Avoiding the Chasm

April 16, 2011

Notes From The West Highland Way

Filed under: Life — Tags: , , — vextasy @ 6:20 am

These are some notes that I made after we walked the West Highland Way in May of 2010. I hope that some of them might prove useful to anyone considering making the walk themselves. Back in September 2009 I wrote a similar set of notes about the lessons learned from the Wainwright Coast to Coast Walk.

Level of Difficulty

I think that the West Highland Way is a relatively easy trail. I ought to qualify that by adding that I think it is a relatively easy trail if the weather is in your favour. I suspect, and I have no evidence to support this suspicion because we had near perfect weather, that if the weather is foul then the trail could become very difficult indeed. On day three as you walk up the wooded eastern coast of Loch Lomond the path can become very slippery in wet weather and there were plenty of tales of people whose walk came to a premature end at that point. After Bridge of Orchy the terrain becomes higher and much more exposed and so would be that much harder in poor weather. I got the impression that the stage distances suggested by the guide books were as much a consequence of planning for poor weather as they were related to the distances between areas of accommodation. In good weather they may seem short and easy, but in poor weather they could really be a challenge.

In 2009, in our final week of holiday, we walked the first 100 miles of the Coast to Coast trail from St Bees, through the Lake District and part of the Yorkshire Dales to Reeth. By comparison, the West Highland Way seemed much easier. The entire trail is on a clearly defined path, there is really little opportunity to get lost and hardly any occasion that calls for any real navigational skills – that is unless the weather deteriorates and the fog comes down.

We carried Ordnance Survey maps and two guide books (one each), a compass and a GPS device (but that was really just to record the trail). All this might seem like overkill after my comments on how relatively easy the walk is but, I’ve learned from experience on more than one occasion that when conditions change you will be more than glad that you made the effort to be prepared.

On day one of the West Highland Way we were joined briefly by a lady who had left her husband and friend in the Beech Tree Inn at Dumgoyne while she walked ahead to gain a bit of time on them (at least that was her explanation). The problem was that they only had the one route map between them and so she was walking blind hoping to arrive in Drymen by following the coat tails of other walker – this seemed like a recipe for disaster and at such an early stage on the trail too.

I noticed that the average age of walkers on the West Highland Way seemed somewhat higher than the age of walkers on the Coast to Coast and perhaps this agreed with my assessment about difficulty (or at least perceived difficulty).

Preparation

The daily distances covered on the West Highland Way are not enough to trouble any reasonably fit walker but problems can arise as a result of the fact that these distances need to be covered on eight (or so) consecutive days. It is this repeated assault on the feet, and without opportunity for recovery, that is the most likely threat to the successful completion of the trail.

Our immediate preparation for the trail, which is also what we did to prepare for the Coast to Coast, was to walk for 15 miles on three consecutive days wearing the same shoes and clothes that we would be walking in and carrying exactly the same pack and weight that we would be carrying. We would do this a week before starting the trail. The thinking behind it was that if there were any weaknesses in our feet or equipment then these would have shown up over the three days and we would have time to resolve them and for any injuries to have healed before we started the real walk. For feet, it also had the side effect of hardening up any soft skin and so reducing the chances of developing blisters as well as identifying areas of the feet that were likely to be problematic.

Essentials

These would be top of my list of essentials. Any good guide book will provide a comprehensive list of the real essentials, but these two are easy to overlook or to skimp on.

1. Blister Plasters

Even the toughest walker can be brought to a halt by failing to pay attention to their feet. It only takes a mild blister to ruin a good day of walking and so a pack of blister plasters is an essential part of the kit for this walk.

2. Good Waterproofs and Sun Screen

The weather in Scotland can be unpredictable. There are stretches of this walk that are without cover from the elements for quite some distance and so excellent waterproofs, a good sun hat and a supply of sun cream should be in every rucksack.

Useful Books

We purchased two guide books:

1. West Highland Way by Charlie Loram. Trailblazer (2008). 190 pages. £9.99

This book is one of a series of books commonly referred to as “the brick” guides on account of their square cut and, some would say, weight (although I think that is a little harsh). If I could only take one book, in addition to Ordnance Survey maps, then this would be the book for me. The maps are black and white line drawings but are full of the kind of detail that you won’t find on an OS map (such as “After crossing cattle grid keep eyes peeled for small path on right. It is waymarked.”).

