The Great Glen Way – Day 1

August 5, 2008: Fort William to Gairlochy

Fort William from Caol

Fort William from Caol

Every overnight expedition begins with a catalogue of anxieties, as readers of these accounts will readily testify, but to the usual catalogue (how will Fritz fare with his Auntie Hanna, will the house look empty, will we make all our travel connections?) I have to add that there were also serious concerns over my physical condition in the summer of 2008 – as Gavan and I made preparations for our eighth overnight expedition together, an assault on Scotland’s Great Glen Way.

Leg problems had, indeed, curtailed my efforts on Glyndwr’s Way in June, and sore knees and tautened calf muscles continued to plague me in the weeks that followed – in spite of physical therapy. These disabilities meant that there was no chance for any pre-hike exercise or conditioning walks and it was certainly unusual, to the say the least, to begin a seven day walk under such circumstances. Gavan, with whom I had last walked in 2002, was aware of these factors, for we had discussed them on the phone, but I don’t think he took them seriously – or that he knew I had also been suffering from light-headedness and depression as the anniversary of my wife Dorothy’s death arrived in mid-July, and I certainly didn’t want to disappoint him in this long-anticipated reunion walk.

I was encouraged to undertake the expedition under these unusual circumstances because, at least, I was feeling better in myself now, because the Great Glen Way seemed not to offer too many steep up or down stretches, and because our route would be paralleled by bus service that would permit a day off or a shortened day – should I run into any difficulties. I also planned to carry an arsenal of medical aides in my pack and to use, from the outset, the walking stick that I had carried on our last day on Glyndwr’s Way.

Gavan, on the first leg of a five-week holiday, arrived in London on Friday, August 1. He had undergone many changes since 2002 and, indeed, he was unrecognizable as the brash teen who first walked with me in the fall of 1989. Behind him was a long struggle with the church and the ensuing displacement that followed his departure from seminary – only the week before our last walk. His role as a gay activist and a stalwart of the Connecticut ACLU and his decision to begin a career in law had added great depth to his character. His long record of volunteer work and social justice activism had earned him the distinguished alumni Silver Eagle award at the American School and he had already spent several days with me during a school reunion in May (when Tosh was also honored). Having passed both the Connecticut and New York State bars a year ago and having served as an assistant to the dean of the Connecticut Supreme Court Gavan would soon take up a new post in a criminal law firm in Hartford, his home.

We had talked about doing the Cleveland Way at one time but the company I was using to arrange our summer outing, Mickledore, was unable to make the bookings we needed and so we decided to return to Scotland for a walk on the Great Glen Way. That Gavan insisted on paying the Mickledore bill for the both of us is a further testimony to his changed status and his maturity. Of course he remained his old obsessive, eccentric self; one could never outguess his moods or reactions.

Fritz having been delivered to his Auntie Hanna on the afternoon of Sunday, August 3, Gavan and I spent the evening working on our packs and trying to get a little sleep before rising the next morning at 5:00 or so. At 6:00 a mini-cab picked us up for a short ride to Paddington Station – but we were not using trains to reach Scotland today for I had decided that we would be more comfortable and more likely to make a connection in Glasgow if we flew from Heathrow.

We had only a short wait for a Heathrow Express train at Paddington and fifteen minutes later I was enjoying my first experience with the new Terminal 5. I had printed off not only our e-tickets but boarding passes as well (a first for me) and so we were able to check in rapidly. After we had passed through security (not an easy matter with the requirement that hiking boots be removed) we were in plenty of time to have breakfast at a Giraffe eatery in the departure lounge. Our BA plane began to taxi out to its runway shortly after 9:00 and I was pleased to note that the change in cabin pressure did not seem to have any adverse effects on my tender legs. Gavan looked out of the window while I did a puzzle and by 10:00 we were on the ground in Glasgow.

It took quite a while for Gavan’s bag to emerge on the conveyor belt but we were soon heading out the door with it, my backpack, and the daypack I planned to use during the walks themselves. Once again we would have our big packs ferried forward for us by the tour company.

It was a beautiful morning in Glasgow and we were lucky that there was a bus into town just waiting to depart. The driver left us off outside Queen Street Station and here we headquartered for an hour and twenty minutes, waiting for our train to the north. Gavan left me with the bags at a Costa Coffee while he travelled around the square outside, taking the first of over 350 pictures (and even some movies) on his Canon camera, a model very similar to my own.

