Killeath to Rowardennan
Updated: Jan 27
West Highland Way - Day 2 - 19.6 miles - 'Crowds'
It was a day of two narratives, both working in opposition.
On the one hand my first full day walking the West Highland Way saw the trail and weather improving by increments until, by the time I reached the Rowardennan Hotel's waterside beer garden magnificent Loch Lomond was basking under a cloudless blue sky.
The other story was told by my Strava activity readout: I got slower and slower as the full repercussions of my overambitious canal jaunt finally caught up with me in the form of four red-raw blisters. I crept into the pub in walker’s agony.
You know those ‘old suits’– aka age simulation outfits – full-body weighted suits typically modelled by a C- or D-list celebrity to illustrate to daytime television audiences what it’s like to get old (without the free TV license and bus pass)?
(I don’t understand why they don’t just ask a few real old people what it’s like to be old, incidentally, rather than get a young person to put on a suit to tell young people what it’s like to be old.)
Anyway, you don’t need an old suit to feel old.
You just need to walk LeJog.
Or, for a cut down version, the industrial belt of Scotland on its canals.
By the end of it your whole body aches, every step is an effort, pain exerts itself with each movement and the pace you take for granted is reduced to deathly slow caution as you weigh up, with every tentative footstep, the least excrutiating way to put your foot down.
Maybe there’s more to being old than that.
But the deteriorating state of my feet has made me feel old anyway.
And the rules of LeJog forbid me from using a free bus pass.
From the moment I passed above Drymen (pronounced women rather than piemen), in its pastoral bowl, it was clear I was unlikely to get lonely on the West Highland Way.
With an estimated 80,000 visitors a year – 15,000 walking the whole way – this is the busiest long distance trail in Britain.
On the Pennine Way you might meet a handful of fellow Wayers on an average day.
Here I pass a dozen in the first five minutes. It starts with the Duke of Edinburgh groups, off to an early start. By the time I enter Garadhban Forest – where the Way moves from ponderous rural prelude to the start of mountain country – the path is full to overflowing, snaking through the pines with representatives of pretty much every nationality, body shape, size, colour, age and – critically – walking ability.
Prize for obvious non-walker of the day goes to a woman who’s holding up her iPhone which is playing Katy Perry to those around her. If you’re going to broadcast your music to the Scottish hills, I feel like saying, at least play Teenage Fanclub, The Proclaimers or The Red Hot Chilli Pipers.
The thing you notice after the sheer number of people walking the Way is how well kitted out they are.
Ludicrously well kitted out.
As if they’ve read a magazine rating camping gear and instead of investing in the BEST BUY choice they’ve bought everything reviewed.
People are wearing packs that are bigger than sheep. Some have pots and pans hanging from them, others have reserve footwear slotted into pockets: flip flops, trainers, evening shoes. Pack accessories I spot include binoculars, teddy bears, a rolled up windbreak and a badminton set. These people are not travelling light. One walker even has a main pack on which is mounted a smaller one. A piggypack? Almost everyone has walking poles and absolutely everyone has a posh hydration system.
With the small daypack I’ve borrowed from Jane, my AirBnB host, I feel entirely inadequate.
Plus, three miles in, I’m already slowing down, and the Nordic walkers with their poles, megapacks and hydration systems are flying past me, dust rising in their wake.
As we begin the terraced ascent of honeypot Conic Hill (1,184 ft) – Loch Lomond’s answer to Catbells, that straddles the Highland Boundary fault – the views that have been no more than hints before open in a vista of blue and green.
From that moment the walk gets better and better.
Suddenly you’re in among the big boys: the Arrochar Alps clustered around the upper end of Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond – southernmost of the Munros – immediately ahead.
But it’s the Loch that steals the show.
Loch Lomond is the queen of the lochs – the largest stretch of inland water in Great Britain. And at 24 miles in length, it’s a queen that enjoys attention. My LeJog route will take the best part of two days to walk its forest-cloaked east bank.
It’s good walking too.
One minute you’re winding through oak and Scots pine woods underlaid with heather, bilberry and fern. The next you break out into gravelly bays, where kids are paddling, BBQs are sizzling, kites are flying and well-toned alpha males are making confident steps into the loch before abandoning their mission and retreating to beach towels.
