West Highland Way: Day Two

20th May 2008 – Drymen to Rowardennan – 16.5 miles

Synopsis: Forestry tracks form the early part of today’s walk, then across the multi-topped ridge of Conic Hill from where the Highlands are mapped out before us. Dropping into Balmaha we then follow the path beside the banks of Loch Lomond for several miles and then alongside the road into the little hamlet of Rowardennan at the foot of Ben Lomond

The usual time for breakfast at the Lander B&B is 08:30. Fortunately another guest had already asked for an earlier time and I had also been able to take advantage of this. It always surprises me when B&B’s offer breakfast at such a late time in the morning, especially those along popular walking routes like this. I pushed my luck and arrived at the breakfast table at 07:40, Frances was already juggling two frying pans, a toaster, a kettle and various food items. My breakfast companion was Loud Londoner. We both had the full Scottish breakfast with potato cakes and tea served from a huge teapot with an outrageous sheep-shaped tea cosy.

Face to face he wasn’t loud at all and his name was Alistair. He was walking the Way over six days, the same as me, but he was off to Inversnaid today, that’s quite a long haul over some rough ground, so no wonder he wanted an early start. After he left the table, Frances told me he was a professional singer – an opera singer! No wonder he sounded so loud on the phone!

I liked the Lander B&B a lot. Perhaps it was just the contrast from the Barloch in Milngavie, but I don’t think so. The Lander’s didn’t do things the easy way, or the efficient way, they did things the personal way, the friendly way. Little things like a full pat of butter, like you’d have at home, from which you would cut away a small piece, place it on your toast plate and then butter your toast; none of those awful (but convenient) individually wrapped tiny slices of butter. Like using a big communal tea pot on the table, proper leaf tea and a tea strainer; it’s not easy or efficient but it’s the right way to do it.

Green lanes on the way out of Drymen

Green lanes on the way out of Drymen

Soon replaced by harsh forestry track

Soon replaced by harsh forestry track

Their approach was summed up the previous evening. Frances had gone out to the theatre and David was on his own in their living room area. I’d popped my head round the door to ask him what time breakfast would be served and we had a couple of minutes chat about their recent visit to Japan. While we were talking someone knocked at the door looking for a room. David said they were full but offered to help the girl, who had a huge rucksack, to find somewhere in the village. I left them to it, but heard him make a couple of phone calls and then offer to show the girl where the room was he had just sourced for her. What a superb service. I mentioned this to Frances in the morning and asked her why they didn’t have one of those “Vacancies / No Vacancies” sign? Suggesting that their evenings might not be quite so busy if they told people up front that they didn’t have any rooms free. She seemed quite shocked. “Those signs are awful” she said, “they’re just the same as telling people not to bother us”. You see she’d rather be friendly and personal and try to help folk, than take the convenient and efficient route of using a sign. I can thoroughly recommend the Lander B&B.

I left the house at 08:30 and although clear and bright, it was cool enough to require a fleece for the first couple of miles. You walk out of the village along a quiet lane and then turn left onto a green track between blossoming gorse bushes and very soon you enter Garadhban Forest, part of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. This section of the Way, for the next couple of miles is almost an industrial zone and I’m surprised the Health & Safety Executive aren’t there handing out high-viz jackets and safety helmets to all the walkers.
There is an awful lot of logging activity going on here and many of the forestry roads appear to have been recently upgraded to allow the trucks to hammer up and down them. It also means that much of what you see beside the path is a work in progress. A few years ago there would have been very little to see along here other than densely packed trees. In a few years it will probably look great, with new growth coming through and native species being re-established. At the moment however, it looks like pictures I saw of the forests surrounding Mount St. Helens after it blew up a few years ago – total devastation.

A Tree Factory in Garadhban Forest

A Tree Factory in Garadhban Forest

And a similar area after it has been felled and logged

And a similar area after it has been felled and logged

You actually leave the forest much earlier than expected; because of all the logging the trees have now been removed from a large section where the OS map says they should be. This is no bad thing though and if you raise your eyes the views of Conic Hill and Loch Lomond more than compensate for the dead stumps and broken branches that are left at ground level.

It turned out that I was quite lucky here. Up until the 15th May (only 5 days previous) I would have been requested to take an alternative route along the road and through Milton of Buchanan, rather than the usual route over Conic Hill. If I’d been walking with a dog I would have been compelled to take that route. I think this advice, posted on large plastic sheets nailed to the stiles, differs from that given in the guide book. The guide book seems to suggest that all access to this area is banned from mid-April to mid-May, but the sign only requests that you divert (if not walking with a dog). “Follow the alternative route…if possible” is what it says – I should know, I took one of them πŸ™‚ Its advice had already expired and I’m sure in a few days it would have been removed, I just helped the process along. It’s a great souvenir of the walk πŸ™‚

Approaching Conic Hilll and the well-worn path is easy to spot

Approaching Conic Hilll and the well-worn path is easy to spot

You’re soon walking with grass beneath your feet for the first time on the walk – and I’m sorry to say, for the last time too. I wouldn’t walk on grass again, except on the occasional grass verges beside the path, until I reached Inverness. There is a short section of open moorland as you leave the trees and approach Conic Hill. Then you cross the bridge over the Burn of Mar and you begin to climb for the first time on the walk. The path up to (and down from) Conic Hill is heavily eroded and I’m sure it won’t be long before this section is also paved in the hard-core surface that much of the rest of the walk is covered in.