I drank a berry smoothie and bought my lunch for the train. Then, when Gavan returned, I followed the directions of a nice chap at Costa as I went searching for a Boots, only a few steps away in the station. I was searching for one more medical remedy, a gel sack that, when frozen, could be applied to sore muscles and knees. They knew what I was talking about in Boots but they were out of this product and directed me to a second Boots in a department store in the Buchanan Street complex. So I wandered around a bit, passing the obligatory drummer and piper, and rode an escalator up to the chemist. They were out of the freezing gel too.

Back at Costa we watched the notice board of a very busy station as it crept closer to our departure time, heading at last for reserved seats in the closest car. Unfortunately these were facing backwards but this wasn’t too bad and at 12:21 we were off. An early morning train journey from London would have put us into the other Glasgow train station with only half an hour or so to make connections – and this had been one of the reasons I had opted for flight. The jolly Sikh from whom I had purchased our tickets (I paid for all the transportation on this trip) had warned me not to miss the 12:21 – for the next train was almost six hours later. There were a lot of people aboard this train, including the people sitting opposite us: she read a library book and he studied every detail of the route on Ordnance Survey maps.

Of course we had completed this journey, which passes some really beautiful countryside, in 1991– as we returned from Fort William at the end of our long walk on the West Highland Way. So there were many familiar landmarks, especially because the train route comes close to the WHW at a number of points. At Crianlarich, where the train was split in two, we got off with the smokers to stretch our legs. Gavan took a picture of me standing in the doorway and the nearby conductor said, “I hope he got my good side.” A bored raw-boned blonde six year-old could not stop asking questions. When a passenger got off at one station the boy solemnly said, “I’ll never forget you.”

On the stretch from Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy we could see a number of WHW walkers making their way along the route and this brought back many interesting memories though, truth to tell, Gavan couldn’t remember most of them. I said that my memory was better than his only because I had written about our adventures and re-read what I had written every few years. Shortly before 4:00 we passed though Spean Bridge, where we would spend the second night of the trip. A few minutes later, on time as we had hoped, we reached the end of a long train journey and got off in a station that had been modernized considerably since we had last been here.

Packs on back, it was now necessary to find our b&b and to do this we used an underpass to cross beneath the highway, turning our back on the town and walking along Belford Road. Only a few blocks away we reached Alma Road and we had only a short climb to reach Guisachan House, a rather large guest house that even had a licensed bar. I rang the bell and we were shown to our room on the first floor. It was rather affectless but it, like virtually all of our accommodation on this trip, did have en suite facilities. Before long, however, we had left this establishment, returning to the vicinity of the High Street, where I joined Gavan in taking my first photographs in the vicinity of the church and all the memorial statues in an ornately planted garden out front. Truth to tell, none of this bore any resemblance to the scene I remembered from seventeen years earlier but we were soon trundling down the High Street, taking in the sights and looking for places to eat and drink.

I spotted another Boots but they too were out of icing gel. We passed little Cameron Square and made a 7:00 reservation for dinner at the No. 4 restaurant. Then we went into the Ben Nevis bar and took our drinks out to a terrace overlooking Loch Linnhe, an arm of the sea. It was very pleasant here, sunny but not too warm, and we had a good look at the other tourists out here, many from France, and quite a few in cycling gear. After our pints we continued to the end of the High Street, walked over to the sea, and had a good look at the estuary scene, which was very lovely. Then, against a flow of tourists including one wearing a t-shirt with the legend, “Fuck The World and You Too,” we returned to our restaurant, a few minutes early. We had a nice repast, with both of us ordering the char-grilled salmon, though Gavan began with haggis (I, a Caesar salad) – a meal that ended with his pecan tart and my ice cream.

It was still light as we strolled back to our b&b, choosing to retire early after a busy day and knowing that the next day would bring the first real tests of the enterprise.

To our joy, the sun was again shining brightly as we got ready for breakfast on Tuesday, August 5 – the first day in a seven-day walking itinerary. We found our table in a crowded breakfast lounge and helped ourselves to juice (very little for me) and cereal. Gavan sampled the full Scottish breakfast while I contented myself, as usual, with scrambled eggs on toast. Our packed lunches were delivered to us in a timely fashion and after we had dragged our backpacks downstairs (to be delivered for us to our next b&b by the folks hired by Mickledore) we were ready for a 9:05 departure.

