West Highland Way - Day 1 - 20.9 miles - 'Up'
[Note that I walked the Great Glen Way as part of a longer walk from Land's End to John o'Groats, the full account of which can be found here.]
Sometimes the accommodation makes all the difference.
In Allanfauld Farm B&B I sunk into bed and slept until well after activity had started in the farmyard.
Over a four-course breakfast one of Libby Macgregor’s 14 grandchildren gave me a rundown of the different sheep breeds on the hills.
Then Libby drove me back through Kilsyth and got out of her car to shake my hand and wish me well as I set off again on the trail.
And back onto the tarmac of that damn canal.
The sunshine made a difference too.
Not so much to the scenery in the first few miles as I continued along the Forth & Clyde Canal – it was more of the same; boqueted flower banks, overhanging trees, yellow lilies studding the water and miles of rundown housing estates alongside.
But to activity along the towpath. After yesterday’s near-solo slog, the weather had bought the crowds out. Heads-down cyclists, families out for the day, joggers, dog-walkers – even a few tandems. Still almost no river traffic though.
That Sunday morning busyness continued as I struck north, leaving the canal at Kirkintilloch to join the Strathblane Railway Walkway – a cyclepath on the the trackbed of what was once an extension of the Blane Valley Line linking Glasgow Queen Street with Aberfoyle.
And while I gave a silent cheer to be leaving the canals – you can definitely have too much of a good thing – I was still treading tarmac. 45 miles and counting.
For the first time I’m clocking up LeJog lasts.
Yesterday was my last 25 mile-plus day.
It was also the last day I'd make almost no headway north.
And today is the last time I’ll be on the canals (I’m not counting the short stretches along the Great Glen).
There’s a tangible sense that the end is getting closer. And that as long as I keep my head down and blisters dressed I might – might – just make it.
There’s a sense too that the end will come at the right time. When I started out there were bluebells on the cliffs, a whole journey ahead and everything was a first time LeJog experience. The first marathon day. The first cycle track. The first canal.
Now I’m pleased to see the back of them. And relieved to know the end is getting closer with each mile.
You wouldn’t want a walk like this to become routine, I suppose. To become tired. To become the day job.
My trip through Scotland so far – which has, in turn, been a joy, a surprise, a slog and sometimes a misery – has been about getting to the West Highland Way, which will take me to Fort William and the Great Glen Way, which, in turn, will take me to Inverness on the east coast for my final leg north to John o’Groats.
The West Highland Way (WHW) is therefore a critical milestone. Not just one I’ve looked forward to as a walk in itself, but as the start of the end. A final fling among the big mountains.
Today was the day I was to meet it, not at its start in urban Milngavie, but a few miles further north near Strathblane.
Some LeJoggers feel about the WHW as I did about the Pennine Way: if you’re going to do some of it, you may as well do all of it.
Which is how one couple accidentally ended up walking into the Gorbals in what I think is one of the funniest LeJog accounts I’ve read in the many blogs I checked before I set out.
David and Francesca write about their 2015 end-to-end trip on the aptly named EatSleepWalkRepeat blog.
By the time they got to Glasgow the couple were 54 days into their trip. And however much you’re loving the long walk, you generally want the remaining weeks to pass with as few hitches as possible.
Writes Francesca: “As we were walking David wondered aloud about the estates of Glasgow often mentioned in the news… But as Google Maps does not differentiate between areas we were oblivious as to where our route was taking us.
“So when a police car pulled up alongside us and two policemen inside asked us if we knew where we were going, I responded all too cheerily, ‘John o’Groats’.”
The police were not, it turns out, remotely interested. What they were interested in was why two backpackers were about to wander into one of the most notoriously violent estates in Europe. “Admittedly,” Francesca continues, “we stood out like a sore thumb and hadn’t seen anyone else sporting the ‘hiking look’.”
Unable to suggest a safe walking route out of the Gorbals the officers asked the couple to get into their squad car so that they could be driven up the road a few miles and out of harms way.
And every LeJoger knows that Rule #1 is No lifts. Ever.
What to do in this end-to-end existential dilemma? Refuse the police offer and risk both their wrath and that of the local criminal class? Or… get in the car?
In the end it was an easy choice. Writes Francesca: “A ride in a police car? Far too good an opportunity to turn down.
"Then again, in all seriousness, I don’t think the police were prepared to take no for an answer.”
As far as I know, they're the only LeJogers who've had a brush with the law – for their own protection.
As the cycle path continues north the Campsie Fells on the right draw closer. At first they’re nothing of note, but on Slackdhu rock finally fractures the skein in a long battlement of crags.
A few miles on the shattered rock plug of Dunglass is a prelude to what's ahead.
Then, within moments of joining the West Highland Way above Carbeth Loch the land drops away revealing my first glimpse of distant Munros.
My pulse quickens as it had as I walked down into sweltering Edale at the start of the Pennine Way almost a month to the day ago.
Back in mountain country.
Among the true giants of our island, which I barely know.
I spend a few minutes surveying the track as it snakes to the horizon ahead. It will be my path for the next week, taking me to the foot of Ben Nevis.
I’m a mountain man at heart. And I’m already getting excited.
My stopping point for the night is the pretty hilltop village of Killearn. It’s off the WHW tourist trail, but is the better for it.
Fractures in thunderclouds make for strikingly bright floods of light, throwing evening gold onto the churches, ageing oaks and Old Mill beer garden.
I hear the pub long before I get to it.
I’d half hoped – as I aways half hope – for a quiet table in the corner to enjoy my long awaited end-of-day pint, a celebration that my body lives to walk one more day.
But I should have known better – I’ve even lived in Scotland! – and the Blane Valley Inn down the valley had already been heaving when I dropped in after lunch.
Inside the Old Mill is rammed. Barely room to move – even without a backpack. Piles of empties suggest the day’s been a long one. And the queue at the bar suggests it’s not winding down.
I get chatting to a local. It’s like this every Sunday, he says, but tonight’s double trouble as it’s Banksy's pub quiz, start time 6pm – a village institution. It is, by turns, raucous, bawdy and cryptically brilliant with plenty of ribbing and team names that are making the older guests blush.
I squeeze into a chair by the bar and can’t believe that I forgot that the Scots like their Sunday tipple.
Despite there being no tables and the kitchen closing at eight – no room at this Inn – they’re good enough to rearrange diners so that I can eat. Then my B&B host drives to the pub to ferry me back to her cottage in the country where she makes me a good ol' cuppa and – bliss – the boots come off.
I’m reminded for the second time in as many days that LeJog would be a whole load harder without the kindness of strangers.