West Highland Way: Day Zero

18th May 2008 – Glasgow to Milngavie – 11 miles

I unzipped the door of the tent and peered out. The loch was still there; the island in the middle and the turrets of its ruined castle rising out of the mist that blanketed the surface of the water like an ethereal eiderdown. A scene you might expect to see in the movies, the opening credits of “Rob Roy” or “Braveheart” perhaps. The real beauty of it is though that this sort of scene is available to us all, with a little effort and luck. As it is, I was probably the only person to be watching it. Hardly surprising really, as it was still only 05:30 on a cold Sunday morning in mid-May.

I snuggled back into the sleeping bag for a few minutes and soaked up the quiet; tiny waves lapping at the shoreline were the only sound apart from the rustle I made in my bag. However, after a few minutes the need for warm fluids outweighed the needs for reverence and so I fired up the stove and set a brew to boil.

Today I was starting the West Highland Way, the Scottish long distance path that runs from Milngavie, a suburb of Glasgow, to Fort William, 95 miles away. The loch I was looking out on was 2 miles south of Aviemore, 30 miles from Inverness and much, much further than that from Glasgow. I bet there’s not many folk who start the WHW from a tent in the Cairngorms!

The view from my tent - not bad eh?

The view from my tent – not bad eh?

Let’s leave the kettle boiling for a minute though, while I explain what I’m doing such a long way from the start of my long distance walk for 2008. I should also point out that after the WHW I’m continuing on along the Great Glen Way to Inverness, another 75 miles.

Travelling to and from a long linear walk is often one of the biggest logistical problems you’re faced with. It made great sense for me to leave my car either at the start of the walk or the end. Using the car to get me to that point was going to save me a fortune in rail fares. Although there is the option of parking near the Police Station in Milngavie, I have a friend who lives in Inverness and he was happy for me to park my car on his drive, so the decision was easy. Thanks Mike!

I spent a leisurely day yesterday (Saturday), driving up from my home in Cheshire to Scotland and stopping in Glasgow on the way to drop off my main bag, the one for the courier company, at my first B&B in Milngavie. I then proceeded to meander north to Inverness, picking up several trig points en-route. The first one I attempted to find was located in the heart of Glasgow, in a huge council estate. After several dead ends and a couple of diversions due to building works I found a narrow path leading uphill to the trig. Several of the surrounding blocks of flats and houses were boarded over and I didn’t fancy leaving my car parked, even for a few minutes, in this less than salubrious area. When I spotted the young man walking down the path towards me with a large hammer in his hand, I decided to mark this one down as “not found” and drove off quickly.

Looking for trig points in Glasgow

Looking for trig points in Glasgow

I visited a couple of tourist spots along the route, the best one being the old barracks at Ruthven. This ancient monument of English occupation sits proudly on a huge mound beside the A9 at Kingussie, a truly splendid sight from the road. The mound itself seems too large to be man-made, yet too regular to be a natural phenomenon. I can only surmise that it was a glacial deposit that was “moulded” into the required shape to support the barracks building. A plaque tells visitors, just me as it happens, that it fell to Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746. If you’re feeling adventurous you can climb onto the upper storeys of the building, although I’m sure you’re not supposed to, a get a defenders eye view of the local terrain.

Ruthven Barracks, near Kingussie

Ruthven Barracks, near Kingussie

From Ruthven I drove on to my last trig point of the day Ord Ban, in the beautiful Loch an Eilein country park. I really can’t overstate how lovely this place is. I parked in their little car park and followed a zig-zag path to the cylindrical trig point on the top of the hill. It was an easy 20 minute climb through woods and then heather. The view from the top was more deserving of a full day hike though. The Cairngorms were in full view, snow patches still clinging determinedly to sheltered crags.

Loch an Eilein with the castle on the island

Loch an Eilein with the castle on the island

The trig point on Ord Ban

The trig point on Ord Ban

I returned to the car and set off in search of something to eat. I was only a couple of miles from Aviemore and that was the obvious choice, but I was immediately put off by the hordes of people milling around and the traffic queuing through the village. It’s very much like Keswick or Ambleside in the height of the season; worth avoiding at all costs.

I took a drive along the A9 towards Inverness and soon found one of those unofficial little road side signs pointing to a village pub. After driving along narrow lanes for a few miles I came to the Tomatin Country Inn. Lots of cars outside suggested people came from around the area to visit it and, as it turned out, with good reason. I had an awesome steak pie with handmade chips (a dying art) and a can of diet coke, all for £6.