There’s a bank holiday feel as the sun that’s been flirting with the valley until now comes out blazing, clouds breaking until none remain.
In his End to End book author Andy Robinson says that by the time the LeJoger reaches the sociable West Highland Way they'll be so fit they’ll cruise past the rookie crowds. He even goes so far as to suggest that the LeJoger should offer moral support to those having a tough time.
For me it's the other way round.
I’m usually a pretty fast walker. A 3 mph man. It’s only really rough ground that slows me down. Today I'm walking wounded. I set out at 2 mph. And as the day wears on I get steadily slower as the pain from my blisters increases and the miles that usually drop away with reliable ease on my GPS slow to a crawl.
Not only am I being overtaken by the Nordic squad, I’m being overtaken by pouting teens wondering why they're being dragged up Conic Hill when their friends have gone to Disneyland, squabbling Duke of Edinburgh groups and – most humbling of all – breathless Americans taking their first ever waking holiday while stopping for the occasional dram.
As my speed finally collapses to 1mph, and I am forced to limp along the tracks, I start getting looks of sympathy that Robinson had envisaged the end-to-ender giving others.
It is a humiliation. I’m hardly a competitive walker but it's hard not to take my nosediving performance personally. I feel like a... once mighty lion, wounded so badly in the hunt that younger, agile cubs are jostling for position as head of the pride while gazelles, giraffes, buffalo and a few tortoises overtake me on the unforgiving savannah road.
Something like that.
Hey, I think about saying, I’ve walked from Goddamn Land’s End! I’m a Pennine Way veteran who faced the Cross Fell crosswinds and won! I tramped the Tan Hill bogs and came out on top! I crossed the Somerset Levels and outran the farmers! I walked 28.8 miles of Scottish canals and am fighting another day! Sod you with your fancy nordic strides and your megabackpacks and your 3mph average speed. See your walking pole? You can stick it up your…
Then I think, God, this is all a little bit Back in my day… and realise that as well as making me feel like an old man, my blisters are making me think like one too.
So I continue onwards, through the sweet smelling pine woods as I’m overtaken by mums with pushchairs and couples who look like the last time they walked anywhere was up the aisle 30 years or so back.
On days like this you can’t let your body dictate terms.
If every step's causing pain, then you need to put your feet up once in a while.
So I take two long breaks, when my socks and boots come off so that I can enjoy the Loch on this perfect summer’s day.
One is at busy Balhama, with its nick-nack shops and restless marina, where I buy ice cream and tea, and spend 40 minutes people-watching with the sun on my skin. I almost feel like I’m on holiday.
The second is beside a beached tree trunk in an inlet south of Rowardennan, where I watch the sun play on the waves as sailing boats plough the bay.
At journey’s end, in the full-to-overflowing Rowardennan Hotel I order a pint of Tennents and look for a seat in the beer garden.
I’m stopped by a woman who recognises me.
“Were you in the canalside Inn in Kilsyth two nights back?”
Yes, I say.
“We saw you come in. You looked knackered.”
Definitely me, I say.
They’d been there before heading to a wedding the next day. Now they were enjoying the view down the Loch before returning home to Oban.
They’ve walked the West Highland Way twice. The best is yet to come, they say. If it gets better than this I’m in for a treat. Especially if the weather holds.
I just need my feet to give me a break. Or vice versa. Three days until I next rest. I’m hoping I can hold out until then.
Or at the very least, hobble slowly on.
At six o’clock my AirBnB host Jane arrives to pick me up.
Once again I’ve lucked out on accommodation; Jane is happy to ferry me to and from WHW start and end points, so I’ve booked another night with her.
It means I get a room to myself rather than having to brave the shared bunk room of Rowardennan Lodge YHA – because right now my priority is the best quality rest I can get.
Her offer of lifts – which are miles out of her way – are well beyond the call of AirBnB duty. She even serves me pie, jacket potatoes and salad for dinner.
By the time I go to bed my wretched, tingling feet are starting to feel halfway normal again. For the first time in days.