Welcome to the West Highland Way: LEJoG Day 67
Day 67 pre-amble
This is the first day of the best long-distance walk I’ve completed so far: the West Highland Way. It’s also a strong contender for the best day of my LEJoG so far. Certainly it was the most memorable since Malham Cove and Pen-y-ghent (Day 46).
The post title is of course a pun on this Booker Prize-winning novel, later a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. On one level it’s meant to capture my feelings at the end of the day, looking forward to what remains of the Way. But on another… well, see the long postscript. This postscript is a follow-up to the one from Day 66, and like that it’s part-inspired by the ‘Head’ posts I’ve been working on. As before, as ever, you can read or ignore. From Day 68 onwards, Foot and Head will be separated again – hopefully those who follow both will see why I brought them together on Days 66 and 67.
Right then: next stop Milngavie (pronounced “mull-guy”, don’t forget!)
LEJoG Day 67 (Thursday 17 September 2020)
Milngavie to Balmaha (19 miles)
Cumulative: 971 miles
Facts: Time on walk: 5 hours 40 minutes. Average speed: 3.35 miles per hour. Weather: Perfect all day. No, really. Blue sky, not too warm, a little breeze.
Practicalities: Took the train to Milngavie via Edinburgh on Wednesday. The train company’s social distancing policy had changed since August, so people were now sitting on consecutive rows and there were more bodies within 2 metres of each other. This seemed a little complacent, but once off the train all other COVID policies in Scotland were instantly recognisable from August. I might mention it in passing once or twice, but enforcement and compliance were robust throughout the week. Stayed at the Premier Inn, Milngavie on Wednesday night and ate at the Beefeater next door.
One major reason for this being such a great week was that I used Sherpa Van to transfer most of my spare clothes, toiletries and other luggage, carrying only a 30-litre day pack, food and water. This was the first time I’d used their luggage service since the Coast to Coast in 2017. Cannot recommend them highly enough: peace of mind and relaxation for little more than £10 per day. Dropped off the rucksack for the first time at 8am on Thursday, before breakfast at 9am. Later than I wanted, but the restaurant was fully booked at my preferred times. The hotel is a 15-minute walk from the station, and there’s an extra 5 minutes to the start of the West Highland Way.
Start: Obelisk at the start of the West Highland Way, Milngavie, 11am. End: Opposite Oak Tree Inn, Balmaha, 5:25pm.
The guidebook for today, and the rest of the West Highland Way, is the Trailblazer guide (mine was the 6th edition, the link is to the 7th).
Well, we begin with an attractive frieze showing some landmarks along the Way and their respective mileages from Milngavie. I tried to take a widescreen picture in order to show as many of these as possible, but it was impractical due to the narrow walkway and the presence of other people. So I settled for the main attraction of Day 1 and viewpoint for the header image, Conic Hill.
It was actually 19 miles to Balmaha
The West Highland Way is 96 miles long in total. Now, the recommended first stage per my guidebook is the 12 miles from Milngavie to Drymen. I’m guessing that’s what most of the 30-40 people dropping off their bags with Sherpa Van were aiming for today. Usually I’d also be happier with a moderate start to ease myself in. But my plan was always to climb Ben Nevis (weather permitting) at the end of the walk, and possibly Buachaille Etive Mor on my rest day near Glencoe. I had seven walking days planned. Therefore I wanted lower mileage towards the end, and this meant going well past halfway by day three. A long opener also granted me the bonus of reaching Loch Lomond by the first evening. Sure, Conic Hill promised to be a test, but I set out hoping I’d made the right decision.
The first couple of miles of easy walking take you through Allander Park and Mugdock Wood. As you start to emerge from the woods, look out for the first view of Dumgoyne in the middle distance. You can’t miss it really: a strikingly prominent hill and a tantalising hint of the scenery to come. I got my camera-phone out at this point… only to find the battery had fallen below 10% and I couldn’t take a shot. This was particularly irritating because I’d switched it off to conserve battery life, wanting to ensure it was ready for the views from Conic Hill. Yes my phone needs an upgrade… but really this was a lesson for the future. If (pandemic permitting) you really want to climb Olympus and Kilimanjaro, and walk the Inca Trail, get yourself a proper camera!
Craigallian Loch, next to the gently rising path out of the woods, was another decent little photo opportunity missed. However, the point where the absence of a camera was most keenly felt is described by Trailblazer thus (Map 3, page 107 of the 6th edition):
Cross stone wall – stunning views: the Campsie Fells to the east, the volcanic conical hills of wooded Dumgoyach and Dumgoyne beyond, all the way to Ben Lomond on the horizon, the start of the Highlands.
