Scotland Day 21 - Kingshouse to Kinlochleven
Annoyingly, I've had a few days of not sleeping well. I think I've got used to the mileage, so I'm not feeling exhausted and ready for sleep as early as I used to. And then with the earlyish starts I've been making in order to catch the better morning weather I'm a bit behind in my sleeping hours. Last night I had a great FaceTime with my family which definitely made me unsettled, it was so lovely to see their faces, and I really miss them. I know the amount of sleep is important, and the lack of it definitely impaired my walking today. Early night tonight
Hammering rain and strong winds were not an appetising sight first thing. A couple of days ago we passed a board saying that this was the wettest part of the UK. On this last few days' experience I can absolutely vouch for that.
A rather basic breakfast of porridge and toast, and I was off past Kings House hotel on to the Way. When they did the refurb in 2019, they knocked down all the earlier extensions, only leaving behind the original 18th century pub Then they started all over again with a huge new extension which dwarfs the original. It's unrecognisable, but far more fit for purpose. I think it's great that as well as the flash hotel they also built a much more basic bunkhouse, to cater for young (and older!) walkers who are on a budget.
Because of the Scottish right to access, one has the right to roam and camp on most unenclosed land. Only 8% of English land has a right to roam. There were many campers taking advantage of their right, with various tents pitched just off the Way. There was also a couple of girls who were still comfortably tucked up in their duvet on the back seat of their car.
For the first mile of today it didn't rain. I chatted to David, enjoying the combination of dry weather and decent signal. We were reminiscing about the last time I was here, in 2015, when we climbed the Devil's Staircase together. It was in a hut next to an honesty box at the top that we met the American walker who inspired me to do this trek. I was really looking forward to being there again, it felt like an important place.
The track clings to the side of the hill, giving murky views down the valley, or back over Rannoch Moor. Full wets on now, with my hood pulled low. The wind was the strongest it's been, and I marvelled at the walker ahead of me who appeared to have an umbrella strapped to her rucksack. How does it not turn inside out?
The Devil's Staircase was constructed in 1750, as part of the military road linking Fort William with Stirling. The staircase refers to the engineered zigzags to reduce the gradient up the side of Beinn Bheag. The Devil part of the title has various explanations, it could be because of the steepness of the zigzags, but also because some of the navvies constructing Blackwater Dam on the way to Kinlochleven died coming back over the pass. Whatever the story, it's definitely a challenge, even with the zigzags making it less of a vertical walk.
The busy A82 runs just past the beginning of the climb, and as I walked past the traffic, rain running off my hood and boots squelching, I considered whether I'd prefer to be in one of those warm cars. I decided I wouldn't. It's not necessarily fun being wet and chilly, but it feels real. And this is Scotland.
Although the military road might have reduced the incline a bit, it's still quite a climb. Climbing is great when there are views to reward you, sadly it was just murky grey today. So I tuned into some of my sponsors' songs, the familiar in Louis Armstrong's Wonderful world, the less familiar with a couple of Waterboys songs, the extremely appropriate with Proclaimers' 500 mioes, and the hilarious with the Hokey Cokey. During lockdown, when I was running the choirs on zoom, we had a session that culminated in that song. The sight of everyone putting their left leg in and then later rushing up to their cameras was hilarious, and remembering it took my mind off the climb and the wet.
I was increasingly excited to see the honesty box and its adjoining shelter, but it never appeared. There is a false summit at the top of the Devil's Staircase, and so I thought maybe it was there. But no. Maybe it fell down. I was disappointed not to see it again, as a marker of what that encounter had meant, but also knew that it was a moment that changed me, seeing the place again would make no difference to that.
It's a very exposed place in bad weather, but I knew I ought to sit briefly and have a hot drink. I found a slab of rock that afforded a little protection and drank some tea, hoping it would help warm me up. Not really, the only way to do that was to get off the hill.
The descent down to Kinlochleven is long and at times a bit stony, but not as bad as I had been told. There were many fords across the streams in spate, generally with sturdy rocks to help cross them without getting my soaked boots even wetter.
For the first time I needed my gloves. It was cold and windy, and I considered putting on an extra layer of clothes. But to do that would mean an interval of getting colder and wetter when I took off the waterproof, so I endeavoured to move faster instead.
