Day 75: LEJoG – the Longest Day
Day 75 preamble
The title “Monster” refers to both the length and conclusion of today’s walk. 25½ miles snatches the distance record from Barnstaple to Simonsbath, over 3 years earlier. And the destination was Fort Augustus, at the southern edge of Loch Ness, world-famous for its elusive monster.
Yet somehow, the longest stage turned out to be the fastest. Admittedly it won’t be difficult to see why – a lot of walking on canal towpaths and disused railways, combined with absolute single-minded determination to ignore my aching foot and stay on schedule.
LEJoG Day 75 (Monday 19 July 2021)
Gairochy to Fort Augustus (25½ miles)
Cumulative: 1,085 miles
Facts: Time on walk: 6 hours 35 minutes. Average speed: 3.87 mph. Weather: Warm, turning very warm in forest (12 noon – 1pm), cooling in afternoon.
Practicalities: Left my bag to be collected by Loch Ness Travel after breakfast. And then, of course, the 3½ mile walk from Spean Bridge back to Gairlochy. Not much more enjoyable than yesterday, although it was remiss of me not to mention the Commando Memorial at the main road junction. Forgive the self-absorption – it is one of Scotland’s best-known monuments and well worth stopping to take in. I just didn’t have the time today.
The skies were clearer this morning, offering some fine views of Ben Nevis to ease the preamble.
Ben Nevis, seen from the B8004 between Spean Bridge and Gairlochy
Start: Swing bridge, Gairlochy, 10:40am (left Spean Bridge around 9:30). End: Caledonian Canal junction with A82, Fort Augustus, 6:15pm.
Today’s walk (just) fits entirely on OS Explorer 400 (Loch Lochy and Glen Roy).
Crossing to the other side of the canal, you enter a small wood almost straight away. Emerging briefly to cross the B8005, you pass through a beech wood which borders the south-western tip of Loch Lochy. Today’s header image is the view which greets you on returning to the B-road about ten minutes later. Lovely, isn’t it?
It’s the first proper introduction to Loch Lochy, which will be a near-constant companion all the way to Laggan Locks, approximately halfway between Gairlochy and Fort Augustus. I think it’s also the first real sign that the Great Glen Way has plenty of visual charms, and shouldn’t be dismissed as a poor relation of the West Highland Way. OK, I haven’t changed my mind – I still think the West Highland Way was the highlight of my entire LEJoG walk. But the Great Glen Way exceeded my expectations, and that started right here.
There follows some road walking, which is mercifully rare over today’s 25 miles. The B8005 passes through a couple of hamlets going by the evocative names of Achnacarry and Bunarkaig, and crosses the River Arkaig before reaching the village of
Here you leave the B8005 to join a very long forest track running parallel with Loch Lochy. While the elevation (in relation to the loch) is no more than 30-50m, expect to feel the climb when it comes. There’s something about a hill climb in the middle of a relatively flat walk – it can feel more taxing than a long summit approach at 10x the elevation. The forest track was almost eerily quiet in general, but I remember being overtaken by some young (friendly) cyclists while making the ascent. Another thing that sticks in my mind is constantly looking for a suitable place to take a break and maybe eat lunch. This became a familiar note of my recent walks in Scotland – always wanting to pass certain mileages and/or landmarks before even thinking about taking breaks. In the end, I took only three breaks all day, hence the relatively early finish time of 6:15. Barnstaple to Simonsbath was a very different experience, although the key differential was probably my absurd pack weight.
Shortly after reaching the high point of the track, I was stopped by a (friendly) official from the Forestry Commission, who informed me that tree-felling was taking place and I should not stop until I’d passed the work site (marked by bollards and signs at each end). I think she’d told the cyclists the same thing around 5-10 minutes before. Of course this helped me delay my first break that bit longer. I stopped almost as soon as I’d passed the second set of signs, mainly because the sun had completely broken through and it was now a genuinely hot day.
Even so, I wanted to delay lunch until I’d reached halfway, and stopped for only 10 minutes (12:40 – 12:50). I think it’s fair to say that the remaining stretch of forest road, from the Glas-Dhoire campsite to Laggan Locks, is one of the more trying sections of the GGW. Not because it’s difficult terrain or elevation – it’s not remotely so. Not because the scenery is dull – it’s livelier than the Caledonian Canal on Day 1 and there are some good views of Munros to the west (see below). But mainly because you’ve been on the forest track for 8 miles before you catch sight of Laggan. That’s about a third of today’s entire walk (two thirds if you stop at Laggan, as many do). I was strongly reminded of Ennerdale Forest on the Coast to Coast. However, to be fair Laggan Forest is less monotonous, due to there being far fewer trees and hence some rather broader vistas.