I defy you not to grin like a child at this, the first great reveal of the West Highland Way. You come through a gate and POW! It’s wonderful – the aforementioned hills are in sight for most of the next hour, and all the time you’re heading towards those proper mountains on the horizon. I could barely stop smiling. And the weather was absolutely glorious. All that August misery of canal walking in the pouring rain, or being pummelled by high winds while stumbling through fog above Yair… well now it was worth every sodden minute.
I’d say the only possible quibble about the first third of the walk (from Milngavie to the Beech Tree Inn) is the narrow grassy path running parallel to the A81. Purely because it’s difficult to overtake slower walkers, and it’s quite heavily used by cyclists. And yes, that’s a very minor quibble. Had I been stopping at Drymen rather than Balmaha, I may well have paid a visit to Glengoyne Distillery, about 5 minutes to the right of this path. Don’t worry though – I more than made up for it with whisky sampling in the Highland evenings.
A couple of dozen walkers had stopped for lunch near the Beech Tree. The inn came highly recommended by the guidebook, and I wanted to sample its food and drink. Sadly, both gates were locked, which probably explained why the others were all sat on walls and benches outside. I carried on towards Killearn (slightly off trail) and Gartness. The three miles between the Beech Tree and Gartness isn’t the most memorable section of the walk, it must be said. The main path stays fairly narrow, there are numerous gates and road crossings, and the Highland views are frequently obscured by trees and hedgerows. There’s another good lunch option at the Oakwood Garden Centre and Cafe, but with social distancing in mind I pressed on to the picnic tables and honesty box just after Gartness. Drinks and ice-creams were advertised but not available – fortunately I had malt loaf, a protein bar and Lucozade orange with me.
About half a dozen other walkers were there at the same time, and another 10 or so passed during my 20-minute stop (2:00 – 2:20). Already I was aware that the West Highland Way is the busiest walking route covered so far in my 67 days. The Pennine Way exceeded this footfall only at Malham and possibly Kinder; the South West Coast Path never matched it, although the beaches were obviously busy. The Coast to Coast in the Lake District was busier though. With that, you did end up meeting the same people every day as the overwhelming majority of walkers choose the same stops. The West Highland Way doesn’t quite work like that. There are several possible permutations in the first 70 miles, and only when you reach Kingshouse do the options narrow.
The road stretch after my lunch stop was probably the quickest walking of the day. I caught up with and overtook most of those who’d passed me while I was eating. Even though I had 8 miles to go, including a steep climb, I was pressing the accelerator and thoroughly enjoying my work. This was easily the best walking so far in Scotland, and the most purely pleasurable section of LEJoG since at least the Yorkshire Dales. I barely noticed the passing of Drymen, 40 minutes after leaving the picnic area and half a mile from the path.
Beyond Drymen, there’s a gentle climb to the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, where you cross the Rob Roy Way. A narrow path leading away from the A811 bypass soon turns into a wide track, not dissimilar to the quarry road between Carlops and West Linton. This is about as good as it gets for a walker hoping to make quick, untroubled progress. No gates, no bikes, no waiting behind, no steep hills, no cows, no obstacles of any kind. Round about here I was wondering if something was bound to go awry, as everything seemed to be working out too well. But no. And the best was yet to come.
After a couple of miles on the track, there’s a fork where you have the option of taking an easier, lower route via Milton of Buchanan, or the more testing standard route via Conic Hill. You already know which I chose. A gate takes you into an expanse of moorland, with Conic Hill clearly visible ahead. It doesn’t look that steep, but after almost 15 miles without a real climb I guarantee it will sap the energy. The guidebook actually describes it as the hardest ascent on the whole West Highland Way. I think the Devil’s Staircase (Day 6, or LEJoG Day 72) was tougher, but then again there’s a very good reason why that might be the case for me but not in general.
I caught a group of male walkers just before the ascent proper, and overtook a mixed group on the lower slopes. I was flying all day really, partly because of my chosen listening (see postscript below) but mainly because this was such a great reminder of why I became a keen hiker in the first place. I think it was also a belated substitute for not having been able to make it to the Lake District this year. The sense of freedom was similarly palpable. Of course I did start to flag a bit as I climbed more of Conic Hill, but once on the crest I had another surge. Just as you begin to descend the main path towards Loch Lomond, there’s a path to your left which takes you to the actual summit of Conic Hill. On another 19-mile day I might have spurned it: today it was never in doubt.