Truth to tell, I was trying to slow things down a bit this morning, not merely because I wanted an easy launch for my dodgy legs, but also because I knew that there was a pub at the four mile mark and if it did not open until 12:00 there was no point in arriving too quickly. An opening distraction was the beautifully situated cemetery across Belford Road, one whose ornamental gate had been relocated from its original site in the ruinous Old Fort. Cameras were soon in action and then we returned to the train station, crossed the Morrison’s parking lot and a roundabout and reached the Old Fort (or what was left of it) itself; here there was a monument celebrating the start of the Great Glen Way, a 75-mile route that follows canal and lochs from the Irish to the North Sea.

In my map case I was carrying a waterproof map, Harvey’s Great Glen Way, supplied by Mickledore (folded to the right section for today’s route) and Paddy Dillon’s Cicerone guidebook to the route, which I had purchased at Stanfords. With its frequently placed thistle-bedecked sky blue marker posts, the GGW was one of the best waymarked routes we had ever used and there was rarely any need to consult the map or the book. I did note to Gavan that there was one unique instruction on the first page – on what other route is it a requirement that you orient yourself by heading for a tarmac path on the left side of a McDonalds? (Well, it does sound very Scottish.)

We soon passed a shinty pitch, which we had seen from our b&b, and after some suburban houses we reached a crossing of the River Nevis, making its way at last into Loch Linnhe after flowing through Glen Nevis, the canyon that had brought Gavan and me to the end of our West Highland Way walk all those years ago. Ben Nevis itself towered over the scene this morning, though its summit was often hidden in the clouds.

After the Nevis bridge we followed a footpath that took us through woodland near the shore and we made a slow but steady progress along the margins of the tidal River Lochy (I had my cane in use throughout this expedition). Swans floated majestically in the river as we reached more open space on our approach to the tailrace from the Alcan aluminum works. The guidebook suggests that the flow of water here is so intense that the little bridge actually shakes and that a sturdier bridge might be found upstream. Such an injunction, however, only invited the competitive spirit in my walking companion and so we parted company for a few minutes, meeting up again at the foot of the Soldier’s Bridge over the River Lochy.

We did not use the bridge, however, because nearby there was another diversion, one that could be indulged without guilt on a morning when I was trying to slow things down. This was the presence, found just after crossing beneath a railway bridge, of Inverlochy Castle. Much of this turreted and towered edifice was still in good shape and so we wandered around it for fifteen minutes or so, often having the place to ourselves. Then I sat down on a stone fence for a nice rest while Gavan continued to take pictures. Both of us were startled by a distant hoot, looking up in time to see a steam train bearing its passengers across the railway bridge in a charming flashback to yesteryear.

Near the river there was a gate that allowed us to reach our tunnel without retracing all of our castle steps and so we crossed under the railway bridge and this time made our way over the Soldier’s Bridge itself. Gavan chose the steps to reach the B8006 road while I followed a tarmac path to gain the same roadway. Here we turned west and followed roadside pavements for some time on our approach to the village of Caol. In one suburban cul-de-sac we both took pictures of a speed limit sign (“Twenty’s Plenty”) and then we turned left, back toward the loch as we reached a seaside development. Views back across the estuary, toward Fort William, were magnificent. Opposite the gnome-filled front yards was a wide greensward containing a flower-planted rowboat at one end and a canoe planter at the other.

A small shopping parade next appeared on our right. It featured a newsagent, rival Chinese takeaways, and two chemists and I decided to try my luck a fourth time in search of my freezer-gel. The clerk here denied any knowledge of such an object, then corrected herself and plucked from her shelves just what I was looking for. At last! In the bright sunshine Gavan and I then continued our westward trod. Today I was able to travel in t-shirt only (a turquoise one memorializing Santa Fe, which Janet had given me), Gavan was wearing one in honor of the Texas Longhorns, though he would later pay his respects to Barack Obama in several other garments. He wore a Boston Red Sox cap at this point, but mine was an unornamented black version from Marks and Spencer.