My plans for Saturday night had been pretty loose. I had packed all the equipment necessary for a wild camp somewhere close to Inverness, but I was also open to the opportunity of a cheap B&B if one was seen. My visit to Loch an Eilein, however, had encouraged me to try and find a nice pitch alongside the loch. The weather was perfect; blue skies, almost no wind, warm and not likely to change much during the night (hopefully). I parked up again and hefted my big pack on my back and set out along the shoreline; it was stunning. Beautiful woodland surrounded the loch, with many little paths and tracks running here and there. I chose the bank that was still bathed in the evening sun and within 25 minutes had found a lovely spot; right by the water’s edge, waves lapping gently against the sandy shore, a flat needle strewn area beneath a fur tree for the tent and a little seat formed by the tree’s roots right outside my front door.

The pitch beside Loch an Eilein

The pitch beside Loch an Eilein

I set up camp and got the stove going for a brew. The view was stunning; the loch at my feet, the far shore covered in pine trees and a heather-clad fell behind, with snow topped peaks poking their heads out at the back, like the tall boys on a school photograph. I drank my brew to the sound of Pink Floyd playing softly on my mobile handset and the occasional snatches of voices drifting across the loch from some lads camping on the island in the middle, on which is an old ruined castle – lucky lads! The setting sun warmed my face, the brew warmed my hands and the cuckoo sounding in the woods behind me warmed my spirit. I managed to get a signal and called home to speak to my wife; as much as anything to say thanks for giving me the freedom to enjoy situations like this.

I shudder to think who Mr. Edwards upset, or what he did to deserve having his name associated with this building. The three other identical tower blocks are also named after poor unfortunates

I shudder to think who Mr. Edwards upset, or what he did to deserve having his name associated with this building. The three other identical tower blocks are also named after poor unfortunates

At these latitudes it gets dark really late and in another month it will barely get dark at all. I turned in shortly after the sun fell behind the hills, when the temperature started to fall and sent some emails (isn’t technology wonderful). I spent a somewhat chilly night in the tent as the temperature dropped lower than I was expecting. The bag I have is supposed to be rated to -3, but it’s not really a 3 season bag at all and I was quite impressed that it kept most of me warm when the outside temperature had dropped to +1 degrees Celsius.

So now you know how I come to be sitting in this most tranquil of locations, scores (if not hundreds) of miles from Glasgow, drinking tea and watching the mist rise slowly from the surface of the loch.

My brew now finished, warming me nicely I set about packing my camp away. I made sure that no-one would know I’d been there. I’d had no camp fire, so it was just a case of packing all my bits away and checking for litter. I walked the mile or two back to the car and headed for Aviemore; hoping to find a cafe open for breakfast. Unlike last night it was completely deserted; not a soul around anywhere. No cafes or tea rooms were open, but then it was only 07:30 on Sunday, so perhaps I was being a trifle optimistic.

As I drove towards Inverness, in lieu of breakfast I finished the biscuits I’d bought on the journey up and half a can of diet coke that was still in the car’s centre console, it was icy cold and without the bubbles it was almost tasteless. It would have to do though.

I initially expected to start walking on Monday with the short leg from Milngavie to Drymen; the traditional opening day of the West Highland Way. During my later planning stages though, I had decided to walk from Glasgow station to Milngavie along the Kelvin Walkway. Adding 11 miles to the overall length and enabling me to say I’d walked from Glasgow to Inverness. I arrived at my friend Mike’s house, in a quiet suburb of Inverness, a few minutes early and we chatted for a while before he drove me to the station. I left my car parked on his drive and told him I’d be back in a couple of weeks to collect it. That’s friendship for you 🙂
The train from Inverness was on time and almost completely empty, I had a four seater table to myself for the whole journey and only a party of four loud Americans in the carriage for company. But they wouldn’t bother me – I had a plan! The train journey from Inverness to Glasgow takes just under 4 hours; coincidentally the same amount of time it takes to listen to the audio book version of The Hobbit. I fired up my iPod and sat back to enjoy the view. The first part of the train journey is a glorious, if somewhat pedestrian, journey through some of the finest scenery on offer in Britain. The snow capped mountains line the track for dozens of miles and the time slips by easily. The train stops at every station on the way and takes 3 hours to get to Falkirk, where I had to change trains. The connecting train was on time though and that service is direct into Glasgow Queen Street. I exited the station with hundreds of other commuters straight into the main shopping street.

I walked along Sauchiehall Street, grabbed some chicken nuggets on my way past a McDonalds and headed for Kelvingrove Park. The whole of Glasgow was buzzing with life; the shopping streets were packed and the park was even busier. This could have had something to do with the weather, which was now bright, sunny and warm. I felt much more positive about this walk than I did when I started Offa’s Dyke.

