stop to strip off my fleece. The best breakfast of the trip so far was nestling comfortably inside me and I didn’t expect to feel any hunger pangs until at least noon. Ellen and Andy offer to fill your flask as you eat breakfast, or your water bottles, as the tap water in the house isn’t really drinkable, not being mains water supply. They will also pick you up and drop you off on the path in both directions, so you could conceivably stay here for three nights, which is well worth considering. If I’d known how bad the Drovers was going to be I would have certainly taken them up on this service.

I picked up the Way by crossing the road outside the B&B and cutting across the burn over some shallow stepping stones. If the burn is in spate, the stones may be underwater, but with the lack of recent rainfall it wasn’t a problem today. The Way takes you around the back of Tyndrum village and you pass a mini-market before leaving the village proper and heading out past the new cemetery; a great location with a single lonely occupant. Beinn Odhar, although covered in cloud, constantly draws the eye upwards along this section of the walk.

Nomination for the "Most Pointless Gate" award and "Most Pointless Sign" award

Nomination for the “Most Pointless Gate” award and “Most Pointless Sign” award

The Way follows alongside the road and railway for the first couple of miles, although there was very little traffic on the former and none that I recall on the latter of these. After a while the road swings away westwards and you are left in the company of the railway. The path is flat and wide on the old military road and usually there would be no obstruction to your passage.

One over-friendly calf causes me problems

One over-friendly calf causes me problems

One way of dealing with the wind, turn your back to it!

One way of dealing with the wind, turn your back to it!

As I rounded a bend in the road on the Auch estate I came across a group of Highland cattle with their calves. One calf took an obvious interest in me and came wandering over for a closer look. It was quite nervous though and whenever I made a move to go past it, the calf would skitter away from me, causing the mother to snort and push forward in my direction. The more nervous I made the calf the more anxious the mother got and the more worried I became. In the end I gave up trying to move past them and just stayed as close to the fence as I could and allowed them to graze slowly along the road until they were beyond me. This took about 10 minutes and all the while I was being eyed suspiciously by the mother. I was glad when they finally got past and I could move along. Cows in England and Wales are one thing – big stupid animals that can get in your way at stiles and gates, but cows in Scotland have bloody great long horns, with nasty points on the end. If they get annoyed at you they could do a hell of a lot of damage, without intending to.

Once I left the shelter of the valley through which the Way initially runs, between the huge hills of Beinn Odhar and Beinn Bheag, I was no longer being sheltered from the wind that was coming down from the north east and all of a sudden I was being buffeted by strong gusts. The local fauna seemed to be better equipped than me, they just turn their arses to the wind and get on with it, I had to unpack my fleece and drag it on.

I crossed the railway for the third time that morning and shortly after that I spied the white walls of the Bridge of Orchy Hotel. The tiny white buildings seemed to be lost in a huge grey and green landscape, totally dwarfed by the hills beside and beyond. Apart from one or two isolated little hamlets like Bridge of Orchy, the area through which I was now walking is a huge, desolate, mostly trackless range of peat hags and heather-clad hills. This is one of the UK’s truly wild places. The Drovers’ road I was about to join is one of the only dry tracks across the Black Mount and there are no escape routes, short cuts or viable alternatives from the route I was about to take.

Looking north from the parapet of the Bridge of Orchy

Looking north from the parapet of the Bridge of Orchy

Until the Bridge of Orchy the walk was fairly uneventful and a bit dull. Normally the scenery would have been enough to lift the spirits, but the low cloud today was making things a bit grey and miserable. I had plodded these first seven miles.

The Bridge of Orchy

The Bridge of Orchy

From the Bridge of Orchy onwards though, things begin to change for the better. Once you have passed the hotel and spent a moment gawping at the awesome views north and south from the bridge itself, you pass through a scruffy section of felled forest and a short section of standing forest and then you exit onto open moorland. The next 12 miles of the walk are perhaps the best of the whole West Highland Way – and probably better than anything on the Great Glen Way too. In fine weather I bet there isn’t a more majestic 12 miles of scenery anywhere in the UK and in bad weather I bet there isn’t a more exposed and miserable place to be. I had something in the middle. It didn’t rain, but the cloud stayed low all day, blanketing the hills and somewhat spoiling the views. Even in those conditions though, this was still my favourite section of the walk. To give you some idea; I took 172 photographs today – that’s more than I took on the 3 days of the Offa’s Dyke last year and I only took 500 on the whole of the Coast to Coast in 2006.