As the path drops lower, the landscape changes, going through woods and past a reservoir that was pouring water over the top of the dam. I passed a young German girl with a rucksack, we smiled at each other but neither had the energy for conversation. Beyond the reservoir the path runs alongside a collection of sinister looking pipes that run down to the village into the large aluminium works, and as part of what was once the biggest hydro-electric power scheme in Europe.
Kinlochleven was the first village in the world to have every house connected to electricity. It was originally two hamlets, Kinlochmore and Kinlochbeag, which were on either side of the busy river Leven. It's not beautiful, the huge factory rather glowers over the village, with the National Ice Climbing Centre next door. I was tempted momentarily, but just as I didn't want to go home because of tripping over a stone yesterday, I thought I would probably be a bit miffed if the walk had to stop due to an ice climbing related accident.
Because it was a short walk today, I arrived in the village about 12.30. I had thought that there would be a number of places at which to get lunch before perhaps falling on the better nature of my B and B owners to get let in earlier than 3. In fact there was a take out cafe, a Chinese takeaway and two pubs, one of which didn't open till 2. So the other pub it was.
The landlady at the Tailrace Inn was lovely and said I could stay as long as I liked, but also said I wouldn't be able to get into my accommodation early ('they're lovely people, but very strict about that') so I sat there for two and a half hours, watching their TV playing Only Fools and Horses and then later the Wimbledon final, periodically ordering more food or drink to make me feel less guilty for taking the space.
At the beginning there were three other tables occupied; another walker who appeared just as cold and exhausted as me - we didn't chat. Then there was a local man who'd taken his little girls out for lunch but wanted to be on his phone. And finally three older people who are their lunch in complete silence and avoiding eye contact with each other. We all made for a lively bunch.
Then gradually more soaked people arrived from off the hills. The pub is strict on what can or can't come in. No rucksacks, so the entrance to the building was piled with soaking bags. But the converse was that we had to keep our wet boots on. The sign said that removing boots has meant that the smell puts people off their haggis. I can't blame them, my boots smell like a bit of me has died in there.
It was entertaining watching the dynamics between the new arrivals. There were some very jovial Swiss youngsters next to me for a while, who were chatty and especially interested that I should explain 'this spotty dick pudding, what is it?'
A few couples, and a girl with 4 men who had been at the bunkhouse this morning. She looked like she couldn't take much more. She was offered chickpea soup and that appeared to push her over the edge. Almost all from the EU, which has been a surprising aspect of this walk, it's clearly famous and popular in Europe. Not so popular with a young Spanish man who was only in a T shirt, shivering. 'I am Spanish, I like to be warm!'
I was very glad of my safety first attitude with my rucksack packing, in that I always carry extra layers in my bag. I was properly cold, and in the end of my sojourn in the pub I was wearing everything I owned. Getting to the B and B was a joy, they took all my wet stuff to dry, and the room had both tablet, chocolates and Tunnock tea cakes. Perfect for a couple of hours of doing nothing before dinner. I'd had great plans to go to The Aluminium Story, a museum that sounded unmissable, but sadly it is closed till further notice, so instead I caught up with emails, wrote this blog, chatted to friends on the phone and planned tomorrow.
Another lovely deer moment after dinner, but I'm increasingly conscious that whereas the tourists are delighted by them, the locals not so much. A stern sign told me that they can spread serious disease and can attack. They clearly also are no respecter of property, I watched this one having a good go at things in people's gardens before eating a big chunk of a decorative tree. You wouldn't mess with those antlers if he decided to attack.
Distance travelled: 9.4 miles
Total ascent: 1327 feet (felt like more!)
Calories burned: 1425
Local tipple - Blonde beer from River Leven
Dinner at the Highland Getaway Inn (the pub that was shut at lunchtime) - good if basic
Darne of salmon with potatoes and vegetables
Sponsors' songs - thanks to Jeanette and Ian, Steve, and Janna
Wonderful World - Louis Armstrong
Whole of the moon - Waterboys
Fisherman's Blues - Waterboys
500 miles - The Proclaimers
The Hokey Cokey - Black Lace
Video of the day