21st May 2008 – Rowardennan to Inverarnan – 16 miles
Synopsis: The toughest day so far starts out by following forestry track for several miles alongside Loch Lomond, with restricted views, then lovely narrow woodland paths opening onto secluded pebble beaches before we finally say goodbye to Loch Lomond and then a final few miles across open moorland paths to Inverarnan
I walked around a bend in the path and groaned, audibly, I may have even let a little curse escape. Another set of walkers on the path ahead of me. Three rather large ladies this time; not elderly, but at the later stages of middle age, talking loudly and taking up the whole width of the path. The one on the right of the trio looked like she’d been poured into her clothes that morning – and forgotten to say “when”! Within a few moments I was just a few feet behind them, I tried my usual ploy of scuffing my feet or dragging my pole to attract their attention, but they were too engrossed with each other and talking too loudly to hear me. I had no room to pass and I was getting a bit fed up, so I called out in an unnecessarily loud voice “Good morning ladies”. As I’d hoped, one of them emitted a wordless squeak of surprise and the one directly in front of me even jumped a few inches. They parted to let me through and I walked ahead to navigate my way round the next moving obstacle on the path, two backpackers with huge packs about 50 yards ahead.
It was my own fault I suppose. I’d allowed myself to be lulled into a false sense of solitude. I hadn’t bumped into that many people on the path in the first couple of days. I’d left Milngavie quite early, due to the dreadful accommodation and that had meant I was ahead of the crowds. Drymen isn’t a hugely popular first stop for people, many walk on to Balmaha, so again I’d missed most people, being a couple of hours behind them. Today however, was something of a bottleneck. Most people stop at Rowardennan, even if they don’t stay here, so the vast majority of the people in your “bubble” (those that are walking the Way at the same time as you and in the same number of days) are leaving the Rowardennan Hotel or the hostel at about the same time. The path is full of them.
The problem had been exacerbated by the fact that I was a mile back down the path and the B&B, Coille Mhor, didn’t do breakfast until 08:00, so it wasn’t until 08:40 that I’d managed to start walking and then I had a mile and a bit before I reached the Hotel, so I hit the morning rush hour at 09:00. I was tripping over walkers for the rest of the day.
The morning had started well enough though; I’d had a good night’s sleep and joined my fellow guests at the large breakfast table for an excellent cooked breakfast with tea and toast. The others at the table were an older trio; a couple and a gent, the lady of this trio I’d seen on Day 1 at the Beech Tree when she’d asked me what time I’d left Milngavie. She was driving most of the way and meeting the two guys at various points on the track. There was also a young couple who’d arrived later the previous evening. They were supposed to be backpacking and camping, but the girl had developed a foot problem and they’d managed to find a spare room here in an effort to ease the burden somewhat. They looked like brother and sister I thought, both painfully thin with long dark hair and pale complexions.
As I was walking along the road from Coille Mhor to Rowardennan a car passed me and a little hand waved at me from the back seat. The young couple were obviously getting a lift up to the Hotel from the old trio – four more walkers on the path ahead of me. Even if there had been room in the car and even if they had offered, I wouldn’t have taken a lift to the Hotel. I have a rule when I’m walking a long path like this and it says that I walk; no lifts, no taxis, no buses. If I’m in a B&B and it’s a mile from the nearest pub then I walk to it, or I don’t go. If it’s a mile from the path, like today, then that’s part of the walk. I like to think it’s about self sufficiency and getting back to basics – I have to rely on my own two legs to take me to where I want to go.
I reached the sculpture that represents the war memorial and paused for a few moments, I was alone on the path and the loch was quiet and still before me. The sculpture itself is not a war memorial, it simply represents a focus for the war memorial, which is in fact the whole of the Ben Lomond National Memorial Park. A wild and beautiful place set aside in remembrance of the men and women of Scotland who gave their lives in the service of their country.
Unsurprisingly the peace was short-lived as I was joined by a noisy group of walkers who wanted to get pictures of the sculpture. I left them to it and walked on along the path.
Once you leave the Rowardennan Hotel the path, at least as far as Ptarmigan Lodge, is essentially a forestry road; just about wide enough for three large ladies to walk side by side and covered in stone chippings. It makes for easy going, but it’s uninspiring and a bit like road walking. Once you get to Ptarmigan Lodge however, you have a choice of paths. The upper path continues along the same forestry track for a further 3 miles or so. The lower path drops down the loch shore and runs between the trees and rocks through the woods.
Despite a warning in the guide book that the lower path is the much more arduous of the two, it had been my plan to take this route; to stay close to the loch shore and take advantage of the better views across the loch to the mountains on the western shore. A couple of days earlier however, I’d had a text message from Pete warning me that the low route was dreadful. Unlike the guide book he pulled no punches and his short message left me in no doubt that it would be a mistake to take the loch side path. I later spoke to one or two people who had taken the lower path and they didn’t have anything good to say about it; many fallen trees blocking the path, little scrambles up and down and poor footing in many places. If this is the sort of terrain you like, then there’s plenty more ahead for today.
