Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Walking the West Highland Way - Episode 4: Don't mention the War

Leaving the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel the next morning, feeling refreshed (sort of in a morbid kind of way), we boldly went, one foot before the other, blisters pressing to bursting point ….uugghhhhhh. Actually, it wasn’t my blisters I was worried about – I didn’t have any; it was my son’s blisters which bothered me. His blisters were just awful and I knew from past experience what misery and agony they can be. Our first main resting point along the way today, was Bridge of Orchy. Knowing there was a railway station there, he decided that this was to be the point where he made the decision to go on or not. I would have been really gutted if he had left at that point having come so far, but when push comes to shove, we all know our limits.

Thankfully, this part of the walk wasn’t too bad in the sense that it was flat and we had a single track to follow, so there was nowhere to take a wrong turn. The countryside wasn’t exactly awe inspiring, but it was nevertheless a million miles from the flatlands of Cambridgeshire. What really made it for me was the fact that we were walking next to a railway track. What do railway tracks make? … Yes, you’ve guessed it – trains! I don’t really know why, but I absolutely love trains. I can’t fathom what it is about them, but I’ve always felt this great surge of joy tinged with excitement when I see a train. And yet I’m not an anorak! I don’t stand around on platforms all day having orgasms every time a train goes by, diligently noting the numbers of the engines, counting the coaches, noting the exact time to the second. No, I don’t do any of that. I do, however photograph them. I have a friend at work, who is also a fellow athlete and member of the running club I belong to who regularly keeps me informed whenever a steam train is due to pass through Huntingdon. Armed with this info, I have a tendency, often accompanied by my wife to lurk at some vantage point beside the railway track hoping the train hasn’t been cancelled (the story of my life). Steam trains are in a different league to the sleek electric speedsters of today. Steam trains were real trains, what trains should always have been. I just love the smell of steam train smoke in the morning! I love the sound of a steam engine – all that pumping power, hissing and spitting steam with great chuffs of white smoke forced into the sky. Wonderful.

Anyway, back to the walk. We had no steam trains to accompany us, only the odd goods train or electric passenger train. Whenever one passed, I amused myself in photographing it. All the good photographs I take, I put onto an on-line photo library I subscribe to. So far none of my train shots have made a sale. Even so, I live in hope. We managed to keep up a good pace on this part of the walk. Finally, we found ourselves approaching Bridge of Orchy railway station. At around this point, we were caught up by a bloke and his son from Cambridge who had previously walked the West Highland Way. We got talking to them, as you do, and the bloke decided to advise us to use the baggage carrying service the next day when we were due to ascend the worryingly named “Devil’s Staircase.” Being determined to carry my rucksack the whole way, I politely acknowledged his sage advice, but decided nonetheless I was going to carry my rucksack come what may. I’m not a wimp.

The sight of the railway station brought great joy to us as it marked another significant milestone in our quest. It also marked decision point for my son. To get the train home, or not to get the train home – that it is the question. Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune walking on blistered feet……………… He decided to carry on. Wonderful. I breathed a sigh of relief. The walk continued…..

Crossing the river Orchy – and the A82, we continued on an upward incline into forested slopes. We all started to walk at our own pace, so we got spread out and I lost sight of the others, apart from my nephew who walked with me. Presently, we came over the rise and beheld a beautiful landscape with Loch Tullah to our right. The land was much more open so we had a better sense of progress. When walking along tracks in woodland shrouded with trees, it is difficult to judge distance, but now, for the time being at least we could enjoy the changing landscape. We were, of course, still feeling pretty exhausted, lets not forget. My blowfly bitten swollen ankle was still extremely painful, and would remain so for the remainder of the walk. My nephew was still letting out the occasional “Ow!” with every step injecting pain into his blister ridden foot.

Walking onward – and downward, we spotted what looked like a pub, with a number of people lurking around outside. When we got closer, the pub turned out to be the Inveroran Hotel. Our countenance transformed to cheeriness and a slight spring sprang in now springing steps as we agreed on how lovely it will be to relax in the comfort of its confines for half an hour or so, with a pint of the Landlord’s best bitter refreshing our sagging innards. The dream was short lived. When we got there and walked into the bar, then the restaurant, then the rest of the premises, there wasn’t a soul around, save for the gaggle of apparently Germanic walkers mainly of a middle aged chronology, it became oh so painfully clear that the place was shut. It had probably called time shortly before our arrival as the other walkers looked as if they had recently received refreshment. Even so, I dare say they would never have needed as much refreshment, or as badly needed it as us because they were far too smartly attired to be attempting the heavy duty type of walking we were doing. They were dressed more for a Sunday stroll down to the paper shop along the path across the golf course than to be remotely considered to be serious walkers. We walked on, but I am convinced that if we’d waited, a bus would have picked them up and dropped them off about fifteen minutes walk from the next pub. As the next pub was probably about ten miles away, they would probably have boasted (in German) to their erstwhile friends and colleagues that they had in fact walked it all. But then, they were not the REAL walkers. We were the real walkers. We were the ones in pain, exhausted, sweaty, weighed down by overweight rucksacks and a distance still to walk which would leave your average townie hailing the next cab .We were the real deal.

With the desolate hotel now firmly behind us we crossed the Victoria Bridge over the river flowing into Loch Tullah, and onwards along an old military road. The landscape ahead was very undulating, panoramic with big skies. The road, which after a very few miles became more of a stony track, seemed unending. It would stretch way off into the distance, and when you reached that point the view was very similar gain. We were, by this point, completely knackered and longing to reach the welcoming embrace of the Kings House Hotel in Glencoe where we were headed. I have to say that I am very familiar with Glencoe as I have driven through it and stopped by it many times. Although we seemed to have been walking towards it for ages, the scenery around did not look at all like what I was hoping to see – until – a familiar looking mountain came finally into view. We felt heartened at this, but still could not yet see the Kings House. It is easy to spot the Kings House, because it is the only building of any substance around and coloured white, which makes it stand out against the rugged backdrop. Presently, the Kings House itself came into view – a little more than a light dot in the distance. It was some distance below us as we came over the ridge. I estimated it would take us about half an hour to reach it. My nephew estimated that it would take us about an hour to reach it. He was right and I was wrong.

We reached it with the light rapidly fading, billowy clouds wrapping around the tops of the peaks and a couple of well antlered deer looking on as we crossed the threshold to our hearts’ desire and the fulfilment of all our longings.

After some refreshments I went to chill out in the lounge where there was a big fire place, a carpet, a comfortable sofa and other plush implements of relaxation – and two Germans.

My brother was in the lounge as well, but after I struck up a conversation with the Germans (both of whom were of the male gender), he became bashful, shied off and I next saw him the following morning at breakfast. Having lived for three years of my life in Germany, I was interested to chat with my fellow Germanic walkers. It turned out they had started out camping, abandoned their tent after getting bitten half to death by midges. I know what this is like, as I have experienced the self same thing myself many years ago. We talked about the problems of the world and solved them all – as you do. They kept buying me drinks. I kept drinking the drinks they bought me. Conversing about Europe, as we find it today, we found ourselves agreeing that there was a Polish problem. It occurred to me that one of their former political leaders also thought there was a Polish problem! I didn’t mention the war. Honest.

Crashing out in my single room above the bar, I slept like a log, with no one to be kept awake by my snoring.

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