The West Highland Way – Part I

I’ve gone the wrong way. Unclipping my rucksack, I swing my bag onto a nearby grit bin. I’ve walked straight into the stunning, medieval village of Drymen instead of skirting around it. With a quiet sigh of frustration I catch the eye of a fellow trekker just a few paces behind me. I’ve led him the wrong way. His name is Darren, a doctor from Chicago. We leave the village together, unified by our end location of Fort William over 130km away. It’s a speck in the distance – an adventure I grew to love (extract from day 2). 

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Day 1 – Milngavnie to Drymen

  • Depart London 7:30AM. Arrive Milngavie: 3:00pm
  • Distance Covered: 12 miles / 19km
  • Cost of campsite: £5 (honesty box) 

“A free banana!” I thought gleefully. I rarely travel first class on the train. Clutching a cup of tea, I take in the gentle warmth and soothing lull of the carriage. ‘PRESTON, PRESTON!’ This train terminates here! I prise my earphones away in shock, gathering my banana, rucksack and my various possessions spread out across the private table. I blunder off the train. Why?! I thought the train would take me all the way to Glasgow!

After an hour waiting in Preston, I board another train to Glasgow. There are downcast eyes and the air is heavy with indignation. Families, couples and commuters are crammed shoulder to shoulder on the train. I’ve sat on the floor, next to the toilet. A stench of sewage permeates the train corridor. I’m over an hour late, with a 12 mile hike ahead of me.

The sky is gravel grey when I arrive into Milngavie. Large pillows of cloud form with the rain clinking off cars. I find the start of the West Highland Way quickly and before setting off I indulge in a hot, crispy sausage roll. With excited anticipation I realise that I’m unsure when my next hot meal would be. It’s late afternoon as I set off to begin the trek.

Leaving the town behind I trek solo for 12 miles passing crimson leaves and mountains covered in trees. I encounter very few trekkers, having started the day so late. The whisper of a Scottish mist, shady groves and feathery moss marks the start of Autumn. Other than rustling foliage and the crunch of my boots, the West Highland Way is silent. Devoid of any fellow trekkers, I make friends with sheep on the first day of my trek!

The sun dips below the horizon, with the last country road stretching in front of me like an endless gravel snake. I plod on until I see a signpost of ‘Drymen Camping’. With a sense of relief I finally reach the campsite at sunset. There is enough light in the sky to pitch up a solo backpacking tent, borrowed from Murray!

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Day 2 – Drymen to Sallochy Campsite (nr Rowardennan) 

  • Distance Covered: 11.6 miles / 18km
  • Cost of campsite: £8 (Sallochy Campsite, composting toilet) 

I’m lying on my rucksack, head raised high above the ground to keep warm. The tent is only 1.5kg and the roof is close to my nose, with my shoulders brushing the sides.

I roll unceremoniously out of the tent, preparing a speedy breakfast of cheese and chorizo wraps. I bite into the wrap and pause, as I detect a musty, sour flavour. The chorizo is completely out of date! 
Half of my food supply is now in the bin.  I think back to my optimistic cupboard raiding,  envisioning the quick fix of cheese and chorizo sandwiches as a great trekking meal. I make a mental note; dried meat, once opened, does not last! 

My trail guide (Trailblazer), describes today as one foot in the Highlands and one in the Lowlands. I make my way towards the medieval village of Drymen, where my wrong turn leads another hiker, Darren from Chicago, astray (continued from introduction). We leave the village together, ready to take on the 130km journey to Fort William.

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Path slowly climbing up towards Conic Hill

“Sorry for leading you the wrong way”, I say to Darren sheepishly. Darren looks at me and with a gentle smile, he states “Sorry, I shouldn’t be blindingly following”. From there, we hike together to the base of Conic Hill (361m). We chat about our families, our jobs, our shared desire for a challenging adventure, yet also the fear of it. Darren suddenly stops and states “Please, let me know if I am bothering you”. I’m confused by the statement and look at him in bewilderment. He explains that as a dad with a son and daughter, he is worried that he’ll “look weird“, walking with solo female hiker. I’m completely taken aback. Age/gender did not cross my mind as a factor in any instance when walking in the hills. I reassure him that I really like the company, as I digest how truly respectable some men can be, especially away from the pretense of occupation, class, location and clothing brands that can blur the genuinity of our interactions with strangers.

At the base of Conic Hill, there is a wag of a tail as a sheep-dog bounds towards us. “Jim! and Cooper!” Darren exclaims in recognition. I greet Jim, a fellow trekker with spiked slate grey hair, penny sized glasses and a strong Scottish gruff. We take a rest beneath Conic Hill together, with autumn clouds gliding over us like smoky shields.

