This is a report of a trip I did in 1996. My memories of the place names are sketchy and although I do have the guide, it would be difficult to match it up with my pictures so I'll just tell the story to the best of my memory.
I'd wanted to do some kind of long-distance walking holiday in Britain, and I wanted to join a group so that I wouldn't be on my own. After doing a bit of research (difficult back then, as the internet wasn't widely used then and I certainly wasn't on it) I signed up to do Scotland's West Highland Way, with a group run by the Hostelling association.
I forgot how much it was, but comparatively inexpensive. Included in the price was a guide, all meals, accommodations in hostels and inns, and transportation of luggage. I was already an avid backpacker back then and I felt that it was cheating to have your stuff transported for you while you hiked, but oh well (I was glad for it later).
The whole trip was 96 miles, over a week, averaging about 15 miles a day, the longest day being 18 miles.
As luck would have it I broke my toe doing an awkward roundhouse kick in a martial arts class a month or two before my trip. It was still hurting while I was gallavanting around England for two weeks before heading to Scotland, and it finally healed completely about three days before I set out.
The hike (or "walk" as they call it there) begins in Milngavie, just outside Glasgow, and ends in Fort William at the base of Ben Nevis, which is Britain's highest peak.
I left my aunt and uncle's place in the Lake District and got a train to Glasgow. For some reason they were very worried about me going to Glasgow on my own as it's a "very rough place." I think they forgot I was 30 years old, as I'd always been the youngest of all the cousins, and still 5 years old in their memory. Got to Glasgow, and got on a bus to find the hostel, finding a rather scary bus driver.
"How much is the fare to get to the hostel?"
"Um...pardon? Can you say that again?"
I'll never understand the British transit fares. How much you pay depends on how far you're going, the information isn't posted anywhere, and everyone else but you seems to know exactly what to pay. Once I'd deciphered the angry Glaswegian accent and paid my fare, to my dismay the driver uttered an additional thing:
"Sorry, I can't quite understand you."
(Repeat three times...)
"TAKE. YER. TICKET!!!!" (And how was I supposed to know it would spit out a ticket around the corner somewhere out of sight? Back then our BC Transit buses didn't spit out tickets either).
By now everyone on the bus knew where I was going, and felt sorry for the poor wee lass from faraway lands hopelessly lost on a Glaswegian bus. I sat at the back of the bus, and when I got to my stop the whole busload of commuters turned around to say, "You get off here!" As I alighted from the bus, several people walked me to the corner and said, "Now, you go down there, and you turn at the next corner, and you walk just past that gate...." With the exception of one stern bus driver, Glaswegians are lovely people.
This was the hostel; I recall it was quite nice:
I wandered around Glasgow for a bit, though I seem to have taken no pictures of it at all, and the next morning met with my group at the official start of the route:
They seemed to be mostly local people from a local hiking group, plus three very sweet older ladies from a walking club in Oxford. I was a little dismayed at first to find myself to be surrounded mostly by people in their 60's and 70's, save for one American guy my age with underdeveloped social skills. But they turned out to be great company, lots of good stories to tell, and far fitter than me in spite of my having worked out vigourously for months and months in advance of this trip, in the gym, hiking, and kickboxing.
The first day, we walked and walked through farms and villages and stopped in this little place (I don't remember the name of the village) for tea and refreshments.
I saw a "Canadian Slice" on the menu and had to ask what it was. The waiter said, "Does Nanaimo Bar mean anything to you?" Yes it did. I didn't order it but as he was bringing one to another table, he stopped by to show it to me and ask if it looked authentic. It did.
Walking along a road near the end of the day.
Three young lads about my age (I thought they were pleasing to the eye), carrying full packs, passed us and the three Oxford ladies chatted for a bit and said to them, "Maybe we'll see you later when we all sit down for tea." They replied, "Aye, but it's a whiskey we be drinkin', not tea!"
We reached the hostel the first night at Loch Lomond. Nice place, truly awful food.
Day 2 hiking, ending with a pint at the Rob Roy bar:
Over hill, over dale
An aptly named Inn, in Inverarnan.
We were, however, headed for the Drover's Inn across the road, a place that has apparently changed very little since it opened in 1705 for the cattle drovers. It was creaky and cozy inside, with a roaring fire, good food, and of course plenty of ale.
