Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Fort William to Laggan

I am sitting in a rather comfy seat in a hostel in Fort William, looking back at a good (if rather wet) 23-mile walk along the Great Glen Way. I've just finished typing up a first draft of my notes, and thought that I would post them here for your amusement. Given that this was written after a couple of pints of seventy shilling and a whisky chaser, it might be absolute tosh...

               Just over ten years ago I walked the middle two-thirds of the Great Glen Way as part of my rather altered plans to walk from fort William to Cape Wrath. That journey was slightly more adventurous than I like, and I have always wanted to complete the top and bottom segments of the trail. I therefore set off from Cambridge yesterday in what turned out to be a ten-hour drive to Fort William. The Bank House Lodge was full, so I travelled a couple of miles out of the town to a rather good hostel in Banavie, had dinner at the Lochy Inn and then went to bed, dead tired.
                I awoke early in the morning but waited until after seven before heading off. Sun  had been streaming through the hostel’s window when I set off, but by the time I parked up in the long-stay car park (1.50 per hour) by the station in Fort William it had started drizzling, the only upside being a rather lovely rainbow over Loch Eil. Because it was only a light drizzle, I headed off wit just my black fleece on as I walked to the start of the trail, marked by a stone monument on the grass in the old fort.
                The rain started to get heavier as I took photos of the startpoint and it seemed like a good idea to head off. Unfortunately the downpour increased, and I was soon hiding under a petrol station canopy as I got my coat on. I then made my one and only mistake of the day – I took the wrong path out of the town, following a road that I had walked along on a previous visit instead of a path – I soon rejoined the path proper at a shinty pitch.
                Shortly after this the path crossed the River Nevis and soon afterwards there was a split in the paths; the main path was guarded by warning of floods, and the other a wet-weather alternative. Despite the rain I chose the former and was soon heading through a delightful area of sparse woodland. I soon came across the floods – two footbridges that were so close to the water that the planks sploshed down into it as I crossed. Crimson carriages soon became visible off to the right, above which was some smoke – I guess a steam locomotive getting ready for a journey.
                Both the path and the weather had dried out by the time the Soldier’s Brudge came into view – this wooden structure spans the River Lochy beside a rather more substantial railway bridge, and it took me safely across the water to a road on the other side. There is not much to be said about the next mile or so of the walk, which took me along roads and past the start of Loch Linnhe. Two boats were heading towards land, and the summit of Ben Nevis behind me had its head firmly in the clouds.
                This path led me onto the main objective off the trail – the Caledonian Canal. I stopped to take a few photos of the loch and then headed off. After passing the Lochy, where I ate last night, I approached the two swing bridges that take the railway and the main road to Mallaig over the canal, an then reached Neptune’s Staircase. This set of locks is really quite special – they are far broader than most locks in this country (having been designed to take sea-going ships) and stride imperiously up the hillside. It is a magnificent sight, although it is a shame that the best views can only be obtained from the air.
                Sadly the top of the incline was the start of what was a fairly ordinary six mile stroll along the towpath of the Caledonian Canal. Some of the views over towards the hills to the left were superb, but the ones down towards the river far below were sadly blocked by trees, with only silvery glints visible. The sun had come out, however, meaning that I was soon roasting in both my fleece and coat. I did not bother to drop down to examine either of the two aqueducts on the route, but I was impressed by the superb iron swing bridge at Moy. This is the only non-automated bridge on the canal, and as it is in two halves the operator has to go across the canal in a boat to open the other side! An information board beside the bridge told of how a captain of a ship had been fined when he had gone through the bridge without it being officially opened – one can only assume he opened it himself.
                I was thankful when the canal took me out to the lock and swing bridge at Gairlochy. Two men were lifting their canoes out of the water at the bottom of the lock,a nd I met up with one of them at the swing bridge that carries the main road over the river. They were both rowing the canal, and were planning to take four days in the process – the same time it would take me to walk it. I had heard rumours of a cafe here, but I knew that I was pressed for time if I was going to catch the 16.06 bus and so pressed on.
                Initially the path followed the road, but soon it was heading up above the road, before diverting down to cross the road and on towards the shoreline. What followed was the best bit of the trail I saw all day – a rollercoaster of a path that granted superb views across the length of Loch Lochy. The small pepperpot whitewashed lighthouse was visible behind, guiding boats into the lock, and ahead the clouds threatened more rain. For the moment, however, I was in heaven as I strolled confidently along. Sadly it had to end, and it did so as the trail dumped me unceremoniously out onto a road.
                This took me on towards Achnacarry, where I knew that there was a museum dedicated to the Clan Cameron that I would not have minded visiting. Sadly a sign stated that this did not open for another hour, and instead I strode on along the road, which passed through a area with a very colourful collection of broad-leaved trees; yellows, greens and vivid reds all being visible. The road soon led onto a track at Clunes, which passed a forest school before heading on.
                Last time I walked this way – over ten years ago – I had done so in the company of an American who, instead of a rucksack, was carrying a large roll-bag in each hand. It looked terribly uncomfortable, but his insistence on asking me the Latin name of each tree we passed proved incredibly grating. I soon overhauled a couple walking in the same direction, and we walked together for the rest of the day. They were from Belgium and annoyingly young, but I could forgive them that as they turned out to be absolutely A1 company. We chatted as we walked along, admiring the occasional views across the loch when gaps in the trees allowed them, and also the rushing water that burst down the hillsides.
                They had started off from Fort William on Tuesday, and therefore had caught the worst of yesterday’s rain. A kind landlady had dried all their clothes after they realised that their rucksack covers were not quite as waterproof as they should have been. The miles just flew by in their company, which was a good thing as the track itself was far from interesting. Gaps in the trees offered occasional tantalising glimpses over the loch below, but these were few and far between. Instead we chatted away – perhaps I should try doing less solo walking in future...
                The rain kept on coming and going; it was never particularly hard and only proved annoying. Eventually civilisation intruded in the form of wooden holiday huts, and I had t explain to the Belgians what a cattle grid is! It is surprising the way that something that can seem ever-present and obvious can be unusual for someone with even slightly different life experiences. I left them behind at Laggan Locks and walked on, but they caught me up as I left the trail and joined the main road.
                They were spending the night at the Great Glen Hostel just down the road, but my stopping place was a bus stop, which, according to the timetable, was 150 metres north of the hostel beside a postbox. This seemed a rather specific location and more like instructions from a spy novel than a bus stop. However there was a postbox at the right place, next to a muddy layby. There was no sign of a bus stop, however, and so I was nervous right until the bus pulled up beside me. The journey back was enlivened by part of the ceiling falling off and hitting a passenger; fortunately she was not injured, but it looked like a painful hit. I must remember not to sit under large signs in the front of a coach...
                Once back in Fort William, I walked the short stretch of path that I had missed off yesterday, then headed off to the nearby McDonalds. I am not really a fan of their food, but sometimes I have a creeping desire for it. It had been a good, long day’s walk, and one that had been enlivened by some good company.

1 comment:

Stephen Fairclough said...

Great to read about your adventures (Stephen at Chase The Wild Goose Hostel)