Ardlui jetty to Tyndrum
Updated: Jan 27, 2020
West Highland Way - Day 4 - 14.4 miles - 'Climb'
Any day that opens with an after-breakfast ferry ride across the wild waters of a Loch is off to a good start, and with my blister count down to one-and-a-half I was starting to feel more like my normal walking self again as I reached the midway point of the West Highland Way.
I pick up where I left the Way yesterday – at the jetty opposite Ardlui, where the path rises almost immediately to cross the gentle green shoulder below Cnap Mor.
It’s striking how quickly the landscape transitions as the Loch is left behind and the Way heads north into Glen Falloch. The mountains gather in scale, pushing ever higher, while pathside the scenery transforms from lush Alpine to stark Himalayan: Scots Pine and oak thinning as scrubby alder and birch take their place.
After two days of sunshine there’s a chill in the air: wind building as clouds gather then fold over the tops, fast-flowing mist adding drama to high-above crags.
I knew I was getting back in my stride when I found myself singing as I walked.
And when I started overtaking people with poles and hydration systems who’d flown past me on previous days I knew that, if not exactly fighting fit, I was at least on the mend.
On day four of the WHW you are reminded yet again of the scale of the Scottish landscape.
That it takes two days to walk up Loch Lomond is the Way’s first display of grandeur. Today you get another reminder, with a whole day dominated by a single climb.
It’s not particularly demanding. The tracks and paths are well graded, with much of the trail following one of the old military roads constructed by General George Wade in the first half of the 18th century to keep Scottish resistance to the rule of Hanover in line.
It’s just... long. After 14 miles of uphill – interlude to Auchtertyre in the Strath Fillan valley aside – you’re still half a day’s walk from Auch where you finally cross the main watershed pass.
It’s a strange kind of route too, following the busy A82 and less busy railway, so that while overlooking cloud-crested Munros and picking through the heather, there’s the constant background noise of traffic and the occasional rumble of a train.
A wilderness walk this is not.
The West Highland Way is an amusingly commercialised kind of trail.
On the Pennine Way I always appreciated the honesty-box tuckshops in godforsaken backwater farms. They were few and far between and offered both sustenance and a reminder that the hand of man was around when spirits were low.
Here every farm has an honesty box and every campsite a shop. As you approach villages you’re faced with a barrage of ads nailed to trees, for bunkhouses and trekkers lodges – even WHW T-shirts (“I walked the West Highland Way and survived", “What happens on the West Highland Way stays on the West Highland Way” and so on.)
But the locals are missing a trick. The only thing I’d pay for right now is for a professional to take a look at my feet. Add in a foot massage and I’d throw cash at them.
It’s a Dragon’s Den investment opportunity waiting to happen.
As the WHW leaves Auchertyre and heads northwest along Strathfillan, you enter the Tyndrum Community Woodland.
It’s a sizeable riverside slice of land in which the community are helping to regrow part of the Great Caledonian Forest. This temperate rainforest, which once covered much of Scotland in a rich mix of Scots pine, oak, rowan and birch, alongside areas of bog and heath, is now all but gone – just one per cent remains in its original condition.
There have been several areas I’ve passed through since joining the WHW where rewilding is reversing centuries of habitat loss.
I mentioned this observation to a guy who was also waiting for the Ardlui morning ferry. He was crossing the Loch to count bird species – not for a charity but for the landowner Laird.
It’s a good sign, I had said, that even the estates seemed to be taking conservation seriously.
Don’t believe everything you read on the glossy information boards, he said. Fact is the landowners get generous tax-funded grants that increase with the number of species on their land. Biodiversity matters insofar as the grants matter. Sure, a few lairds might like having bits of old woodland in their portfolios, he continued, but stags and grouse were what mattered.
Always follow the money.
He was a cheery chap.
There’s a bookshop in the Yorkshire Dales that every year or so becomes the subject of a tabloid story about having the worst customer service in Britain.