The Kelvin Walkway is definitely a walk of three halves; the first part through the park is wonderful; the second part through some rather dodgy council estates is quite worrying in places and the final section along the river is serene and peaceful.

Kelvingrove Park was full families and courting couples, all out enjoying the sun (and if my wife ever reads this; yes the sun does shine on occasion in Scotland). I stopped for a couple of minutes at a picnic table to adjust my load and to shed my fleece and walked down to the river. I only saw one sign for the Kelvin Walkway, along its whole length and I was glad of the maps in the Trailblazer guidebook. The OS maps don’t really show enough detail to follow the path and even with the guidebook, I took a couple of wrong turns and once or twice wondered if I was on the right track. You soon leave the park behind and you then enter the second half of the walk and you really don’t want to get lost in this section – and if you do, I’d be really careful of whom you ask directions.

I shudder to think who Mr. Edwards upset, or what he did to deserve having his name associated with this building. The three other identical tower blocks are also named after poor unfortunates.

I passed one or two parties of people that appeared to pay me a little more than the usual interest you pay to a passing stranger. I felt a little bit like the cowboy who walks into the saloon and the music stops and all eyes turn to regard him. The two guys passing a joint and sharing a bottle of Buckfast wine (known locally as Bucky) were nor threatening, just disconcerting – obviously a reflection on the amount of policing the area receives. The large group of bare-chested, multi tattooed youths that were drinking and “fishing” did make me very nervous though. They all stopped talking and turned to watch me go past – at least they didn’t turn off the boom box – that would have certainly had me grabbing the nearest horse and galloping out of town.

The scenery, including tower blocks, prolific graffiti and more empty alcohol containers than I’ve ever seen in my life was nothing to write home about either. By the time you reach Maryhill Park, the worst is over and apart from the litter, things improve significantly.

The fantastic Kelvin Stevenson Memorial Church

The fantastic Kelvin Stevenson Memorial Church

The not quite so impressive tenement buildings

The not quite so impressive tenement buildings

I soon reached the third half of the walk; the path is still following the Kelvin, but it’s a countryside river again with the occasional proper fisherman and a leafy path. After a while the river you’re following becomes Allander Water, far from any obvious sign of inhabitation, which makes my next observation all the more baffling. Allander Water has the largest number of car tyres I have ever seen in any water course anywhere. Now I’m putting this down to the fact that Allander Water is beautifully clear and you can see the bottom. So perhaps canals and other rivers I have walked beside also have huge numbers of tyres in them, but you just can’t see them. I walked along a 2 mile section of this river and every few feet there was a tyre or two. I came across a young lad fishing and asked him if there was anything in the river to catch, other than tyres. He said he was after Brown Trout and had caught a couple already.

Not only is there a large number of tyres in the river, but they are well distributed throughout its length. I would have expected the majority of them to be clustered around the section of the river near the roundabout, but not so. Lads have rolled tyres a mile or so down the bank before dumping them. You may see 2 or 3 together, but then the local unwritten rule seems to say that you must roll your tyre further down to a less populated area of the river.

Tyres in Allander Water

Tyres in Allander Water

It must take a special sort of litter bug to roll a car tyre hundreds of yards down the river bank before you dump it. The other thing that kept crossing my mind was; where the hell do they get all the tyres from? I imagined the conversation that may have taken place…

“Hey Jamesy, lets head on over to Kwik Fit and see if they’ve got any old tyres for us today”.
“Ahh, I dinnae ken Shug, we’d have to push the bloody things half way to Milngavie before we could dump them in the river”.
“Aye true enough, you know what Big Mac would say if we dumped them too close to the other ones – and we don’t want to get on the wrong side of the ‘Tyre Master’ do we?”
“Okay then, let’s go spray some huge graffiti on the pavement then”.
“Sounds like a plan!”

All in all the Kelvin Walkway is okay, but if you’re a lone female walker I would probably give it a miss. There were places where I would rather have had a friend with me and I’m 6′ 4″ and weigh almost 18 stone – so people don’t tend to pick on me. If it’s raining it’s a no-brainer, catch the train from Glasgow Central.

I arrived in Milngavie at about 17:00 and walked into the town centre to find the obelisk that marks the start of the walk. As I took a photo of it, a voice called over to me and asked if I was just finishing the walk. Three guys were standing nearby and the voice emanated from one of them. They were to be the first of literally hundreds of people I met over the next few days; walking the West Highland Way. I explained that I’d just walked from Glasgow along the Kelvin Walkway and was starting the walk proper tomorrow. They’d taken a taxi from Glasgow and seemed a little envious that I’d walked it. I told them they hadn’t missed much, at which they cheered up immensely and headed off towards the pub.

