A foot injury is no obstacle to LEJoG Day 74
Day 74 pre-amble
The long-awaited return to Fort William and LEJoG followed an extremely difficult autumn and winter. It’s not really the place to discuss Covid-19, but the virus cast a very long shadow over all aspects of life in Britain between September 2020 (when I finished the West Highland Way) and July 2021 (when I arrived in Fort William for the Great Glen Way). My own mood crashed almost immediately after returning from the WHW, as it soon became clear things were spiralling out of control again. The sole consolation is that my family has so far been unaffected; a few friends have had mild illness without requiring hospitalisation. The psychological/social impact – on a personal and collective scale – is something I may address in the ‘Head’ section. But not yet.
Anyway, spring was more optimistic, as all trends continued downwards and people began to look forward to re-opening and some semblance of normality. This was jeopardised by the Delta variant, and the government’s inconceivably lax attitude to its import and spread. At the time I started the Great Glen Way, the planned lifting of restrictions had been delayed from June 21st to July 19th. There remained dire warnings about future case numbers. However, even ultra ultra-cautious people (me for certain) had begun to grow weary and revise their assessment of risk against the disastrous long-term effects of social isolation. The night before travelling to Scotland, I had been out with my best mate and seriously talked about returning to nightclubs when they re-opened. Although about 40:60 against, I could no longer maintain my previous binary, uncompromising attitude to safety.
During spring, I did more walking than I had in many months, including my longest ever (28 miles, with extra at start and end), the Nine Edges Walk on Saturday 29th May. The downside of this was picking up my first ever overuse injury, a sore left heel which (at time of writing) seems to be a permanent condition requiring sensible management and lower mileage. This of course gives me the title for today’s stage. I had to floor it, however flawed.
Back in 2003/04 I was advised to give up running after a knee injury and several failed steroid injections, which was upsetting. In the time of Covid, this heel complaint was a mere trifle.
LEJoG Day 74 (Sunday 18 July 2021)
Fort William to Gairlochy (11 miles)
Cumulative: 1,059½ miles
Facts: Time on walk: 3 hours 5 minutes. Average speed: 3.57 mph. Weather: Cloudy, mild, dry (light rain previous evening).
Practicalities: Caught a morning train from home to Manchester, then another to Lancaster and a third to Glasgow. Stayed in Glasgow overnight on Friday 16 July. Thought I was in the same Ibis Styles hotel as in September 2020 but had actually booked its sister hotel about 10 minutes walk away. Ate there in the evening: very good pizza!
I was carrying a large backpack and my day pack on the trains. Thankfully I’d been able to arrange a baggage service for the Great Glen Way itself. As Sherpa Van wasn’t taking bookings until 2022, I used Loch Ness Travel, who were reasonably priced and very efficient.
Caught the lunchtime (only) train from Glasgow to Fort William on Saturday 17th, passing many a West Highland Way memory along the way. Mask compliance was very strong in both England and Scotland by the way. A heatwave had been forecast for most of Britain this week. Friday was very warm, and Saturday started off even warmer, but as we neared Fort William this gave way to cooler temperatures and cloud. As mentioned above there was some rain, when I went out to locate the start of the GGW.
Stayed at the Alexandra Hotel again; had my evening meal there. I would like to have had another crack at Ben Nevis, but it’s all about time and money. Scotland will be more expensive because of the travel costs involved in returning to and from starting and finishing bases. That said I managed to book trains for £66 to Fort William and £55 back from Inverness, which in this day and age was a fantastic bargain.
On the morning, had breakfast and stayed in the room for as long as possible before check-out. It would be a short, flat day’s walk and I didn’t want to arrive too early at my next accommodation.
Start: End of the West Highland Way, Fort William, 10:45am. End: Swing bridge, Gairlochy, 2:05pm.
After a slow lunch and some reading at Gairlochy I walked to the B&B in Spean Bridge. The Trailblazer Great Glen Way guidebook (link below) says this is a 3-mile walk but my Fitbit said over 3½. It took an hour. Not to be underestimated if you’re planning a Great Glen Way walk, and there’s only one B&B in Gairlochy itself so you probably will have to factor in Spean Bridge.
Most of today’s stage can be followed on OS Explorer 392 (Ben Nevis and Fort William, link on Day 73). The last mile to Gairlochy is on OS Explorer 400 (Loch Lochy and Glen Roy), as is the whole of the extra walk to Spean Bridge. I am also using my last (sob!) Trailblazer guide, to the Great Glen Way. The link is to the 2nd edition; I was using the 1st.
Task number one was to walk south from the Alexandra Hotel to the end of the West Highland Way. Throughout LEJoG I have insisted on starting exactly where I finished on the previous section. Today this meant an extra ¾ mile (approx) was added to the official length of the first stage of the Great Glen Way.
That first ¾ mile is mainly spent walking beside Loch Linnhe, a considerably more attractive setting than the early part of the GGW itself.
Fort William pier, jutting into Loch Linnhe
The official start of the Great Glen Way, just before the McDonald’s roundabout and petrol station
Welcome bench and sign, at the start of the footpath proper
It is, to be fair, an unprepossessing start. From the road past Loch Linnhe, you have to negotiate a busy roundabout to reach the first footpath. This is quite narrow, also used as a national cycle route, and offers only views of residential property for the first 5-10 minutes. Soon enough however you are heading through woodland with the local dog-walkers, and then into open fields.