The header photo, and those below, were taken from the summit. Yes, my phone battery had recovered, which was a bonus, although it did annoy me that I hadn’t been able to photograph Dumgoyne or the Conic Hill approach earlier.
Views of Loch Lomond and islands from Conic Hill
Top to bottom: looking due west, west again, north west, south west (including southern tip)
The 15-20 minutes I spent atop Conic Hill might have been the most uplifting of LEJoG so far. One aspect of that will be discussed in the postscript, although be in no doubt that other factors were just as important. The views themselves rivalled anything in the previous 66 days, and there was also genuine excitement about Loch Lomond and the mountain scenery to come.
I shared the summit with maybe half a dozen others, and there were perhaps 10 on the way up. The descent to Balmaha was a lot busier. There must have been a hundred or more people making their way up on the south side (considerably steeper, incidentally). Social distancing was still easy enough, I hasten to add. In fact, in these awful, unnaturally suppressed times there was a glimmer of hope and delight in seeing so many people determined to enjoy the great outdoors while they could.
All of this meant that I was in a joyous mood as I approached the harbour village of Balmaha. You’d never have known I’d walked 19 miles to get there. If you have the energy and want to really throw yourself into the WHW from the start, I would thoroughly recommend this as an alternative to spending night 1 in Drymen.
After the walk
Checked in at the Oak Tree Inn (pictured above). It’s on the expensive side, but believe me when you’re in bunkhouses later in the week you’ll be glad you spent a bit extra for some luxury. The accommodation is superb – pods set aside from the main restaurant and cafe, about 50-100 yards along the road and down a drive. Each room in the pod includes a double bed, a well-furnished lounge (two sofas, chair, desk, large TV) and smaller though adequate bathroom. My TV had Netflix and I was able to watch all four parts of this terrific documentary after my evening meal. The menu is also pretty decent and there’s an extensive whiksy selection. If this sounds like promotion, it’s not – firstly I think the contrast in WHW accommodation makes the hotels and meals worth talking about in more detail than usual, and secondly I saw this as my main holiday of the year, and wanted to feel like I’d experienced more of Scotland than just its scenery. Even if, in these straitened and socially distant (how I hate that phrase) times, that just meant trying more single malts (Speyside tonight, by the way).
Postscript: My Listening Pleasure, and a sequel
So, my listening pleasure today: for the first 4-5 hours, I just played my favourite record from this time of year, going back from 2016 to 1955. And after that, while scaling, summiting and descending Conic Hill…
Indulge me: I need to talk about this album. It’s ten years old, and I cannot believe it has only been in my life for such a short time. 7 weeks at the time of writing, a mere 6 days at the time of this walk. I knew ‘Dancing On My Own‘, of course, but probably didn’t love it as much as many people whose opinions I respect. And ‘With Every Heartbeat‘ is one of the best no.1 singles of the 21st century. Body Talk is something I was vaguely aware of: a three-mini-album project that was combined into one full-sized album, regarded as highly influential on 2010s pop music. As pretty much all my favourite music of the 2010s is by women, I thought it must be worth investigating, particularly after a summer rediscovering Girls Aloud. But how good could it be, really?
It stunned me on first listen. It flabbergasted me on second, the same night. Seemingly every trope, every sentiment, every type of verse, chorus and bridge I’d ever loved in 21st century fem-pop, distilled into one brilliant album. There isn’t a track anything less than amazing until the tenth. Of the 15 tracks, 12 are genuinely outstanding. And I haven’t even mentioned the lyrics.
After a few listens, I began to notice lines and situations that were astonishingly resonant for me, like perhaps no album since Pulp’s Different Class in the mid-90s. But back then I was an intelligent, self-aware young man, like the lyricist. Now I’m a man in my 40s and Robyn is, of course, female (31 at the time of release). Let’s say this: hetereosexual men are not her natural fanbase. Some would frown upon a straight man delighting in these “sad bangers”. And yet, I feel strongly that her lyrics are universal: that a straight man can experience heartbreak in the way it’s defined here, get over it in the same way and recapture joy in the way she does. Let’s take a look:
Most obviously, there’s ‘Dancing On My Own’ itself. I was doing a lot of that in the 18 months before the pandemic hit. Having finally returned to my pre-illness weight, waist size and fitness, it was hugely significant and symbolic for me to hit a dancefloor again and still be able to attract attention from women. It didn’t matter that I was on my own: it gave me huge confidence. While retaining a broader perspective and remaining disciplined, dancing is the thing I miss most in our post-lockdown existence. As for the specific situation Robyn’s singing about – yes I’ve been there. With Mia. Publicly, I tried to respond, like Robyn, by dancing my way through it. Not emoting like Calum Scott in his truly abysmal cover version (a contender for worst ever, I’d say).