It’s a lung-bursting ascent to the top. I’m still getting used to the weight of my rucksack and I start to curl like a hedgehog, throwing the weight of my pack forward with each metre gained on Conic Hill.

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Being a hedgehog

It’s a stunning view of Loch Lomond from Conic hill. Soft green mounds form little islands across the body of water. A legion of nipping midges drone over the deep stomach of the loch, as we descend towards Rowardennan. We emerge out into a car-park, with clean looking families and walkers that marks being back in civilisation. I am aching with hunger and we decide to stop off at the Oak Tree Inn, an award-winning local pub in Balmaha.

We all place an order of haggis, neaps and tatties. I cannot begin to describe how delicious this meal was! Having lived on wraps and cheese for 2 days, the peppery, smooth and nourishing haggis became a dish I grew to love in Scotland. Served with buttery mash-potato, and a salty rasher of bacon, I quietly melted with gratitude at such a incredible meal.

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“I can’t believe how wasteful some people can be with food!” exclaims Darren. We watch as a couple dining next to us abandon a half eaten meal. I think back to my rotten chorizo and the Lidl wraps flaking away in my bag. Darren ruffles through his rucksack, and picks out a sandwich bag. “Don’t think that I am above this!” 

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Legend.

Darren picks up the half-eaten sandwich and takes the food. He makes a medical joke stating “oh darling, I can’t eat this sandwich any longer, it’s my oral herpes”. I am in fits of laughter! I feel lucky to have met such incredible solo hikers that I could share my journey with.
After our late lunch, Darren, Jim and I contemplate where to head to. With no itinerary in mind we decide to walk as far as we can to the next campsite. It’s a gentle hike to finish the day as we pass trickling streams, little harbours and hidden beaches. We rock up at Sallochy Campsite where I pitch my tent right by the loch.

 

After pitching my tent, I run over to the Warden’s cabin. For our lunch, Darren insisted without argument that he would settle the bill at the Oak Tree Inn, as he “saw it as his duty”. I contested that this was not fair, and went to settle his pitch fee to return the gesture. We are the 3 musketeers!

 

I spend the evening by the waterside of Loch Lomond. Darren prepares a soup and with the sun dipping into the horizon. I decide against lying in the tent, as it feels a bit like a coffin. Instead, I use my hands to swipe midges away, optimistic in thinking that I would not be bitten by them. The next morning my face, arms and ankles are covered in itchy, red midge bites. My face feels like bubble wrap. I am suddenly grateful that I haven’t looked in a mirror in days.

To be continued…

Part II will contain:

  • Sallochy Campsite to Beinglas Farm campsite (I found this day so hard, close to tears)
  • Beinglas Farm campsite to Tyndrum (abandoned by a musketeer) 
  • Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy (wettest day ever)
  • Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven (2 days combined in one!)
  • Kinlochleven to Fort William (the final countdown) 

Trips Tips 

Transport 

  • I booked my train ticket 5 weeks in advance. A first class ticket was £40.25 with a 16-25 YP Railcard and a standard class was £25.25. Book as far in advance as possible to secure cheap train tickets. I normally book with Virgin Trains to collect Nectar Points.
  • Milngavie is pronounced Mil-Guy. I was told off at least twice by Scottish colleagues when I said Mil-gav-vy”. 
  • The West Highland Way start point is within a 10 minute walk from Milngavie Railway Station.

Accommodation

  • Drymen Campsite is a basic campsite and the first stop off point for most backpackers. It is a 30 minute walk from the village. The charge is £5.00 (Honesty Box). There is a toilet and large barn that you can shelter in.
  • Sallochy campsite has a composting toilet and a beautiful location by the loch-side. Beware the midges. I got bitten to death on this day. £8.00 for the pitch fee. There are no showers at this campsite.

Food

  • The West Highland Way passes by some quaint and lovely villages. It would be possible to buy food on route on Day 1 and Day 2.
  • The start point, Milngavie, has a large Tesco and a Marks and Spencers
  • On Day 1, you will pass by Beech Tree Inn (about mile 7)
  • The food point on Day 2 is Oak Tree Inn (about mile 8).

Cost 

  • The West Highland Way is truly spectacular and great value if you are camping. Pitch fees are between £5 to £8.
  • On Day 1 + 2, there are bylaws against wild-camping, a permit is required. More information is available here 
  • For the Route Notes, Trailblazer are the best brand out there. The WHW guidebook is £11.00 on Amazon.
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Cooper!

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2 responses to “The West Highland Way – Part I

  1. Pingback: My Travel History | Days of Adventure·

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