If you do take the upper path, you will continue to get almost no view of the loch or the mountains on the opposite shore, but at least you have an even path to walk along. There are one or two spaces between the trees and one of these has a bench, from where you can rest your feet and soak in the view – but only if you leave early enough. There were already people sitting in it when I found it and I’m sure it stayed like that for most of the day.
Shortly before reaching Cailness, at the point where the lower path rejoins the upper, the Way becomes much narrower and broken in places with streams cutting across it rather than under it, as they have been previously. This is more like a graded mountain path now, something you would find in the Lakes. It twists and turns more and the surrounding trees are more thinly spaced. I liked this section.
The views open up once you get close to Inversnaid and I was passed by several boats; a couple of fishing boats with rods stretching out over their sides and a couple of Loch Lomond tourist cruise boats. Shortly before noon I arrived at the falls at Inversnaid. These are very impressive, with large volumes of water spilling over seriously large boulders into a deep pool far below. I crossed the footbridge and used some steps to get most of the way down to the foot of the falls. I pushed my luck and climbed over the fence onto the boulders at the loch side and got a terrific view of the water hammering down from above.
The Inversnaid Hotel was quiet when I got there, in fact I thought it was closed. It wasn’t though and I found the young couple from this morning’s breakfast table sitting in the bar scrutinising their maps. The girl’s foot was still giving here trouble and they said they were considering abandoning the walk. I left them to their decision making and took a can of Diet Pepsi (no Coke) out onto the terrace overlooking the loch. The hotel bar does a fast food take out service, as well as pre-packaged sandwiches, cakes, fruit and yogurt. The sandwiches were extortionately expensive, but the fish and chips to take out seemed reasonable at about £2.50 I think.
I ate my own packed lunch; raisins, flapjacks, a bag of crisps and a packet of Fruit Pastilles sitting in the sun looking at the blue loch. As time passed by, all the people I had passed on the path began to troop into the hotel and place themselves at the few tables on the terrace. A coach arrived and vomited its contents of passengers onto a waiting cruise boat. Most of them were well past the retirement age and some had to be helped on board the vessel.
As I was writing in my journal a man approached the terrace carrying a take away carton of fish and chips and a pint of lager. All the tables were now taken and mine was the obvious one for him to choose, being the only one with a single occupant. He walked over and sat down opposite me. I looked up expecting him to exercise the simple courtesy of asking if anyone was sitting there, but he said nothing and just sat down. He didn’t even acknowledge my presence. He never even looked at me.
I finished my drink, packed up my rubbish and left the ignorant sod to himself. Ideally I wanted to be back on the path before all the people I had just passed, started out again. It was one thing passing people on a fairly wide forestry track, it would be something else trying to pass them on the narrow, twisty path I joined now.
I loved this section of the walk. The path now ran through natural woodland, full of native species, thinly spaced and allowing lots of light through the canopy. The path crossed many tiny streams coming down from the mountainside on my right and running into the loch. The path felt much more natural, lots of large stones, lots of tree roots, lots of little climbs and descents and twisting and turning along the edge of the loch. Where there were patches of grass there were bluebells; millions of them, slowly being strangled by the new growth of bracken pushing through.
This section of the path also passes many little shingle beaches and the guide book says to look out (or keep a nose open) for feral goats in this area. Sure enough as I passed one little beach a rather offensive, stale odour reached my nostrils and I looked across to a little beach where half a dozen goats were relaxing.
I caught up with three ladies; who turned out to be a Scottish mother and daughter and a lone American. The American seemed to be waiting patiently behind the mother and daughter, as the path was quite narrow and twisty and made passing difficult. I wasn’t going to hang around though and my speed of approach seemed to suggest to the two ladies that I wanted to get past. They stepped aside and let me through and the American girl took her opportunity and tagged on behind me. We chatted for a while and I said it was unusual, but nice, to see lone female walkers, especially foreigners on our long distance paths. She told me her family had not wanted her to come, fearing for her safety walking alone. But she was confident that walking in the UK couldn’t be anything like as dangerous as working and living in San Francisco – not that that’s a particularly dangerous place to live, but it contains all the modern dangers of any other American city.
We walked and talked for a while and then she seemed to want to be on her own again as she suggested I walk on ahead as she was obviously slowing me down. I know when to take a hint, so I pushed on along the path towards Inverarnan. There were fewer trees now and I caught glimpses of Ben Lui in the distance, snow still clinging to the summit and some of the neighbouring mountains too. The path leaves the loch side for a short distance while it crosses the short, fat peninsula of Creag a’ Mhadaidh and passes Doune bothy. Shortly afterwards I reached the Ardleish ferry crossing for Ardlui. A long pole stands by the ferry platform where would-be passengers raise a bouy to attract the attention of the ferryman.