Plaque on Conic HillI’ll let you read elsewhere of the geological significance of Conic Hill and the string of islands that stretch out across Loch Lomond. I’ll tell you that it’s a cracking little hill. The path skirts around the northern side of the hill, providing stunning views of Ben Lomond, Loch Lomond, Ben Vorlich and many other smaller summits far into the distance. The path doesn’t force you to climb to the top if you don’t want, but there is an obvious route that leads up to the true summit should you wish to do so and I certainly did. I sat on the summit for a few minutes and admired the panorama. The day was now warm and sunny and the fleece had long ago been consigned to the pack, I lay back and enjoyed the sun on my face – I had plenty of time.

I had a little wander around the summit before I set off and found this interesting little plaque screwed to the rock near the path. I love finding these little personal tributes to friends and relatives. It always makes me wonder about the person named and the people who remember them. You had a fine taste in hills Ernie.

Before we continue on down to Balmaha and the shores of Loch Lomond, I’ll leave you with the view from the top of Conic Hill, enjoyed by me for 10 minutes and by Ernie and his friends for much longer I imagine.

Loch Lomond from Conic Hill

Loch Lomond from Conic Hill

The path down to Balmaha is used by tens of thousands of WH Way walkers each year and, I would guess, by many more day trippers walking up from Balmaha. The national park have put in a cracking stone path and I walked down this towards the village. None of the folk walking up the hill were using it though, they preferred to further erode the trail either side of the path. I had to bite my tongue! I won’t clutter the page with a photo of it, but you can see it here.

The view across Loch Lomond

The view across Loch Lomond

AsΒ you would expect, Balmaha was packed. It was a lovely day now, very warm and sunny and approaching lunch time. It was too early for a stop and besides I wanted to get out of the heat of the sun and into the shade of the trees, so I walked quickly through the village. It wasn’t until I was well past the village that I realised I had not bought provisions for tomorrow, or anything to drink this evening. I was staying at a little B&B about a mile south of Rowardennan, so my plan was to walk to the hotel, where I would have a drink and an early evening meal then walk back to the B&B and spend a quiet evening in my room. That meant I would need something to drink (a couple of cans of Diet Coke or something), plus something for lunch tomorrow.

I soon identified another problem; at some point on Conic Hill I had lost my paper maps. They had been in the front pocket of my trousers; five A5 sheets covering today’s walk. Somehow they must have fallen out, perhaps when I was sitting on the summit, or perhaps when I had the little sit down about a 1/4 of a mile back. I left my pack by the path and climbed back up the hill to where I’d taken a seat on a stile for a couple of minutes. Of course the maps weren’t there and I wasn’t about to track back the two miles or so to Conic Hill to look for them. As I’d already realised, you don’t need maps for this walk – you can just follow the posts. Without the maps though, I felt…. well, lost! It’s very reassuring to know you have a map. Even though I didn’t need them for navigation I had been using them for checking on my progress. As I came across a landmark I would pull out the maps, identify the location and know where I was. I spent the rest of the day constantly wondering where I was, what was coming next and well, you get the idea. Having a map is comforting! From that point on I kept only the current sheet in my front pocket and the rest of the sheets in one of the button down map-pockets in my trousers.

Into the trees beside Loch Lomond

Into the trees beside Loch Lomond

Into the trees beside Loch Lomond

Into the trees beside Loch Lomond

The walk now meanders along wooded tracks beside the shore of Loch Lomond. Often you have no access to and no view of the loch and there are many short climbs leaving you looking down on the loch many feet below through the deciduous woods. Where there is access, there are little stony beaches allowing the weary walker to sit and soak up the glorious views across the water to the hills. Idyllic you may think? Not really. The WHW walker will spend almost two full days beside Loch Lomond, for at least half of that time you are only a short distance from the road. This proximity to the road allows anyone to access these little beaches and many people are not as thoughtful as us walkers. Now I’m not suggesting that the problem is 100% due to car tourists, I’m sure there are some walkers and backpackers who bear a degree of responsibility, but whatever the case, the amount of litter and camp remains beside the loch is phenomenal. On every beach I came across there were half a dozen blackened stone circles, most of them filled with half burned logs, empty beer cans and bottles and the other detritus left over from a camp.