Steve Bloom of Bloomindales – aka the ‘bookseller from hell’ – is obnoxious to customers, charges timewasters for browsing his books and generally brings the lovely town of Hawes into disrepute.
The thing is, as a consequence of being so objectionable to his customers, he has generated a small fanbase who make a pilgrimage to Hawes to find out just how bad he is. If they personally get insulted during their shopping experience, so much the better.
I have nothing but respect for Mr Bloom.
On the contrary, I love famously poor customer service – service so bad it takes a special kind of commitment to produce. And I especially like it when a business knows it’s dreadful but refuses to do anything to change.
It was with great excitement, therefore, that I entered the reception of tonight’s topping point, the Muthu Royal Hotel in Tyndrum.
This sprawling salmon-fronted house plonked on a bleak – and busy – road stopover for traffic heading to Oban, dwarfed by moor and mountain, was purpose-built for coach parties who have stopped coming. It is the proud recipient of a three star Booking.com customer rating. Typical comments include: “Rooms from the eighties and last cleaned then I think as well”; “The bed was hard, the chair and carpet were stained and the room smelled old”; and – best of all – “had the feeling of the hotel in The Shining”.
The Royal Hotel is owned by the MGM Muthu leisure group – chairman one Dr M. G. Muthu – who also own the only other hotel in Tyndrum. Dr Muthu operates a kind of hospitality mafia in this tiny Scottish village, forcing walkers and knackered car drivers to endure poor customer service at either of his hotels.
And it really is as bad as they say.
I stand, along with a party of bemused guests, in reception for twenty minutes before anyone turns up to check us in.
Then we’re told that despite having over 100 rooms, the hotel has no kitchen. Or bar. So all guests have to traipse down the road to the sister hotel for dinner or a pint. Just what you need after a day's walking.
I ask what’s on the menu at their sister hotel
It is Scottish night, I am told. Haggis, neeps and tatties.
Anything for vegetarians, I ask?
“Do you eat salmon?”
“No, I’m vegetarian.”
I walk the corridors, that have a Mary Celeste vibe, to my room. And yes, it’s a goodie…
It does indeed have a whiff of the '80s – in odour and decor – and a mattress with springs in all the wrong places.
The loo roll holder, for reasons I can’t fathom, is placed an inch above the bathroom floor while the towel rail is located directly above the toilet pan, so that if you don’t quite hang the towel properly it falls into the loo.
The television is marginally smaller than an iPod screen and only broadcasts BBC2.
The shower comes with more warnings than a family fireworks box. You need to put the (missing) rubber mat down before stepping in, and place a (missing) towel outside of the cubicle to minimise the risk of flooding. Shampoo is actively discouraged in the shower – despite their being a large bottle of it at hand.
I enter the shower and turn it on. There is a flaccid dribble. The shower has dysfunction. Wash your hair? You’d be lucky. There’s barely enough flow to brush your teeth.
I return to reception. There’s a fetching portrait of Dr M. G. Muthu alongside the check-in desk emblazoned with the five values he holds dear: “Truth, Hardwork [sic], Integrity, Character and Hope”.
They’re values you can’t argue with, and I find myself wondering if each hotel is allowed to pick just one to embody their establishment. This place certainly has character. It’s an 80s tribute hotel and is up there with the worst accommodation of LeJog to date – in its own uniquely charming way.
Which suggests another business idea. Worst Hotels in Britain – a picture-led stocking filler book picking the three worst trip adviser-rated hotels from every county in Britain, with a choice selection of Trip Adviser quotes and a few gonzo photos. I’m 99 per cent sure it would be a hit.
I’d definitely buy it.
(There is a slightly sad coda to the story of Steve Bloom’s bookshop, incidentally, which is that only yesterday he announced he’ll be selling up after one too many complaints about his treatment of customers. He is, he has finally conceded, “not really a people person”.)