Munros to the west of the forest track, approaching Laggan
(possibly Meall na Teanga & Sron a’ Choire Ghairbh)
Laggan Locks (13 miles from Gairlochy) sits at the northern tip of the loch. The eponymous locks are the gateway to the Caledonian Canal, the latter being the passage between Lochs Lochy and Oich. It’s the ideal spot for a long lunch (2:15 – 2:50) on an epic day’s hike.
Laggan Locks (looking NE, from my lunch spot)
Suitably refreshed and replenished, I set off on the second half of the journey, still aiming only to reach Fort Augustus by 7pm. The going was once again easy – flat track beside the Caledonian Canal, sun much less oppressive by now, no trouble from the foot. However I didn’t think I could guarantee a speed greater than 3mph when allowing for breaks.
Upon meeting Loch Oich, the wooded canal path gives way to a main road (the ever-familiar A82). Once the road is crossed, you pass a holiday camp and join a disused railway path running beside the loch for several miles. This is probably the easiest walking there is – I have done so much of it in Derbyshire on the Tissington Trail and High Peak Trail. It has all the benefits of towpath walking – almost no elevation, constant speed – but easier ground. You guessed it – this is almost certainly where I gained the extra half-hour on my ETA.
Which isn’t to say it was fun, exactly. The path is tree-lined on the left side, with sheer rock faces on the right, so you’re unlikely to be inspired by dramatic views. It’s very much a “get your head down” section. There’s little to see bar more woods on the far (west) side of the loch either. So, although making excellent progress, I was actually a bit demoralised when I took my afternoon break near Leitirfearn (4:05 – 4:20). The seven miles still to cover seemed long and lonely. (This is another difference between the WHW and GGW – the former is much busier, which I kind of appreciate) Not having a podcast to listen to didn’t help. I’d used up my Listening Pleasure for the day between Gairlochy and Laggan (Chart Music #58) and was conserving battery for photographs.
If feeling slightly down though, the best cure might be to remember the previous longest stage between Barnstaple and Simonsbath (linked earlier). This included:
- hotter weather
- a full 65l backpack
- being asked if I needed a lift by a passing motorist who’d “seen me earlier”
- cow avoidance problems
- a forced footpath diversion (thankfully short)
- and… actual cramp, for the only time on the whole walk
The next landmark is the village of Aberchalder, on the A82 at the northern end of Loch Oich. There are still six miles to go from here, but you rejoin the Caledonian Canal knowing it takes you all the way to Fort Augustus. I think this was the podiatric pep talk I needed, and my speed must have increased still further on the final stretch.
Can I say anything about the canal scenery here? Not really: it was perhaps more attractive than the section further south, but really I was pushing hard for the finish, only taking note of how far away things were on the map and the ground. Counting each of the named locks, guessing the remaining mileage. As so often, the last half mile seemed the longest. But by the end I was absolutely flying, and slightly taken aback when I realised how fast I’d been going for the whole stage.
Arrival at Fort Augustus
After the walk
Well, after the walk I might have paid my debt for that speed-walking. The left heel definitely started hurting again on the way to my hotel. More so after I changed from walking boots into trainers, and even more so after I walked down to the restaurant for my evening meal.
I stayed at the Lovat Hotel, my only concession to real luxury this week and a treat after walking 29 miles in the day. Hell, it probably wasn’t quite worth the money and their restaurant wasn’t even open, but it didn’t matter. The comfort was priceless (and the breakfast the following morning was outstanding, by the way). Ate at the Boathouse, seduced by the Trailblazer guide’s reference to “the best location and views of any of the village’s restaurants”. It overlooks the point where the Caledonian Canal opens into Loch Ness. Even if you couldn’t see that from my interior seat, it was still a major draw.
The Caledonian Canal opens into Loch Ness – evening, 19 July 2021
Picture (19 July 2021) of Loch Lochy, as seen from the B8005 about half an hour into today’s walk.
Next: Day 76 (20 July 2021)… in which Ness’s beauty is revealed (but not the monster).
The Loch Ness Monster phenomenon has never interested me in the slightest. It’s not due to a lack of imagination – many other myths and stories have captivated me over the years. The studies I’ve enjoyed most were A-Level English Literature and my History degrees.