After crossing the bridge, there is a short climb over Mam Carraigh and then you drop down to the road that takes you past the Inveroran Hotel. As I topped the rise I heard a roar from my right and I was underflown by two RAF fighter jets as they screamed down the valley, skimming across Loch Tulla and then splitting apart and climbing into the mist over Stob Ghabar.

Following the old military road over Mam Carraigh

Following the old military road over Mam Carraigh

Looking down towards the Inveroran Hotel, Stob Ghabar with its head in the cloud

Looking down towards the Inveroran Hotel, Stob Ghabar with its head in the cloud

Although I’d not set off particularly early this morning; I’d left at 08:40, so far I had seen no-one on the path ahead of me. I’d passed a couple of people dithering with their maps in Tyndrum village and met two folk coming in the other direction, presumably setting off from Bridge of Orchy and heading for Inverarnan. This lack of people added to the sense of solitude and isolation; something even the rude intrusion of the jet fighters failed to spoil.

Hard surfaces abound on the WHW

Hard surfaces abound on the WHW

The surface of the Drover’s road to GlencoeOn the path ahead of me now though, about half a mile ahead, I could see a couple walking down the hillside towards the Inveroran Hotel. Over the next 10 or 15 minutes I slowly reeled them in. As I passed the hotel, which didn’t appear to be open for lunch yet, I was close enough to recognise the mother and daughter I’d met once or twice on the path already. They’d been admiring the falls at Inversnaid when I arrived and they’d been walking with Patricia, the American girl, beside Loch Lomond and I’d passed them on the way into Tyndrum the previous day. The daughter was a real outdoors type; in the short time that we’d spent talking, she had already alluded to mountain biking, fell running and sea kayaking as activities she indulged in. The mother was, I think, doing something she’d meant to do for a long time and finally been persuaded to do it by her daughter. She was a captive to the walk rather a willing participant; it was much harder than she’d expected and she was struggling with sore feet and blisters.

I caught them at Forest Lodge and we walked together for a few minutes. They’d had an awful night in their B&B, run by some dictatorial guy with rules for everything and not a pleasant word to say in all the time they were there. They’d escaped (their word) at 08:00, probably the first people out of Tyndrum that morning. After a while I made my excuses and put a little kick in my pace to put some distance between us.

From Forest Lodge, the Way follows an old Drovers’ road, all the way to Glencoe. The surface was hard and stable (see left), large stones embedded in what seemed like tarmac. It made for a dry path over the wet wilderness of Black Mount, but it was hard on the feet and I spent as much time as I could walking on the grass verge at the side of the road.

I stopped for lunch at 12:30, sitting on the parapet of a bridge across one of the many little burns that run under the road, I had no idea when I would have something else to sit on.

The next three hours were spent walking through a stunning landscape; heather-clad peat hags, lonely islands of conifers, beautiful lochans reflecting the leaden sky, all surrounded by huge hills, covered in cloud and patches of snow.

Stob a Choire Odhair

Stob a Choire Odhair

Clach Leathad

Clach Leathad

The highlight of today’s walk though, without any shadow of a doubt, was Ba Bridge. Perhaps if Buachaille Etive Mor hadn’t been covered in cloud, and only perhaps, that would have taken the prize, but Ba Bridge is stunning. Not the bridge itself, but the area around and under the bridge. I got the feeling that the road builders must have found the spot during their planning stages and then made sure that the road ran close to it; it’s too much of a coincidence otherwise.

Ba Bridge

Ba Bridge

Unfortunately none of my photos really do justice to the place, it has to be visited to be believed. In better weather, with a much higher cloud base I shudder to think how many people must just sit here and stare, with their bottom jaw flapping and thanking whatever deity they worship that they didn’t do Offa’s Dyke this year as they’d originally planned.

The view from Ba Bridge looking east towards Meall Beag

The view from Ba Bridge looking east towards Meall Beag

I realise this page is becoming a little picture heavy, and for that I do not apologise and there’s more to come!