Body Talk sometimes feels like a concept album about dancing your way through heartbreak towards some kind of catharsis. Many tracks directly reference terpsichorean activity and the emotions it provokes. In ‘Dancehall Queen’ Robyn sums up much of my dancefloor life in the 18 months before COVID:
I take the bus to town/Sit in the back and talk to no-one/I got the high heels on/I go out dancing all by my own
(in my case a tram and shoes, but yep)
Soon as I get inside/I lose myself
Until the music stop, you know/I still run this thing like a dancehall queen/I really don’t want no hassle
(I’d stay all night; I have the energy of a man 20 years younger)
I came to dance, not to socialize
(damn right, but I do need people)
Then there’s ‘In My Eyes‘:
We all fall apart and make mistakes
Don’t you know when nothing ever seem to make sense
You put your dancing shoes on and do it again
And the push-pull between heartbreak and catharsis? It’s everywhere. The magnificent ‘Indestructible’, for instance:
And I never was smart with love
I let the bad ones in and the good ones go, but
I’m gonna love you like I’ve never been hurt before
I’m gonna love you like I’m indestructible
The untrammelled euphoria of that ‘…like I’ve never been hurt before’ needs to be heard really. It’s how I should have been in 2005, it’s how I should still be. But the past weighs me down, and:
So all I need is a time machine
A one way track
‘Cause I’m taking it back, taking it back
All I want is a DeLorean
If I could go just like that
I’ll be taking it back, taking it back
But you can’t. I’m talking about Mia again, by the way. There’s much more of this in ‘Anatomy of a Breakdown: Parts II and III’ over on the ‘Head’ blog. Or there will be when I finally finish writing them. For the here and now, there’s just the memory that we both loved dancing, and when presented with the opportunity to dance with her, I stopped myself. When presented with the opportunity to kiss her and possibly sleep with her, I stopped myself. And I broke my own heart as a result.
I hope you can see why music has played such a prominent role in this blog. It’s the best available shorthand for conveying human emotion. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that pop has enabled me to stay sane and well-adjusted after a massive breakdown. That’s why I’m completely unashamed in my love of what some dismiss as shallow “girls’ music”. When it’s done brilliantly, it can be revelatory. I was brought up on Diana Ross, adored Madonna as a teenager, have gone back to Blondie, ABBA and disco in recent years. Yet I spent a lot of my 20s and early 30s still listening to the Smiths, and deeply regret it now. How self-indulgent it seems. It allowed a mind like mine an excuse for inaction, for dwelling on emotions rather than moving gloriously past them. It was Calum Scott, not Robyn.
Where’s all this going? Well, let’s hang with Robyn again:
Just don’t fall recklessly, headlessly in love with me
‘Cause it’s gonna be
All heartbreak, blissfully painful and insanity
I did though, didn’t I? If I hadn’t fallen in love with Mia, she wouldn’t haunt me this much. And, before I move away from Body Talk, I’ll finish with the brutal truth of (imo) its greatest track.
If you’re looking for love
Get a heart made of steel ’cause you know that love kills
Don’t go messing with love
It’ll hurt you for real, don’t you know that love kills?
Protect yourself ’cause you’ll wreck yourself
In this cold hard world, so check yourself
You conceal your dreams and you shield yourself
‘Til that one kind soul reveals itself
Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) and Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) sharing body talk
Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?
Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?
(Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains Of The Day)
And now you understand the title of the post, right?
Picture (taken 17 September 2020) shows the view of Loch Lomond and Inchcailloch from Conic Hill: it’s the best of the half dozen or so photos I took from the topological and spiritual highpoint of today’s walk.
Next: Day 68 (18 September 2020)… in which the skies tell the story.
PPS: my apologies if the line spacing between paragraphs and titles goes off on one after the ‘Love Kills’ quote. I’m doing it properly here, but the previews are telling me there are no spaces between ‘Love Kills’ and the film still and I don’t know how to correct that.