The Scots seemed proud of their rain and expected me to be amazed by their downpours. I tried to tell them, "We have heavy rain in Vancouver tooooo!!!"
Approaching Tyndrum on Day 5
"Stockists of good country clothing and accessories" Oh, in other words, a gear shop!! Had to go in and fondle gear although I was decked out in my Taiga finest:
Now we're making our way towards our next overnight stop at the Bridge of Orchy bunkhouse, which I think was my favourite place of the whole trip.
I can't believe I didn't take a picture of the little bunkhouse, but it was just lovely (and so was the food in their little pub) so I've lifted a picture of it off the internet:
I couldn't believe it when I came out of the pub at 11 PM and it was still only twilight; it was May and the days were getting long, but I guess we were also further north than I am used to.
Next morning, we crossed the Bridge of Orchy itself (built around 1750, didn't take a picture) to climb up to some small summit for a lovely view all around:
The white-haired lady from Oxford sitting next to me in that last photo said to me nearer the end of the trip, "Well, you've been an absolute inspiration to me." This was with regards to my consumption of Mars Bars. She saw me eating multiple Mars Bars every day and still slim; so it was my slimming regimen that was inspirational to her. She said, "I'm now going to start eating lots of chocolate too."
You see, a word on the food here. I was starving. On this trip we were provided with packed lunches, and while they may have been adequate for people in their 60's and 70's with slower metabolisms, they left me still very hungry and I needed more food to get through these long days of hiking. But we were given only that set amount, and there was rarely anywhere to buy extra food along the way. The only option for getting more food was to buy a stack of Mars Bars every morning at a hostels' canteen before setting out. And that is what I lived on most afternoons. 15 years later I can no longer get away with it no matter how much hiking I do.
On to Rannoch Moor, a beautiful and desolate place, and Glencoe, site of the famous massacre (I think it started raining hard, so not a lot of pictures at Glencoe)
Abandoned farm houses along an old military road
On the last day, approaching the Ben Nevis hostel, these two gentlemen caught up to us and passed us. One was 96, and he was accompanied by his "young friend" who was only about 78.
This was the 96-year-old. Is the fountain of youth in the Scottish air or something?
And now we reach the Ben Nevis hostel in Fort William, the end of our trip:
Ben Nevis is Britain's highest peak at 4406 feet. Sounds like nothing for us, but I gather conditions can get quite harsh up there.
You simply cross the road from the hostel, and a small footbridge, and you are at the Ben Nevis "trailhead."
The hike up Ben Nevis was not on our official group itinerary, although of course once the West Highland Way is done you could go do whatever you want. I had a bus seat reserved back to Glasgow at noon, and trains to catch and people to see, so I didn't have time, much to my eternal regret.
Next morning we had breakfast in Fort William and I remember getting the first decent cup of coffee in a week.
The end of the "Way."
Lots of people in our group were catching that noon bus (I think the next one wasn't for a couple of days) so we decided to go part way up Ben Nevis. We made it half way.
Oh yes and the skies cleared completely and the sun came out in its full glory. Apparently this is rare in Scotland and we'd have been able to see practically the whole country from the top. But I had to get that bus. Did I mention that eternal regret?
I think this is the only picture I took of Glasgow, early morning. It was before digital so I guess I must have been conserving film:
I thought I saw Anthony Hopkins coming out of the train station in Glasgow but I couldn't be sure.
And finally, back at my aunt and uncle's house in the Lake District with their dog Meg after the trip.
I had just bought that sweater as I'd just come from shorts/t-shirt weather in Vancouver and it turned out to be the coldest May in England in anyone's recent memory. It send me shivering and screaming to the local woolens shop. I just realized I'm wearing that sweater right now as I write this. I look all vibrant and healthy but in reality I'd just come down with a nasty cold and was in pain from throwing my back out coughing. Miserable way to end a trip. Great trip all in all, and I'd recommend it to anyone. It's especially nice that you can sleep in cozy inns and drink in pubs along the way.
I haven't done any hiking in Britain since, but it's my dream to one day complete the Coast to Coast Walk. Stay tuned...