As you might expect the guide lists camp sites, B&Bs, hotels, shops and other amenities that you will find along the WHW and also gives opening times, web sites, phone numbers and prices. In this guide these are listed as part of the trail description which means that it is less likely that you will walk past that last lunch opportunity.

A useful set of sample itineraries is given in the early section of the book. This is a great starting point for planning your walk. Different itineraries are given according to whether you are planning on camping, staying in bunkhouses & hostels or staying in B&Bs and within each of those categories a suggested itinerary is given for each of a relaxed, medium, or fast pace resulting in an overall time of between 6 and 9 days walking to complete the trail.

2. The West Highland Way by Terry Marsh. Cicerone (2003). 120 pages. £10.00

The Cicerone book is lighter and more flexible than the Trailblazer and has a laminated plastic cover which I would imagine would make it slightly more water resistant. It doesn’t give anything like the same level of information about amenities but does provide more in the way of asides on the immediate history or geography of sections of the walk.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two books is that this one contains a complete set of 1:25,000 scale Ordnance Survey strip maps that cover the entire route. I wouldn’t normally consider walking a trail without a set of OS maps but if you have a limited budget or simply no room left in your pack then this book will, at least, give you some of the advantages that you would have gained from the maps. One word of warning though – stray more than a third of a mile from the route and you will have walked off the map altogether.

Time of Year

We chose to walk the West Highland Way in the middle of May. This being late enough in the year that there are plenty of daylight hours and a good chance of warm and dry weather but early enough in the year that the likelihood of being troubled by midges is small. I prefer to walk hilly walks when I know that I stand some chance of being able to cool down after a steep climb and so April, May and September would be good candidate months for a trail. However, one thing that becomes apparent is that enjoyment of the West Highland Way is likely to be greatly dependent on the weather – a few of its sections are without much in the way of shelter and on a rainy day would be quite miserable.

Leaving Your Car

We had originally planned to leave our car at a farm a few miles outside Milngavie for a small daily charge but the logistics of getting it to and from the farm were proving to be irritatingly complicated. We would arrive in Milngavie on the night before we started the walk and would then have to deposit our bags at our accommodation and then set off to deposit the car at the farm and then walk back. At the end of the trail we would have to do all of this in reverse, adding a few extra miles and an hour or so to our day before we could start the drive home.

However, on arriving at the Premier Inn in Milngavie the kind lady on reception pointed out that for no charge at all we could leave the car all week with them and collect it as we passed on our return. She kept the car key (not our only one) in their safe in case of emergencies and hinted that we might like to make a small (optional) donation to their Water Aid charity which I was more than happy to do.

Public Transport

On completing the walk we spent the night in Fort William and caught the bus back from Fort William to Glasgow. If there was one thing about our arrangements that I would change a second time around it would be the decision to use the bus. We had originally planned to take the train but a mix-up over the online booking coupled with the fact that the bus appeared to be quicker and was certainly cheaper than the train meant that we opted to hop on the Glasgow bus at Fort William with a plan to catch a second bus back from Glasgow to Milngavie.

Actually finding the bus station in Fort William was our first problem and then when the bus arrived there were more people attempting to board than there clearly were seats on the bus and so the driver has to perform an elaborate and length ticket check which combined with a rather complicated set of rules for whereabouts in the boot cases destined for Glasgow needed to be placed meant that there was a good chance that if you were travelling as a couple you might end up sitting at different ends of the bus to each other. The bus was noisy, dirty and uncomfortable. I’d take the train without doubt next time.

Our Schedule

We walked the route in eight stages (nine nights of accommodation):

Day Route Distance
Day 1 Milngavie to Drymen 12 miles
Day 2 Drymen to Sallochy 14 miles
Day 3 Sallochy to Inverarnan 13 miles
Day 4 Inverarnan to Strathfillan 13 miles
Day 5 Strathfillan to Bridge of Orchy 7 miles
Day 6 Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse 13 miles
Day 7 Kingshouse to Kinlochleven 8.5 miles
Day 8 Kinlochleven to Fort William 14.5 miles

If we walked it again we would probably plan to do it in 7 stages. The stage from Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy could easily be done in a single day. We had a lot of time to while away in Tyndrum to avoid arriving in Bridge of Orchy before lunch.