View towards the big hills

View towards the big hills

I was beginning to worry about the weather. It was day five of my walk and I hadn’t seen a drop of rain so far. I was convinced that today, Scotland was going to make up for it. The temperature had dropped a little since lunch time and the cloud appeared to be lower and darker, surely this must mean rain? Consequently, I didn’t spend long at Ba Bridge and I promised myself I would come back in better weather and take more time to appreciate the location.

The path rises gradually from this point, you can see for about 2 miles ahead, the path snaking its way up the hillside to a small cairn on the skyline. The cairn, as it turned out, wasn’t that small at all. It was an over-engineered collection of stones standing about six feet high and unlike English cairns, this one was built with mortar or cement holding the stones together. I was glad of the excuse to leave the hard stone road and climb the soft springy turf to the ridge line where the cairn stood, overlooking one of the most glorious landscapes I’ve ever walked through. The cairn is not marked on any of my OS maps, so maybe it’s a new addition?

It's all downhill from here to Kingshouse

It’s all downhill from here to Kingshouse

A few minutes after leaving the cairn I got my first view of Glencoe and Kingshouse. The low cloud somewhat dampened the impact of the view and Buachaille Etive Mor was nothing more than a lower slope and a large cloud. I could see Blackrock Cottage and Kingshouse Hotel and the ski-lift towers running down the side of Meall a Bhuiridh to the White Corries Ski Centre.

First view of Glencoe and Buachaille Etive Mor

First view of Glencoe and Buachaille Etive Mor

Every WHW journal has to have a picture of Blackrock Cottage - it's compulsory isn't it?

Every WHW journal has to have a picture of Blackrock Cottage – it’s compulsory isn’t it?

I remember the next 45 minutes or so of walking quite well. The soles of my feet were very sore; every step was painful and I felt tired and weary. It was almost two and a half miles from first seeing the hotel to arriving gratefully at its doors. In between I stumbled occasionally on what was now a loose track of large stones and uneven levels. The rain held off though and I arrived dry, but very weary at Kingshouse Hotel at 15:15.

Kingshouse Hotel

Kingshouse Hotel

My room was ready and I gratefully collected my bag from the drop point and gathered together the things I would need for a long hot shower. After that, I retired to the bar for a long cold drink, eased myself into a comfortable chair and removed my shoes. I wrote up notes in my journal and watched the bar begin to fill with walkers, arriving after their own long walks from Bridge of Orchy, Tyndrum and possibly their short walks from Kinlochleven.

The view from my bedroom window! Room 4

The view from my bedroom window! Room 4

I ordered some food, which was unremarkable and took my second drink into the lounge at the front of the hotel. This is a large room with picture windows looking out onto the splendour of Glencoe. The room was empty of people and there was a fire burning low in the grate. I took a large comfortable chair next to it and continued to write up my journal. The air was becoming a little chilled, so despite the notice on the fireplace telling residents not to feed the fire, I added a large log from the nearby pile and sat back to enjoy the quiet and the crackle of the fire.

I was soon joined by a cheerful party of five older folk. Two couples, both retired and a single guy walking with them. They were all experienced long distance walkers and as we chatted about previous walks I discovered they’d completed the Coast to Coast only two weeks after I’d done it in 2006. They’d stayed at Maltkiln House as well, in the same room as me and had a similar experience with the hosts. We chatted for much longer than I normally would, these were infectious people; it’s hard not to like folk like these.

One of the couples was having quite a bad time of it. The guy had picked up a tick at some point today, it had lodged itself on his forearm and he hadn’t spotted it until he got in the shower. They’d asked the hotel staff for advice on removing it and he now sported a large iodine stain and with a raw red spot at the centre. I suggested he was lucky the tick was so easily found and removed, they often search out the moist, warm, dark places on your person and they can be a bitch to remove without help. His wife was suffering with blisters, her feet were mostly plasters she told me, but she was determined to continue and finish the walk.

Just before I left for bed, we watched a small herd of Red Deer approach the large picture window and graze on the grass outside. The hotel encourages the deer by feeding them regularly and the result is wild deer that will almost feed from your hand if you stand still long enough. An enchanting end to a great day.

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