The story of how we hiked the West HIghland Way in 7 days, fell in love with the highlands and then climbed Ben Nevis on the 8th day is a little long for one post, so my plan is to post a day at a time. I figure if I sit here writing for a few evenings then it may even give my beleaguered knees a chance to recover…
Day 1 – Milngavie to Garadhban Forest (14 miles)
Scottish people love to give advice. We discovered this on the train from London as the two lovely Scottish women we met on the train, who knew neither us, nor each other, regaled us with useful tips regarding everything from where to eat the first night in Glasgow (Paesano Pizza in Miller Street, cheap and delicious. Good advice, it turned out) to earnest exhortations not to try to climb the Devil’s Staircase on the strength of a goat’s cheese salad alone, but to be sure to stock up on something suitably meaty and fortifying at that stage of the walk.
Just as we were learning that the best thing for warding off midges is undoubtedly Avon skin-so-soft, a random unrelated Scottish chap passed by on his way to the toilet. ‘Ah’ he said, leaning conspiratorially over my loved one’s shoulder to shake an adamant finger ‘But it has tae be the green label…’
Having spent the night in an Easyhotel room not much bigger than our tent would be, and had a last luxurious shower (well, shower. It wasn’t that luxurious, it had a toilet in it) we caught the train to Milngavie (pronounced Mil-guy, obviously) and the closer we got, the more it rained. Into the waterproof trousers, on with the pack raincovers, and we set off giggling over the inevitable deluge.
The start of the West HIghland Way is marked by a granite obelisk in the centre of the town, where all the shoppers look at you with a kind of gentle pitying condescension, or maybe that was just because we were already soaked. And then you’re off, under a jaunty banner, past the West Highland Way inscribed benches and through a sort of country park, which is already prettier than those we have at home, and frequented by many a stream, or possibly brook. The sound of Scotland is the sound of running water.
At lunch time we arrived at Beech Tree Inn, which was very cute, obviously set up for walkers and even had an outdoor picnic area. The landlady was thrilled to allow us in out of the rain, until she realised we weren’t having lunch, a mere drink and toilet stop didn’t cut it for warm welcomes. The smiles disappeared. But happily the sun made an appearance, and we were able to break out the little Windburner stove without getting soup full of rain. Hurray!
The way continues, still very civilised at this point, along a wide path with fields either side. It’s a gentle start that allows you to get used to carrying the unaccustomed weight of a pack on your back. And also to find your balance – it turns out that a pack that size has momentum. You turn too sharply to look at a pleasing view and your pack keeps going, threatening to sweep you off your feet. The first day was punctuated by the sound of us exclaiming to each other ‘Oooh, look at thaaaa… erk!!’
There was a brief exciting false alarm later in the afternoon when it looked like there may be a pub looming on the right, but it turned out to be a distillery so we walked on through the rain, past the town of Drymen and into Garadhban forest, where we planned to wild camp. Garadhban forest is a pine plantation which stretches for a couple of miles between Drymen and the start of the approach to Loch Lomond on the second day. Up into the trees we went, finding that the ground is enchantingly moss covered, very lumpy and not especially conducive to pitching a tent. But luckily our tent is very small, and we found a flattish spot, even if we did feel rather like we were sliding out of the tent door all night.
Note the arrangement of branches that slightly disguises the tent from any passers by in the photo above. We didn’t build that, it was there when we arrived. The more sinister connotations of this didn’t really hit us until after we turned off the torch and were enveloped by darkness so complete that I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed… I held the loved one’s hand going to sleep that night. No reason.
But in the morning we were blissfully un-murdered, the rain had stopped, tiny mushrooms had sprung up overnight all over the entire forest floor, which seemed magical (Actually they may even have been magical, we didn’t eat any to check) and the dappled sunlight through the pine trees was utterly beautiful. Even the thought of a 4 mile hike before morning coffee was not enough to dampen our spirits.
To be continued…