A brilliant day today. I was very tempted by the publicity for the Kinlochleven Fringe that I saw yesterday. For a tiny place, there is a lot going on. I was keen on an original play about the massacre of Glencoe, hoping it would educate me a bit about this area, but sadly it was full last night. And the belly dancing classes were only on this afternoon, that's a skill I'll have to learn another day. But it was probably for the best that I was prevented from going, as it meant I had a really early night and actually got some sleep.
The B and B I was staying in last night was a last minute booking. I was supposed to be in a wooden pod in a field, in a hired sleeping bag with a toilet block at the other end of the field. When I saw what the forecast was for yesterday I decided to go for a more comfortable option. What a result, Wullie and Pauline were wonderful hosts, and the breakfast this morning was the best I've had in Scotland. Fresh fruit, porridge with maple syrup and the smoked haddock fish cake with poached eggs. Amazing, and just what I needed before a big walk today.
The first two or three miles out of the village are steep. Wullie said to think of it as the same as the Devil's Staircase and then some more. I passed the directions to Grey Mare's Tail falls, but decided not to do an additional hill so early in the morning. I could have taken the opportunity to cross it on a via ferrata, where I'd have been clipped to a wire and walked on a metal tightrope across the face of the waterfall. Just didn't have time. Shame.
As with so many mornings, I had a mile of dry weather, and then as the hill really got going so did the rain. My waterproofs almost jump out of my rucksack of their own accord now. It was a steep climb, but it didn't cause me too many problems, mainly because I was completely diverted from the effort by my music.
My dear friend Carly and I have been buddies for 50 years. Gulp. She and I were very close during our A levels, and when we were going our separate ways for university, me to study music, her to train to be a PE teacher, I knew I would miss her very much. So my strategy for dealing with that sadness was obviously to make her a farewell mixtape, with a written commentary on the songs I chose and why. Brilliantly, she's kept it, and yesterday sent over photos of what I wrote. I will not be sharing those photos, but let it be understood, I was weirdly uncool then in a way that probably surprises nobody now. I searched for many of the tracks on Spotify, and created a new mixtape, but this time on a playlist. I was then transported back to that brilliant late teenage time, remembering the fun we had, and the scrapes we got into. And so much hilarity. One of the songs was Perfect Day by Lou Reed. It came on just as the rain came down in bucketloads all over me. It made me laugh as if I was 17 again.
I motored up the hill, moving through some of my other excellent choices, such as Night and Day by Peter Skellern accompanied by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band (which coincidentally my mum has suggested for my sponsored song). Obviously, because I was 17, I also chose Land of Hope and Glory. I told you I wasn't cool. I must be getting fitter, because even though there was quite vigorous climbing going on, I was singing along.
I have spent a lot of time today thinking about how lucky I am with my friends as well as my family, and how grateful I am for the support that they have been giving me. These precious people have my back, and I am so grateful for them. Having people on the end of the line, or on a text, has been such a support. I love and appreciate them beyond measure.
They're not always miracle workers though, but that's what lovely Philip was this morning. As I picked up his call, the rain stopped. And it essentially never really got started again. As a second miracle, he also caused the hill to even out, and I was at the top.
This flatter section is another part of the military road, and it is lovely, even with the skies low like they were this morning. There are Munros soaring up on both sides, with the path running through the middle, crossing many small streams, and sometimes becoming a stream itself. As always I was so grateful for my poles to test wobbly sections, support and give me confidence as I ventured over. I was about to type 'leapt' but that would be inaccurate. I wouldn't say that any of these watery traverses were especially hazardous, but there still is jeopardy with each one, I didn't want a boot full of water, even with my excellent waterproof socks.
As often happens, my conversation with Philip came to an abrupt end with the sudden lack of signal, and for the next four or five hours I was out of contact with anyone. I carry a satellite phone with me as a way of communicating in emergency when there is no phone signal, which is reassuring to all, given I'm travelling solo, but it's not something that I can take normal calls on.
Although not raining, this was going to be a long day, so I went back to my music, jumping through playlists that friends and family have added to or that I've created, thinking about the individuals to whom the songs were connected. I'm really happy walking on my own, and that is for me a lot of the point of this trek. But I obviously miss the people I love, and I'm increasingly using music as a way to feel connected to them. They'll be unaware of it, but it helps me!
The path continued to climb steadily through Lairig Mor. There were quite a lot of walkers out today, which meant generally I was overtaking people. Often they were absorbed in chatting or listening to music, which meant I was up close before they noticed me. It meant I had the chance to wonder what the single pulled up trouser leg meant.
On Lairig Mor there was a ruined farmhouse that is slowly becoming re absorbed into the landscape. As my excellent Cicerone guide says, it was an evocative reminder of 'a distant, lonely and hard-won existence that few these days could countenance in any meaningful way'. Cattle would have been brought up to these high mountain pastures during the summer, but that would be the only company the homesteader would have had.
There's often a moment of synergy between what I'm listening to and what is happening around me. One of Carly's mixtape pieces was Nunc Dimittis by Geoffrey Burgon. I've not listened to this for so many years, and was loving the slow plainchant style harmonic movement and the sound of the choristers' voices. In the 'glory be' section, the grey started to lift, and there was blue sky. And then later, listening to my friends' Spotify playlist, on which there is a brilliantly diverse group of pieces, I had the Hallelujah Chorus on and the sun came out. I love this feeling of finding joy in unexpected ways.