Approaching the sea lock at Corpach

Approaching the sea lock at Corpach

We passed a playing field in which a couple of guys actually had their shinty bats in action and then an overspill weir which drained water from the Caledonian Canal above us. Soon we were standing at a junction with this impressively engineered waterway – though once again we did not follow the GGW itself but undertook a brief diversion in the opposite direction, so that we could have a look at the Corpach sea lock and the pepper pot lighthouse behind it. We had a rest on some benches and then returned to the Corpach Double Locks, where there was an oddly named ship, the Loyal Mediator.

Now we were once again on the Great Glen Way, our noses pointed in the direction of the North Sea, that is in a northeasterly direction. A wide, level gravel path followed the canal easily, undulating from right to left in slow motion. The dominant wildflower here was the rosebay willowherb and this provided an exciting dash of magenta in the beautiful green scene. Other walkers were passing us in both directions and the first of a phalanx of cyclists was sharing the route as well. Everyone seemed to offer a greeting as we crossed paths.

Shortly before noon we approached the village of Banavie and I was soon able to spot the Lochy pub on the roadway to which our route now descended. It was open, though we seemed to be the first customers. Gavan had his first pint of Guinness and I ordered a pint of Fosters. I suppose if we hadn’t been handed packed lunches we would have dined here as well, but the availability of a noontime pub is a real rarity on this route; it never happened again. Anyway, we had a nice rest and at about 12:45 we emerged into the light again and continued forward to a level crossing and a left turn onto the A830.

On our right we now had a very impressive eight-stage lock system called Neptune’s Staircase, one of the few bits of uphill for walkers on this day. Soon we were in lonely countryside again, trudging over Sheangain Aqueduct (though not climbing below this system for a better view) and finding a nice canal-side spot for our lunch (tuna fish sandwiches) on a log.

Gavan on the canalside track north of Neptune’s Staircase

Gavan on the canalside track north of Neptune’s Staircase

We passed a cottage on a little hill called Drum na h-Atha and had a look across the canal at two old burial grounds hidden in the pine trees. We also walked over the Loy Aqueduct, but the River Lochy, which paralleled the canal off to our right, was hidden from sight almost to the end of our walk, when it at last became visible as we all headed for Gairlochy Bottom Lock. The weather was still fair but there were more clouds in the sky and it was becoming cooler as we approached a telephone call box on the B8004. Our walk for the day had come to an end. It was 4:40 and we had walked eleven and a half miles.

There is very little accommodation at Gairlochy and Mickledore had therefore arranged for accommodation for us at a b&b called Distant Hills, some four miles away in Spean Bridge. Our instructions were for us to call its proprietors but I used my mobile phone rather than the call box and Peter McIntosh was soon on his way to pick us up. I used my whistle to summon Gavan, who had stopped at a picnic table across the road and we loaded our daypacks into Peter’s boot. On our drive to town we passed the famous Commando monument, though we did not stop to see these oversized soldiers, and then Peter drove us past some dinnertime candidates in Spean Bridge itself before reaching Distant Hills, a five minute walk north of the village.

He then showed us to our room and served us coffee in the lounge. I turned over to him my gel pouch, asking him to put it in his freezer so that I could apply it to my knees after dinner. I then used the mobile to make a dinner reservation for 7:30. Both of us had showers and then we walked into town and headed for the Commando bar of the Spean Bridge Hotel. This was a funky, down at heel establishment where we were squeezed up against the pool table. Gavan spotted a kilted Scotsman who seemed to have a knife stuck in his sock and struck up a conversation with the chap, who said that he had actually used a plastic replica rather than the real thing so as not to frighten the good citizens of Fort William. The fellow’s hobby was tracking down and photographing Scottish sites used in filmmaking and he showed us quite a few examples on his camera as we drank our pints.

Then, as they wanted to use the pool table, we walked up the hill to the Old Station restaurant, where I had gotten the last two places on a night when the former station house was playing host to a woollen mill works outing.

Gavan had the chicken and I the steak as an elderly woman (also resident at our b&b) fainted at the table across from us. Then we walked back to Distant Hills as darkness fell, preceded by yet more residents, speculating on whether or not he had really ordered her from some bridal catalogue in Thailand.

I retrieved my frozen jelly from Peter’s freezer but it didn’t seem to offer much relief and I decided not to repeat this experiment after all. Once again it was early to bed.

To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:

Day Two: Gairlochy to South Laggan