Thoughts on the West Highland Way Part 2: My Own JourneySeptember 20th, 2007
In the previous post in this series, I went over the route of the West Highland Way in detail while sharing my thoughts on different sections. There, I took each section in the order in which the WHW seems to want to be walked: going northbound. Well, it certainly looks that it has planned in that way and the approach does have a point if you are walking the thing all in one fell swoop.
While the northbound approach allows for acclimatisation before the wilder stuff beyond Bridge of Orchy is encountered, I feel that there is more to it. The fact that you start on terrain typical of Sunday afternoon strolls and end up immersed in high mountain country does suggest that this could be a journey that changes your walking forever. It is almost like this: it takes you by the hand and turns a sometime stroller (and camper) into a back country backpacker.
Of course, there are caveats to be added to the above metaphorical suggestion. We are talking about a 95 mile jaunt here and a certain amount of experience and fitness are needed if you are doing the trail all in one go. There certainly are some testing stretches for the legs before Bridge of Orchy is reached so it’s no walk in the park, even if it is a more accessible long distance trail than others. And it is also an easy trail from which to exit if it all gets a little too much for you.
Moving onto my own association with the trail, there is an echo of the route plan of WHW in my progress along its length and that is even without my following it either as intended or as one multi-day hike. My first encounters with the trail preceded my interest in hillwalking; in those days, I somehow had it in my head that it wasn’t an activity for mere mortals like me. So, walking the WHW was the last thing in my mind back then. I clearly have changed my mind since those days.
Returning to my first ever WHW encounter then, that was on a sunny Saturday in May 1998 when I took myself up to Fort William on a day trip from Edinburgh, where I lived at the time. Having been gobsmacked by the sight of Glen Coe on my way, there were further enticing sights awaiting me in Glen Nevis. I was very much a sometime stroller and cyclist with a soft spot for fine mountain scenery, something handed to me from my parents. In fact, I had planned to bring my bike but discovered that, unlike my native Eire, you can’t take bicycles on Scottish coach services. My incursion into the glen was an unplanned affair but a spot of tentative wandering on good paths and tracks got something started: I wanted to see more of this. In fact, I brought my brother there a year later.
Of course, you could say that my initial encounter was at the wrong end, particularly given my then avoidance of anything too adventurous, but the Highlands are famous and how many have heard of Milngavie and the Campsie Fells? I certainly hadn’t but I was aware of the WHW, though my knowledge of the route was sketchy to say the least. Moving from university to the world of work took me down to Macclesfield by way of Skipton (I started out my career working for a company based there). It was on a return to Edinburgh to see friends that had me witnessing the glories of the Southern Uplands through the train windows. That decided me: I was going to stage a return to the Highlands, having not been for the most of two years.
It was 2002 before I encountered the WHW again, first in Glen Nevis and then by a longer walk on the next day. The latter took me from Kinlochleven south to Glen Coe and views over empty wild moorland were the order of the day. By then, I could be called a hillwalker: I had the kit, was developing the knowledge and enjoying day walks in the countryside. That was followed up the following year by two northbound strolls between Kinlochleven and Fort William, the first was on a dry cloudy day in the middle of a week where the weather could only conjure up mischief and a weekend visit at the end of August saw me ply my way on a wonderfully memorable sunny day. This was the climax of the WHW and I saw it at its very best. 2004 saw me snatch a few drier days in July (the summer was far from being a classic) and one of these was spent walking south from Glen Coe to Bridge of Orchy. I had ended up completing the best part of the WHW first due to my affection for Lochaber and Glen Coe.
My hillwalking last year began to take me away from the beaten track and my appreciation of lesser celebrated spots like the Southern Uplands, Northumberland and Pembrokeshire grew. I also began to take an greater interest in completing long distance trails and my Pennine Way exertions are well documented on this blog. That meant that I was ready to resume my WHW excursions. Things started in earnest in February with the part between Milngavie and Drymen being ticked off and I have been musing over walks in the Campsies since then. Walking the WHW along the banks of Loch Lomond occurred to me as an idea the previous summer but it was an "iffy" weekend at the end of May that saw me do the rewarding deed with my overnighting in Rowardennan. For my completion of the WHW, I adopted the same tack with an overnight stay in Crianlarich sandwiched between walks south from Bridge of Orchy and north from Inverarnan; I have finished it, after a fashion.
I may not have followed faithfully a northbound itinerary along the WHW but I have been on my own journey when it comes to exploring the outdoors. I started as a sometime strolling day tripper and now seek the back country for hillwalking excursions. Who knows but my backpacking may develop yet; it would certainly aid progress along the Pennine Way. While on the subject of back country, my next post in the series (most likely the final one) will take a look at possible excursions extending from the WHW and potential enhancements.