The disinterest stems from what it says about the nature of humanity. People will spend time and effort researching, or trying to prove or disprove, something that will have no measurable effect on their or anyone’s life. What is it that makes some human beings need to believe in purely legendary “monsters”?
The study of History, by contrast, is a study of the nature of humanity. (I would also argue that Literature is, just as much, and is just as valid) And it reveals something fundamental:
- Humanity creates some genuine monsters.
- They’re always a direct, measurable threat to our lives.
- We let them in anyway.
I’m not above letting them in – doing so was a major reason for my complete mental breakdown. But that spoiled my own life and made life harder for those who love me. It didn’t kill people.
Monday 19 July 2021, the day of this walk, was so-called ‘Freedom Day’ in the United Kingdom. The final restrictions imposed by the third – and most painful – Covid lockdown were lifted, four weeks after the initial planned date of 21 June. Now, I took advantage of that at the end of this week, visiting a nightclub for the first time in 72 weeks. I did so perhaps 20 times before the end of 2021, but made no other changes to my behaviour whatsoever. I, of all people, would never understate the mental strain of enforced isolation. This had hit me particularly hard, as the 18 months between buying my house and the onset of the pandemic were the first time in 13 years I’d been genuinely happy, confident and fit. The first time since before my illness.
I am writing this at a time when the Prime Minister is mired in allegations that can be summed up by the unoriginal and massively trivilaising banner ‘partygate’. This government could not abide by the very laws it made. Laws which were firmly and heartbreakingly policed for mere citizens who tried to do the right thing.
But, in truth, this postscript was always intended. The only difference is that six months has given me more material and a convenient accident of timing.
Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is one of British History’s genuine monsters. You let him in. And I will stand by that conclusion until the day I die.
- “Free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else” (Letter from Eton College Master to Johnson’s father, 1982).
- Transcript of phone call between Johnson and his friend Darius Guppy, 1990 (re beating up a journalist who was investigating Guppy).
- The above incident is brought up when Johnson appears on Have I Got News For You, 1998. Note the laughter.
- Martin Rowson, cartoonist, recalls (in 2016) a relatively trivial but extremely revealing incident from Johnson’s tenure as editor of the Spectator (1999-2005). Concludes: “At which point I realised that he was a ruthlessly hollow narcissistic psychopath, & nothing in his career or life since has persuaded me otherwise. We are fucked, & God save both us & our country from this endless cavalcade of over-entitled cunts who thinks it’s merely their playpen.”
- Sacked twice for lying, in 1988 as a Times journalist, and in 2004 as a shadow minister.
- He literally says his political hero is the Mayor from Jaws, who kept the beaches open knowing there was a killer shark in his waters. In 2003, in 2006, in 2011, and again in 2020/21. Spot over 150,000 differences between the last one and the first three.
- Max Hastings, his former boss at the Daily Telegraph, warns of Johnson’s unfitness for higher office, October 2012. “He is also a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates.”
- “You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?” Eddie Mair interviews Johnson about the Guppy matter (see 2 and 3 above) in 2013.
- “I’m as hard as nails.” Johnson, interviewed by Prof. Denis Noble of Oxford University in 2013, admits that the bumbling is an act and that “you can make a good case for any course of action.”
- “I was Boris Johnson’s boss: he is utterly unfit to be Prime Minister.” Max Hastings re-iterates his warning in the Guardian, June 2019. One month before Johnson became PM, six months before Covid-19 and nine months before the first lockdown. Hastings is the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and London Evening Standard. Both support the Tories.
- Boris Johnson hides in a fridge, December 2019, two days before a General Election.
- Boris Johnson steals a reporter’s phone (when asked to look at a child sleeping on a hospital floor), also in the week of the General Election of December 2019.
- The Greenwich Speech, 3 February 2020. Prima facie evidence of Johnson’s laissez-faire attitude to the coronavirus pandemic. Full speech here. One very persuasive reading is that “the explicit evidence of the 3 February 2020 speech shows that, at that point, coronavirus was thought of by Johnson not as a problem, but as an opportunity.”
- In case you weren’t convinced though: “Take it on the chin” (Johnson, 5 March 2020, This Morning).
- And, one week later, the day I fully comprehended what an unfathomably horrific disaster Johnson would preside over: “Herd immunity will be vital” (Robert Peston leaking the government’s “strategy”, 12 March 2020).
- “Let the bodies pile high”. If you can read all of the previous links and still refuse to believe that Johnson said this, you’re too naive for this world and I have a bridge to sell you.
Arbuthnott, George and Calvert, Jonathan, Failures Of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus (Mudlark, 2021).