The first ‘landmark’ is Soldier’s Bridge, over the River Lochy to the small town of Lochyside.
Soldier’s Bridge: arrival, and view towards the hills on the western side of Loch Linnhe
From here, the town streets take you along the north shore of Loch Linnhe to Caol. Here I passed a middle-aged lady who said it was a perfect day for walking. I would have liked it less cloudy (had my jacket in the backpack in case of rain) but gave her my assent anyway. At least it wasn’t red hot… today. Minor spoiler there.
The best advert for this entire section of the walk is the retrospective views of Ben Nevis and Fort William.
Ben Nevis from Caol
Fort William/Loch Linnhe from Caol
Shortly after Caol the warm-up is over. No, you don’t suddenly start climbing Munros (more’s the pity, perhaps). A sharp turn north, a small climb up some steps, and you’re by the Caledonian Canal. And this, fellow LEJoGgers, will be by your left side for the remaining 7½ miles to Gairlochy. Now, I grew up in a small canal town, so I’ve done far more than my fair share of this kind of walking. I’ll be honest: I don’t find it very inspiring. And I think this is even more so the case when:
- I now live in a city with easy access to the Peak District and my favourite type of walking
- The West Highland Way (just gone) was probably the best section of LEJoG so far
But, that said, the surroundings are pretty enough for it to feel like real country walking. This is not true of where I grew up! And it’s far superior to the suburban stroll from Fort William to Caol. So, head down, don’t expect too much, take in what you can. My general impression during planning was that the Great Glen Way was always going to be in the West Highland Way’s shadow. I can confirm though that day 1 (of 5 in my case) is by far the least interesting, and the rest of the walk more than justifies the GGW’s status as a grand National Trail in itself.
Signpost to Inverness, on joining the Caledonian Canal towpath
So what’s in store on the towpath then? Well, it’s not that far (maybe about half an hour) to my lunchtime stop (12:10 – 12:25) at Neptune’s Staircase. Shortly after you pass under the A830 road bridge, there’s a sequence of eight locks which carry the Caledonian Canal from sea level to a height of 19 metres. Which perhaps doesn’t sound all that spectacular, but it is the visual highlight of the day and an actual tourist attraction.
Neptune’s Staircase: sign
Neptune’s Staircase: view from the top (lunch stop)
Look, the Falkirk Wheel it ain’t, but on the plus side I wasn’t being soaked to a lather today either. The towpath was pretty busy, albeit mainly south of the A830, and the Staircase attracted a couple of dozen visitors and picnickers.
North of the Staircase, the walking was uneventful and very quiet, but swift. There genuinely isn’t much to see apart from relatively small peaks and forest. The header photo of the Moy Swing Bridge shows the most appealing feature on the canal itself. As you can probably tell, I’m keen to move on to the more aesthetically gratifying days 2-5 (of which 3 and 4 are a cut above).
Gairlochy Swing Bridge marks the end of the stage and the southern tip of Loch, er, Lochy. There are some picnic tables, where I had lunch before the drag to Spean Bridge.
End of the stage at Gairlochy
After the walk
The walk to Spean Bridge really is a drag. Sure, there’s some great scenery, including views of Ben Nevis (see tomorrow’s post, when the skies were clearer). But most of it is on a narrow country road, and the verges are barely adequate in places. Obviously it’s well-used by walkers, so drivers are pretty considerate. But I would seriously consider trying to book the sole B&B in Gairlochy or at least reserving a spot at The Old Pines, only 2 miles from Gairlochy and still 1½ before Spean Bridge centre.
Perversely, it’s a relief to reach the main A82 road into Spean Bridge proper. Even though it’s busy and noisy, there’s a pavement (and it’s all downhill into town). My flawed heel was really aching by now, and I knew I had 25 miles (plus the extra between Spean Bridge and Gairlochy) to do tomorrow.
Arrived at the OYO Inverour Guest House right on time for check-in at 4pm. There was no response to the doorbell and it was a while before I realised you could walk straight in via the front door and then ring an internal doorbell for service. On the whole it was the least well-equipped and least friendly of my five B&Bs/hotels, but that’s slightly unfair as two or three were genuinely outstanding and one was a LEJoG podium contender.
The heel is especially difficult after serious walking: barefoot movement is painful and walking in trainers not entirely comfortable. I’d already prepared for this by ordering some decent orthotics for my boots, and I cut them to fit in my room this evening. Considered using only the left one, but with nearly 30 miles in store I didn’t want to risk gait issues on top.
Pre-booked virtually all my restaurants this week, due to Covid and the high number of people choosing “staycations” in Britain. [Note: this meant higher accommodation prices across the board all week. I estimate my mark-up was about 40% on average, with one luxury hotel and one 4-star along with two premium B&Bs] Spean Bridge’s most recommended place, Russell’s Restaurant, was fully booked (and virtually nextdoor) so I had a 10-minute walk to the Old Station Restaurant. Other than being given a rather awkward seat in the bar rather than the restaurant area, it was a good meal.
Postscript – My Listening Pleasure
During the winter lockdown I revised my annual playlists of songs I think should have been number one in the UK. Played the 2017 and 2018 lists between Neptune’s Staircase and Gairlochy.
Picture (18 July 2021) shows Moy Swing Bridge, on the Caledonian Canal around 1 mile from Gairlochy.
Next: Day 75 (19 July 2021)… in which I set a new personal best for LEJoG.