Places to Stay

We stayed in the following places on each of our nine nights:

Night 1 – Milngavie – Premier Inn

Premier Inn Milngavie,
103 Main Street,
Milngavie.
G62 6JQ
T: 0870 197 7112

http://www.premierinn.com/en/hotel/GLAWES/glasgow-milngavie

A clean, comfortable and friendly overnight stop with an attached restaurant. The biggest surprise of all was that they offered to let us leave the car in their car park for no fee. Their suggestion that I might like to make a charity donation to Water Aid was something that I was more than happy to do. Highly Recommended.

Night 2 – Drymen – The Hawthorns

The Hawthorns B&B,
The Square,
Drymen.
G63 0BH
T: 01360 660916

http://www.thehawthorns-drymen.com/

A friendly, family run guest house with overflow accommodation in their nearby self-catering houses. We found ourselves in the self-catering accommodation with breakfast in the main house. We learned, on leaving, that the owners will drop off and collect walkers from the adjacent sections of the trail, allowing you to choose Drymen as your base for the first three days of the walk rather than just one. There is a choice of places to eat in the village.

Night 3 – Sallochy – Northwood Cottage

Northwood Cottage,
Sallochy,
Rowardennan.
G63 0AW
T: 01360 870351

A small cottage in a amongst a collection of cottages in the wood in Sallochy. We were made to feel very welcome and the house was spotlessly clean but soundproofing between the walls was lacking and we did feel as though we could hear every sound from the neighbouring room.

There is nowhere to eat in Sallochy but the owner of the cottage kindly arranged to run us to the Inversnaid Hotel for an evening meal (and picked us up too).

Night 4 – Inverarnan – Clisham Cottage

Clisham Cottage,
Inverarnan,
Ardlui.
G83 7DX
T: 01301 704339

http://www.clishamcottage.com/home.htm

Another friendly, farmhouse-like, overnighter. The room was comfortable and a good breakfast provided in the kitchen the following morning. A choice of two locations for evening meal are within 5 minutes walk from the house.

Night 5 – Tyndrum – Strathfillian House

Strathfillan House,
Tyndrum.
FK20 8RU
T: 01838 400228

http://www.tyndrum.com/

A beautiful house in a setting by the river attached to a disused chapel. By far the best breakfast of the entire walk was had here. The rooms were big and bright but I was awoken by the sound of something scurrying around in the ceiling of our room on several occasions in the night.

Night 6 – Bridge of Orchy – Bridge of Orchy Hotel

Bridge of Orchy Hotel
Bridge of Orchy
Argyll.
PA36 4AD
T: 01838 400208

http://www.bridgeoforchy.co.uk/

A rather comfortable oasis in the middle of walk. More pricy than a B&B but nevertheless well worth it.

Night 7 – Glencoe – Kingshouse Hotel

Kingshouse Hotel,
Glencoe,
Argyll.
PH49 4HY
T: 01855 851259

http://www.kingy.com/

Rather basic rooms but in a most fantastic setting. Breakfast was good which is just as well because there really isn’t a lot of choice of accommodation at this stage of the walk unless you opt to catch a bus into Glencoe.

Night 8 – Kinlochleven – Herman

Hermon,
5 Rob Roy Road,
Kinlochleven,
Argyll.
PH50 4RA
T: 01855 831383

http://www.hermonkinlochleven.co.uk/

A modern house on a modern estate but efficiently run and with access to a pleasant sun lounge. Very clean and with a good breakfast. The only real downside was the number of chiming clocks that went off at points of the hour throughout the night. Within walking distance of the village for evening meals.

Night 9 – Fort William – Glentower Lower Observatory

Glentower Lower Observatory,
Achintore Road,
Fort William,
Inverness-shire.
PH33 6RQ
T: 01397 704007

http://www.glentower.com/

A wonderful place to end the walk with good hot showers, large rooms and friendly owners. Highly recommended.

Places to Eat

These are the places that we found food and drink. They may not necessarily be the best available but often the choice was very limited and so are a good indication of what to expect and where.

During the day

We stopped at these places for our lunch:

Day 1 – The Beech Tree Inn, Dumgoyne

Lots of seating outside and a more cosy atmosphere inside. Good food and drink to be had here. I had originally planned to walk on past the Beech Tree and take the detour into Killearn but was glad that I had chosen to stop. A good place to linger if you want to let the crowds get ahead of you.

Day 2 – The Oak Tree Inn, Balmaha

An atmospheric, dark and warm pub with a good menu and choice of beers and wines. If you’ve taken the detour to the top of Conic Hill on the approach to Drymen then you have justified an extended stay in the Oak Tree. We would have liked to have returned for an evening meal but, unfortunately, our accommodation was closer to the, rather disappointing, Rowardenan Hotel than to Balmaha.