My body is getting used to the demands I'm asking of it. I realised that I'd been walking for almost three hours without a break, and so I sat and ate a bit, drank my tea, looked at the brightening skies and the big hills and took a happy breath.
Onward, through various deer fences, and looking out to a small Loch on which MacBeth was supposed to have resided, together with a cairn that marks where the battle of Interlochy took place. So much history to catch up on.
The path started to climb again past the half way point, with Ben Nevis looming ahead, its summit covered in clouds. I felt strong and energetic, and was making easy going over the hilly terrain. Turning on my music again, the first track was 'Blinded by your Grace' by Stormzy. It took me right back to when I listened to it in Cornwall last summer, on the first day it rained. Although this journey has had a ten month hiatus within it, in many ways it feels continuous. The track still climbed, swinging round Mullach nan Coirean, until eventually it approached a forestry road. I looked back the way I came, looking over the forest in the background and the rosebay in the foreground. There was no one else there, I'd overtaken everyone, leaving It so quiet.
Then coming round the corner, I met a very enthusiastic Australian, who spoke to me in excited tones about an ancient fort further on. He strongly recommended it. I said I'd go, but privately thought I probably wouldn't
The track through Nevis Forest was clear and well maintained, and it didn't take long until I saw the path to Dun Deardail, the fort that my Aussie friend had described. I hesitated. The walk today was going to be 15 or 16 miles without any detours, and it wasn't clear how far off the track the fort was. But something nagged at me about saying yes to things. So I set off, thinking I could always turn back. It was probably an additional mile and a half of steep hill in total, but it was the best thing about the walk today. The fort was built 2000 years ago, inhabited by different clans over the years. Archaeologists don't know when the last people lived there, but they know that they left because it was deliberately destroyed by fire, as the intense heat melted the rock. Despite this, you can still see the shape of the ramparts. I climbed to the top and was amazed at the view, with Ben Nevis glowering at me over the valley, the wide plain of Fort William below. I felt both extremely small and immensely powerful.
The end of the West Highland Way is a little anticlimactic, given the drama along the walk. The final three miles or so run along the road into Fort William, and then at the edge of the town there is a sign saying that you've reached the original end of the Way. It also suggests that they sell you a certificate. It doesn't though say where the new end of the Way is. Fortunately I bumped into Yvonne and Jan, a lovely Dutch couple who have coincided with me at a number of my accommodations. They pointed me in the right direction.
This proved to be further than I expected, all the way down the Fort William high street. When there it is quite a modest finish post. In fact another pair of walkers muttered 'is this it?' But there's a sign, and an engraved bit of pavement, together with the iconic statue on a bench. There was a nice family sitting on it when I arrived. I had no qualms about asking them to get off and furthermore take a picture. They were very obliging.
Then John started up in conversation with me about my walk, later joined by Carol and Mary. I was then chatting to Gill and Sid. They had come up to Fort William on holiday from Norfolk. They were hoping to go on the Harry Potter train with a number of other people, but sadly it had been cancelled. They kindly said that meeting me had made their day, and even more kindly gave me sponsorship and a song for my next walking day.
Then John, Carol and Mary rejoined me and gave me sponsorship money too. So generous, and it made the end of the walk very memorable.
A final hit of synergy for the day; meticulous readers of this blog may remember that as I finished day 1 of this walk, David was waiting for me at the car playing Highland Cathedral, as it's a favourite of ours. Retracing my steps to collect my transported luggage, I passed a young piper busking. He was playing Highland Cathedral. I always give money to good buskers, he'd have been pleased with my donation today.
Then to my Airbnb for the next two days. A small comedic moment:
In my luggage I carry a small theragun, for massaging my tired legs and preventing injury. It's extra weight, but very useful. As I was hauling the small drybag, plus my poles and rucksack, plus looking at directions to the apartment on my phone, I must have swung the drybag round a bit too vigorously. This set the theragun off in my bag, which started to rumble and throb noisily. At this point I arrived at the flat, so thought I'd just carry it upstairs before extracting it and turning it off inside. I wasn't expecting to meet two young builders who are doing renovations on next door's flat. We all pretended that we couldn't see or hear my noisily vibrating bag, as I fumbled for the key.
It's been a long day, but joyous, and I'm not as tired as I might have expected. But it will be good to have a rest day in Fort William tomorrow. There are maybe ten walking equipment shops and a cinema. I think all will be well.
Distance travelled: 18 miles
Total ascent: 2449 feet
Calories burned: 2750
Local tipple - Snowgoose lager from Glenspean brewery
Dinner at The Tavern - excellent. I was going to cook at my flat, but I remembered this place from when we came last time!
Chicken fajitas with guac, cheese, salsa, crème fraiche, tortillas. There was enough for 2, I ate it all in minutes.
Sponsors' songs, thanks to Mum and Carly
Peter Skellern and the Grimethorpe Colliery Band - Night and Day
Sample of the mixtape:
David Bowie - Rebel Rebel
Alessi brothers - Oh Lori
Lou Reed - Perfect Day
Video of the day