A Northward Meandering – Walking the West Highland Way – Part Three.
Having completed what is regarded as the hardest section of the West Highland Way. would I be able to continue?….
After a welcome pub meal I crawled back to my tent and called home. That evening I had wrestled with the dilemma of what to do now; my feet were in a sorry state and clearly my walking boots were causing me problems having not had the opportunity to break them in as well as I would have liked. Having set up the baggage service I was on a schedule and had also booked lodging at the end so taking a rest day would be problematic but not impossible, however just moving about was difficult and could not even imagine taking on another stage. I was not alone in this as quite a few camping around me had also reached the same conclusion and were contemplating or had decided already to pull out.
I decided to give it a night and see how I felt.
Day 4: Inverernan to Tyndrum
The next day I made two discoveries that saved my trip: The first was that the campsite shop sold elasticated knee supports which allowed me to strap up both legs, giving me a ‘John Wayne’ walk but less pain. The other was ‘Breakfast in a Roll’ which filled me up so much I was ready to take on the Zulu Nation with a plastic fork. As I began to go through the ritual of breaking camp the movement worked like a limbering up exercise and gradually my flexibility improved. By the time I was ready to set off I had made a quite astonishing recovery. Today was a long but straight forward walk towards Crianlarich and over to Tyndrum.
Having had major problems with the footwear i decided to change to an old pair of walking shoes that i’d decided to bring along. Not perfectly waterproof but well worn and comfy – these would prove invaluable in the days to come.
The walk begins with a steady climb from the campsite up into Glen Falloch with an impressive set of falls as you begin to bear North East. One of the delights of walking this route is the sometimes quite sudden changes in the landscape as you round a bend and a new glen opens up. Compared to the scenery of yesterday Glen Falloch was more barren, wild and open. It was quite easy to follow the track for miles ahead as it snaked along so there was no real need to worry about navigation, just enjoy letting the path carry you forwards and take in the surroundings. In this sort of meditative state the next few miles drifted by. I felt strangely elated by the fact that I was able to trot along at a decent pace, even catching up on a few walkers on the route. Anyone who had caught me unawares would have been quite concerned as I chatted away and chuckled to myself.
You don’t so much walk Glen Falloch as sort of gradually wear it down to the last half mile then a short pull up takes you to the point where walkers can take the route down the comically named ‘Bogle Glen’ to Crianlarich or continue on. I passed an elderly Canadian couple heading down for tea and scones, wished them well and headed on. The path then ascends steeply into a forest and you have the trees for company for the next few miles. The steep ascent at this stage was a concern, not so much the ascending part but just how much coming down the other side would take out of me, until now the knee bandages had done their job but this would be a big test.
However while no ‘walk in the park’ the descent was doable and before long I had passed under the main road and was heading towards Strathfillan.
Strathfillan is another familiar area having spent time there at Easter and the road from here to Tyndrum is one I’ve walked many times. The name comes from an Irish Monk St Fillan, the son of St Kentigerna who has connections with Balmaha and Loch Lomond. St Fillan was quite a character; legend has it he had a glowing left arm which he could use to read scriptures in the dark. He was patron saint of the mentally ill and people who suffered from mental afflictions were bound and dipped in St Fillans pool then left overnight by the chapel to cure.
A monastery was established near where Kirkton farm now stands established in the times of William the Lion and St Fillan was its superior. It was said that Robert the Bruce carried a relic from St Fillan into the Battle of Bannockburn, the Relic was said to be an arm bone but no one can be sure if it was the magic glowing one or not. After the battle Bruce reestablished a priory here.
Having crossed the all too familiar main road that takes drivers in about an hour to where it would take me the rest of the week I passed the site of St Fillan’s priory and on to the campsite at Strathfillan Wigwams. This would not be my final stop but it was a chance to take a break and a snack from the campsite shop, sit on the benches outside and chat to fellow walkers while the local chaffinches begged for scraps. The final stretch of the walk takes you back under the road and up and over an undulating patch of moorland that passes the site of Robert the Bruce’s defeat at Dalrigh (something to remember if your sports team is having a poor start to the season, it probably isn’t as bad as Bruce’s) and the Lochan of the lost sword. More barren scrub land is testament to the town of Tyndrum’s lead mining past where very little grows in lead polluted soil and then a large gate in the deer fence takes you along a pleasant riverside walk that leads into the town of Tyndrum itself.
Tyndrum is one of those small towns that pretty much everyone must have passed through at some point. The town sits at a point where road and rail links meet; the ones from Oban in the west and Fort William in the north. because of the topography the rail links don’t join here but slightly further south towards Craianlarich so Tyndrum is the smallest town in the UK to be served by two rail stations. These days though the town is famous for one thing, mention Tyndrum to anyone who’s been to the area and they will respond ‘aye the green welly stop’ This national institution started nearly 50 years ago as a couple of sheds and a filling station and has grown over the years into a huge sprawling complex of cafes, gift and outdoor shops (and a filling station) Its the natural rest stop on any trip north. Whats more the same family that took on the business all those years ago still run it today, you won’t see a McDonalds or Burger King in sight!