At Ardleish the path leaves the loch behind, the trees disappear and the views open up to either side. It now feels much more like a fell walk. I had the path to myself again. I couldn’t see a soul ahead of me or behind me and the mountains ahead looked awesome. Although narrow and twisty still, the path is smooth and flat and makes for great walking. I really enjoyed the hour or so on approach to Inverarnan.
Just as the path started to descend into Beinglas and Inverarnan I saw a guy lying beside the path with his head propped on his rucksack. I approached quietly in case he was asleep, but as I passed he called out a greeting and I stopped to chat. I asked him if he was walking the Way and for the first time I got an answer in the negative. He said he was an author and he’d been out doing a little walking and a little writing.
“Writing in the hills?” I asked.
He showed me his PDA. It was his mobile office, complete with typewriter and map, thanks to Memory Map.
“Will I know you?” I asked.
“Not yet” he replied, “but you will” he added confidently.
He said his name was Paul Story and he was trying to float a completely new way of publishing books. He pointed me to his website (www.dreamwords.com), where he is trying to sell the world’s most expensive novel. Take a look, it’s an interesting idea.
I left Paul waiting for his bus, “I’d rather wait here on the hill” he said, “than down there in the bus shelter” and with the weather the way it was I couldn’t disagree with him. Ten minutes later and I was in Beinglas, crossing the bridge and passing the weird wooden wigwams (nice bit of alliteration eh?).
I stopped at the campsite shop to stock up on essentials for lunch tomorrow and for tonight in my room. I bought a couple of cans of Diet Coke, a bag of crisps and a banana. I was going to buy some soap and toothpaste as well, as my small supplies of each were running out, but the prices were outrageous. I paid up and walked down the drive to the main road and my hotel for the evening. The Drovers Inn.
Just re-reading my journal entries for this evening, my closing comment before bed was “What a shit-hole!” I think that about sums up the Drovers Inn. From the outside it looks impressive; stone built, slate roof, dominating the road, but then you get a bit closer and it all looks a bit tatty. There are slates missing, the window frames are flaking paint and the whole place looks dirty and unkempt. When you get inside things get worse! The reception area holds a full size stuffed grizzly bear, standing on its back legs along with dozens of display cases with stuffed birds in them. The heads of all sorts of game animals are hung on the walls and there is a smell of dust and stale air.
My room was on the second floor; room 15, called the Gun Room. It was tiny, with a large double bed taking up most of the space. The corridor carpets were filthy and threadbare and the carpet in my room was no better. The paper was peeling from the wall in one corner of the room and the woodwork hadn’t seen a paintbrush since Bonnie Prince Charlie was around. I shared a bathroom with who knows how many other people and the bathroom looked as bad as everywhere else. The olive green tub, sink and toilet were quite new (about 1960 something I guess), but there was no shower head, just the bath. I ran the water and eventually managed to fill the bath deep enough to wet my feet. I haven’t had a bath in years – actually thinking about it – it was in Reeth in May 2006, in a small B&B with no shower head in the bath tub.
Once I was bathed and changed I took myself down to the bar and was not surprised to find a huge stuffed eagle on the edge of the bar. The bar staff all wear kilts, even though most of them are from Australia. The kilts however haven’t been washed since the turn of the millennium, the guy who served me had grease and muck and dust in the pleats of his kilt and the sporran was rank. They obviously think very highly of themselves though as they charged me an extortionate £2.80 for a pint of Diet Coke – more than I have paid anywhere else…ever!
As I sat nursing my drink (there was no way I was buying another), the American girl from earlier came into the bar. She ordered a pint of Guinness and looked at me as if to say “Do you mind if I join you?” I waved her to a seat and she sat down gratefully. She was surprised that I had managed to arrive, bathe and shower in the time it took her to finish the walk. She told me her name was Patricia from San Francisco and she was walking the Way in 7 days and then heading over to Mull to see where her ancestors came from. She was a bit of an oddity I thought. She never smiled in the hour or so we spent talking. She seemed very reserved, very wary; although she was happy enough to talk and she had invited herself to sit down with me. We both ordered food, a little warily I must admit based on what I had seen so far. I had a Braveheart burger – a huge burger with sausage and haggis loaded on top of it – it was bloody brilliant!
After eating, Patricia rang her B&B and they came to collect her. I wasn’t sorry to see her leave to be honest, she was nice enough company but it had been an awkward hour or so – I felt like I’d had to be on my best behaviour to persuade her I wasn’t a rapist or kidnapper or something. I met her again at Fort William, when we were both checking in to the same B&B, but neither of us offered to eat together. Perhaps she’d felt uncomfortable too.
I returned to my room and read for a while, wrote in my journal and listened to the pigeons in the roof space above my head – or perhaps they were rats? There was no bedside table and no bedside light, so I had to get out of bed to turn the light out!
I went to sleep thinking “What a shit-hole!”