Day 3 – Inversnaid Hotel

Rather lacking in atmosphere, and with a walkers entrance around the back this well carpeted coach-tour-stop is at least good for a coffee.

Day 4 – Crianlarich Railway Station Cafe

Worth a visit for the comedy factor. We were asked to leave our rucksacks in a distant corner of the room rather than dirty the plastic and formica furniture. Poor coffee, but passable tea and a good shelter if it is raining outside.

Day 5 – The Green Welly Stop, Tyndrum

If you, like us, find yourself passing time in Tyndrum the Green Welly Stop is really the only place you can linger for a couple of hours on just a couple of cups of coffee. Quite a large self-service cafe, it has the feel of a service station but without the fuel.

Day 6 – Nowhere (between Bridge of Orchy and Kingshouse)

There is nowhere to eat between Bridge of Orchy and Kingshouse and so you should arrange to pick up a packed lunch from the Bridge of Orchy hotel.

Day 7 – Nowhere (between Kingshouse and Kinlochleven)

Another day with no opportunity to find food en route, so remember to order a packed lunch at Kingshouse.

Day 8 – Nowhere (between Kinlochleven and Fort William)

There is nowhere to purchase food between Kinlochleven and the approach to Fort William but there is a good store in Kinlochleven that sells sandwiches. A good coffee, or something stronger, can be got on arrival at Fort William.

In the evening

We ate at these places in the evening:

Day 1 – Clachan Inn, Drymen

The food was passable but the service lacked any spark when we visited. I couldn’t help wishing we had investigated some of the alternatives before committing to the Clachan Inn.

Day 2 – Rowardenan Hotel

We were driven to the bar of the Rowardenan Hotel from our accommodation in Sallochy. We wished we could have been taken in the opposite direction back towards the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha. The bar of the Rowardenan Hotel was cold and draughty and the service and attention to detail was poor. Perhaps we caught it on a bad day, after all the hotel was undergoing refurbishment but it was lacking in almost every respect.

Day 3 – The Drovers, Inverarnan

A fantastic place to eat or drink. A wonderful atmosphere aided by the stuffed animals, suits of armour, plush upholstery and kilted bar staff. The service was efficient, the food was excellent and in great quantity too. Live music followed.

Day 4 – Tyndrum Lodge Hotel, Tyndrum

We had wanted to eat fish and chips from the Real Food Cafe at the southern end of the village but it was bursting at the seams with visitors who had arrived by car or coach. Instead we had a surprisingly good meal with good service in the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel, next door to Paddy’s Bar and Grill.

Day 5 – Bridge of Orchy Hotel

There is no choice but to eat in the hotel. Having said that I really enjoyed my stay in this hotel. It was clean and formal but friendly too and quite a contrast to the bed and breakfast accommodation that we had used on the other nights of the walk. The restaurant food was excellent but quite pricy. A little bit of luxury half way through the walk.

Day 6 – Kings House Hotel, Kingshouse

Much more basic than the Bridge of Orchy Hotel but the bar is friendly and there is a reasonable choice of food on the menu. Just as well really because, just like at Bridge of Orchy, there really is no alternative place to stay. After walking across Rannoch Moor in bad weather you would be really grateful for what was on offer here. If you come prepared for rather basic bedroom accommodation you won’t be disappointed with the food and drink at the Kings House Hotel. The breakfast is good.

Day 7 – Highland Getaway, Kinlochleven

Basic pub grub with friendly service. After the walk from Kingshouse you will be grateful of this place.

Day 8 – Crannog Seafood Restaurant, Fort William

Unusual setting for a restaurant on a pier jutting out into the loch at Fort William. Bigger inside than it looks from the outside. Excellent food and friendly, lively service. Mostly seafood but also some meat and vegetarian dishes. A fine place to celebrate the end of the walk.

Costs

We estimated that it cost us approximately £650 per person to complete the walk including the nine overnight stays in B&Bs or hotels, the baggage carrier, the return journey from Fort William to Milngavie and an allowance for evening meals and lunchtime snacks. There are clearly several ways in which this figure could be reduced but it would likely result in an order of magnitude more discomfort and would almost certainly involve camping and carrying equipment and gear in between the overnight stops.

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