I in turn, headed off for my B&B, the Barloch Guest House on Strathblane Road. I’d dropped my bag there yesterday on the way to Inverness, just so that I wouldn’t have to carry it from Glasgow. It was easy enough to find and I rang the bell. A few moments later a lady opened the door and asked me my name, upon receipt of the information she told me she had no-one booked with that name, but I was in luck as she had a room free. She then asked me my name again, as if the last few seconds of conversation hadn’t taken place. I spoke slowly and clearly and this time the name obviously slotted into place. She invited me in and I followed her through to a back room where she was ironing.

“That will be £25 please”, she said as she returned to her ironing.

“Excuse me?” I was a bit confused. Normally at this point I would be offered a cup of tea, or be shown to my room. I was rather surprised to be asked for money.

“You sent a £10 deposit, so the balance on your bill is £25”, she explained carefully. As if it was the amount I was questioning.
“Is there any chance I could get my bag opened and extract my cheque book then? Perhaps in my room?” I think the sarcasm was lost on her; she wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer by the sound of things.

She dropped her iron and pointed me towards a cupboard where my cargo bag had been stored. She then handed me a key and directions to my room. Along with instructions that she needed to be going out and would need my cheque before she did. Rather than encourage me to rush back down stairs with the necessary, her attitude only served to get my back up and I spent a leisurely 15 minutes inspecting my dreadful room and scattering the contents of my bag across every available surface. When I did return to the back room she insisted that I write my cheque card details on the bag of the cheque. “The boss insists on it” she said.

The Barloch turned out to be quite simply the worst guest house or B&B I have ever stayed in. The owner does not live on site and somehow tries to service the needs of her guests by telephone. Her phone number is sprinkled liberally around the house on little notices, informing you to call this number if you need such and such. The room I had was a single; and a very small single. Not the smallest ever though, that badge of honour still rests with the White Lion in Patterdale. Whereas my complaints about the White Lion started and finished with the size of the room, this was just the first in a long list of problems I had with the Barloch (see full list below).

I couldn’t get out of the place fast enough. I headed back to the pub I had seen, next to the obelisk in town. The Cross Keys is one of those establishments that is modelled on the Wetherspoon chain of pubs. Cheap beer and reasonable food at low low prices. I finally managed to get some breakfast down me by ordering their ‘All Day Brunch’ and some Garlic Bread for additional carbs.

I lingered as long as possible in the pub. The alternative was the tiny room ‘shared’ with Loud Londoner next door. When I finally returned, my noisy neighbour was still shouting into his handset and Indiana was applying the finishing touches to the Germans. I tried to get an early night, ready for the walk proper tomorrow. My lack of sleep the previous night and the early start this morning certainly helped.

Things I hated about the Barloch Guest House, Milngavie

  • I was expected to pay on arrival.
  • I was given no towels and I had to go and request some.
  • I was given the wrong keys for the room, so when I tried to lock the door on my way out they didn’t work. I had to sort this out for myself too.
  • The bed is on two levels, one side of the bed is higher than the other, so I felt like I was rolling out all the time.
  • The walls between the rooms are paper thin and I could hear the guy next door on his mobile phone, as well as Indiana Jones on his TV.
  • There appeared to be one shared toilet for the 4 rooms on my floor.
  • The shower was crap and provides either scalding water or ice water – I fiddled with the temperature settings, despite a notice on the shower door saying not to adjust them.
  • The radiator was set to full and the adjustment knob had been removed, the room was incredibly warm.
  • Opening the window to release some of the steam let in the noise from the main road – I can’t win!
  • My noisy neighbour seemed to want to shout all the time on the phone and he must be deaf as well ‘cos the TV was on almost full blast. He’s obviously from London and quite ‘Hooray’ with it.
  • There is no cooked breakfast, I realise now this is because there is no-one living on the premises to make it, so they leave out a continental style buffet.
  • The first piece of bread I picked up had mould on it. The others were quite hard and stale, but no mould that I could see.
  • The toaster took 3 or 4 minutes (no exaggeration) to pop up and even then the bread was still white, so it needed another session – there was only one toaster for all the people, from nine rooms, wanting breakfast.
  • There was no butter for the toast – just runny margarine that must have been left on the radiator all night.
  • No indication where to leave the bag for AMS to collect, so I left it in the porch and bugger the inconvenience.

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