A quick set up and down to the village for supplies and food in the excellent Real Food Cafe (the best fish & chips in the highlands) all washed down by a beer. back to the tent and settled in for the night reminding myself that the other significant thing about reaching Tyndrum was that I had officially passed the half way point! bring on day 5!
Day 5: Tyndrum to Inveroran
This was a relatively short and straight forward stage but one I’ve thought about for a long time. The path runs not too far from the main road and railway all the way and is quite visible as you travel north clinging to the foot of the massive Ben Dorain. I’ve driven up and down this way many times and you can nearly always spot a walker or two as distant slow moving dots, I would always feel slightly jealous wishing I was out there walking the route (unless the weather was awful of course). Knowing this would be a short stage and also knowing there was not much in the way of entertainment at the other end I decided to try to leave it as late as possible before setting off. I killed some time by packing late and then heading down for a leisurely breakfast at the Green Welly. After finally running out of distractions I set off.
The path climbs up out of the town and heads towards the mountain of Beinn Odhar a bulky grassy mountain, eventually though this gives way to the more impressive conical peak Ben Dorain. The walking on this stage was excellent and my trials of a few days were long forgotten, the overcast sky and low cloud didn’t make for spectacular photographs but it was cooler more comfortable walking conditions. This top end of Strathfillan is a spectacular wide glen and new vistas open up as you progress along. Eventually the wooded area in the distance signalled that I was approaching Bridge of Orchy, the only alternative stop on the way.
The bridge at Bridge of Orchy is significant in this journey north as its the first time you come across solid evidence of the pacification of the highlands. This was an ongoing policy of building military roads to allow Government troops to reach into the highlands at speed and in force, this same policy led to the state sanctioned murder of the MacIain Macdonalds of Glencoe and would lead to the near extinction of highland culture after the ’45.
Now though Bridge of Orchy is a rather large hotel and train station and precious little else. Never mind though it was a good spot for a break and a sit down on a bench by the bridge to watch the impressive white waters of the Orchy river. From here the path snakes up through some light forestry until it reaches a pleasant view point giving you both a view back towards Ben Dorain and forward to the Black Mount in Rannoch Moor. The path from the view point leads back down the other side of this small hill and towards the Inveroran Hotel, my destination.
The Inveroran is a peculiar place, a hotel in which time appears to have stopped at about 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon in 1975. despite the gold mine of walkers who pass right under its nose the hotel seems either unable or just plain unwilling to cash in on the bonanza. add to this that a nearby wild campsite has been a popular spot for hill walkers and west highland way walker alike for as long as I can remember and its quite inexplicable how this has not been transformed into a bobbly hat wearers mecca. Their concession to their main source of income is a rather claustrophobic walkers bar with off the shelf pub decor and several signs to deter casual use of the facilities by non patrons. Then again maybe this is part of its charm, where would we all be without the Fawlty Towers of the highlands. Sadly though this was not home for the night because of course the hotel was fully booked as it is through most of the walking season. Home for me was a 200 yard dash with the big pack on my back down to the famous wild camp spot by the bridge.
Once again despite my best efforts to not only leave as late as possible but also to saunter along at at a leisurely pace I arrived to discover that there was no one else here. Even later as the spaces filled up there was a distinct lack of campers on this well known spot and several faces I’d got used to over the previous days were not to be seen. The wild camping area here is excellent and the ground actually better than many campsites I’ve paid good money to stay at, short grass and sandy soil making it a dream to pitch a tent on. The hills rise up on the distance all around you giving you the impression of sitting in the bottom of a giant bowl. Its a beautiful spot and all the better if you have lots of space and a prime pitch right by the rivers edge.
To kill a bit of time I took a little walk along the road to the Victoria Bridge (another military bridge) and had a brief wander down a footpath that was signed as leading to Loch Etive. This seemed to be a right of way rather grudgingly given as lots of warning signs abounded telling walkers this was not the West Highland Way and to turn round, the land on the other side of the bridge had a crudely constructed but rather ominous electric fence running across what was again supposed to be a right of way. All very mysterious and ripe for a Scooby Doo style investigation (for another day). While looking at this Loch Etive path though I consulted the map and discovered that this was indeed a very long trail that led down to Loch Etive and on to the small town of Taynult. This town is also served by the rail line that passes through Tyndrum, giving the potential of a very interesting long distance walk with a train taking you back to the start. (something also for another day). By now the sun had finally crept over the yard arm and it was a respectable time to head over to the walkers bar for a few drinks and an evening meal (no menu just one item take it or leave it). The evening was passed pleasantly catching up with James my walking companion from Rowardrennan as the bar filled up with fellow travellers.
Tomorrow would be the stage I had most looked forward to on the whole West Highland Way, the walk from here over Rannoch Moor to Glencoe!