Drumnadrochit to Inverness
Great Glen Way - Day 4 - 19.7 miles - 'Fairytale'
There was a moment on today's walk when I was sitting in the sun drinking tea in a glade deep in the community-owned Abriachan Forest when a cockerel jumped onto the table and a pig wandered from behind a gorse bush to snuffle round my feet.
And I thought two things: one – a map can never foretell a walk; and two – my journey along the Great Glen had suddenly taken a fairytale twist.
My last day on the Great Glen Way was one of conversation and reflection, because for the first – and only – time on LeJog I spent the entire day in the company of another walker who, it turned out, was something of a long distance trail veteran.
The walker was Philip from Switzerland, who I met just as the Great Glen Way leaves the busy A82 at Urquhart Bay to head into the hills one last time.
Philip is an English teacher who caught the long distance walking bug after taking a gap year from work to walk the Camino de Santiago. His 2,000 mile pilgrimage traversed Switzerland and France before entering Spain and finishing in Galacia shortly after Christmas Day.
Our chat – and the walk itself – got me musing not just about the Great Glen Way, but also about long distance walking in general.
The Great Glen Way has surprised me from day one.
The shoreline wander along lovely Loch Lochy was one of the most enjoyable few miles of my entire LeJog. And walking through broadleaf forests of the future above Loch Ness – verdant with life and variety – not only offered interest, but also inspired hope for these landscapes. I thought back to that quote in a Woodland Trust wood on Day 25: "A society grows great when old people plant trees whose shade they will never sit in."
There has been a kind of magic in the air along the entire Great Glen Way, from the clover-lined forest paths into the darkness that it would be easy to miss, through the burns tumbling down the foxgloved hillsides, to the outdoors sculptures like the breathtaking Viewcatcher. All that, and a big monster in the deeps below.
You can tell none of this from the maps.
Before I'd embarked on the Great Glen Way my study of the lovely Harvey Map had suggested little more than an efficient tramp between coasts in the woods – and after 1,069 miles on the road that was good enough for me.
What I got was four of the most surprisingly rewarding days of LeJog. Not days dominated by big mountains and breathtaking scenery. But of quietly spoken charm that could never be guessed from the contours of the map, or the dotted trail lines, or the shaded demarkation between forest and moor.
These thoughts crystallised at mile nine, as undergrowth choked the path and for the first time the Way became tough to follow.
As Philip and I pushed back birch boughs and eased aside hazel sprigs we saw hand-painted signs among the trees: "KETTLE'S ON", "MARMITE ON TOAST", "THE BEST CAFE ON THE GREAT GLEN WAY".
We stopped and listened. Nothing but silence in the thickly planted wood. Were the signs a joke?
Then laughter ahead and, leaving the trail along a little sandy path through alder brush we came to a clearing in the woods and the Abriachan Eco-Campsite & Cafe.
The Abriachan Forest is one of the largest community-owned forests in Britain – 534 hectares of woodland that the community bought in March 1998. Since then the locals have been opening woodland trails to the public and replacing non-native conifers with oak and aspen.
The Eco cafe and campsite are part of the highest inhabited croft in Scotland, where the host makes hot drinks and food for passing walkers and cyclists. (The nearest car park is a few miles away.) And she does it properly: leaf tea, strainer, teapot – even a few chunks of chocolate.
The cafe is basic – a few tables, a wooden shack and a no-frills eco loo. And you have to guard your food from the hens and Bubbles the pig. But it's a treasure trove of the trail that gives the Great Glen Way yet more character.
The woodland cafe finally helps me realise why I never really got into the West Highland Way: it's the (late) Disney of walking trails: popular, commercial, impressive – but thin on charm.
As we sat in the sun, breeze keeping the midges at bay, I half envied the backpackers who wandered without a schedule. If I was one of them I'd have stopped for the day and soaked up more than just the sun rays.
As we sat in that sunshine, Michael and I chatted about the strange business of long distance walking.
Before I left Land's End I hadn’t given much thought to it: walking the length of the country sounded like a fun way to spend a couple of months, so I set off.
Sure, I knew a bit about the UK’s trails (mum walked the Coast to Coast, Pembrokeshire Coast Path and West Highland Way back when I thought a week-long walk sounded like six days too many). And I’d heard of the mighty Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails – and thought those who walked them probably had a few screws loose.
But you don't get under the skin of long-distance trails until you're a good month or so into your own walk, when you start – very slowly – to appreciate a little more the experiences of the people who undertake the more extreme through-trails.
People like 'Grandma' Gatgewood, who trekked the 2,200 Appalachian Way with little more than a blanket and waterproof. Like nine-year-old 'Monkey' and 'Mom Bear' Heather who walked the 2,665 mile Pacific Crest Trail. Heidi Jorg, who thought the easiest way to get her drifter daughter off drugs was to take her on a long walk through the American wilderness. Cheryl Strayed, who set off for her walk – popularised in the film Wild – after the end of her marriage and death of her mother. Or Natalia Spencer, who walked 6,000 miles around Britain's coast to raise money for the Bristol hospital that treated her dying daughter.
There's no such thing as a typical long distance walker. Some are roving hippies. Some nonconformists. Some are grieving. Some are just bored.
Nor are any common themes emerging that weave through my weeks walking disparate landscapes and different trails.
On the contrary, the trail has subtly – and not so subtly – changed every day I've stepped out and onto it.
Too soon the walk is over.
We make our way down into Inverness where there is activity everywhere: joggers in the streets, hockey and football players on pristine pitches, and all kinds of yoga and keep fit groups gathered along the river. Evening sun casts soft light on the riverside trees.
I say goodbye to Philip – he's camping and I'm heading back to my AirBnB where the kitten will be waiting to steal my dinner.
In the three days I’ve stayed in Inverness I’ve grown fond of it. It’s a good size for a city, with a centre you can easily wander, good pubs, good restaurants and a lively music scene. I’ve been surprised at how many (international) tourists there are in town – but that’s been true of Scotland generally. Europeans clearly love the Highlands. I'll be sad to leave – as I'l be sad to say goodbye to the Great Glen Way.
It's another part of LeJog that has exceeded my expectations.
Perhaps that's it.
The single strand that threads through LeJog.
Expectations being exceeded.
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