Six camp fires in a single spot - it must have been a bright and busy evening on the beach that night!

Six camp fires in a single spot – it must have been a bright and busy evening on the beach that night!

At one point you come to a huge car park, at Sallochy I think, there’s a long stretch of beach in front of the car park and if I saw one camp fire there I must have seen 50. Surely these can’t all have been in use at the same time, so why don’t people re-use the sites of old camp fires. The national park people need to do something about this, it makes the whole loch side look like an abandoned travellers’ site. Further up the loch, towards the northern end, once the road access peters out, there is much less evidence of this.

The path heads slightly inland for the last part of the day, not far from the loch shore, but far enough for you not to be able to see it. I stopped at the camp site at Cashell Farm and stocked up on a couple of cans of Irn Bru for this evening, a banana and a bag of crisps for tomorrow and a Zoom lolly for right now! The lack of maps was becoming quite depressing, I had no idea how much further there was to go. The path rises and falls as it cuts across sections of land jutting out into the loch (there’s a name for these things but I don’t know it). The surrounding woods are mostly native species and there’s plenty of light and birdlife, unlike the factory forests of this morning.

I arrived at the Rowardennan Hotel at 14:30. You know it’s coming, even without a map as you are forced to join the road for a short while as you approach. It was a welcome sight and I made my way through a maze of corridors to find the bar at the back of the building, overlooking Loch Lomond.

The view from the beer garden at the back of the Rowardennan Hotel

The view from the beer garden at the back of the Rowardennan Hotel

I ordered a pint of Diet Coke and sat outside in the beer garden. I was joined shortly afterwards by a couple with two little terriers and two huge backpacks. They were walking the Way (of course), but were wild camping all the way. They were having some problems finding water as it hadn’t rained properly in Scotland for weeks and most of the burns were dry or running too slowly to provide clean drinking water.

They were having a great time though. They had a couple of pints of Guinness (in lieu of an evening meal I guess) and then headed off again, hoping to camp somewhere close to Inversnaid.

You get a fine view of Ben Lomond from their beer garden too. During the early part of the day I had harboured thoughts of climbing it this afternoon, given the right weather conditions. However, from the comfort of my seat and the aching of my feet, I put the thought aside. The weather was perfect, the evening would be warm and the light would be with me for ages yet, but my will power just wasn’t sufficient to lift any more that my eyes to the summit.

I had an early evening meal from their excellent, reasonably priced menu; Irish Stew with a warm bread roll. I had it on the terrace at the back, overlooking the loch. They had provided me with a knife and fork – for Irish Stew, so I had to go back into the bar to ask for a spoon. As I was waiting for the barman to return with my cutlery I heard a cry from the terrace and a woman rushed in to the bar calling me back to the table – “A big seagull is eating your meal” she cried. I got my spoon and returned to the table to find her husband guarding my plate. It seems the bird had been circling, just waiting for its opportunity and as soon as I was gone it had swooped. There didn’t appear to be much damage and the bread roll was still there, so rather than complain and wait for another meal I just wolfed it down before the bird returned for seconds.

The couple, of course, were doing the Way and we chatted for a few minutes before they went in to order food and more drinks. I gathered up my stuff and headed out of the hotel and back onto the road, heading back down the path for my B&B. It was over a mile to Coille Mhor, but the road was fairly quiet and although it took a little while to get my legs working again, it didn’t take me that long to cover the distance. Coille Mhor is one of those places that doesn’t seem to advertise much; they don’t have a website, they don’t have an email address and they don’t appear in Google searches of accommodation in Rowardennan. I can’t actually recall how I got their number, I think it was from of the baggage courier companies (AMS or Travel-Lite). But then they don’t seem to need any of these modern trappings either, if they get guests then fine, if they don’t then no problem – or at least that seemed to be their philosophy.

Bluebells everywhere; more Bluebells than litter in fact and that's saying something.

Bluebells everywhere; more Bluebells than litter in fact and that’s saying something.

Coille Mhor is a wonderful place, run by Fiona McMillan (ring 01360 870302), it’s not cheap, it’s cheaper than paying a single supplement at the Rowardennan, but not by much. The quality of the place more than compensates though. The room I had was large and bright and the shared bathroom is huge, complete with bath and separate shower cubicle. It’s a family house, so as I sat in my room that evening I could hear laughter and talking from the living room. I also heard something I’ve not heard for years. Fiona’s husband plays the accordion and I could hear him playing children’s songs to their little grandson who was visiting. My dad used to play the accordion, mostly on a Sunday night when we kids were young, so I have fond memories of that sound.

There is only one time for breakfast; 08:00 take it or leave it. But I didn’t mind. There wasn’t that far to go tomorrow so a late-ish start would be fine. I was asleep early again and slept the sleep of a dead man.

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