Day 62

Inverness to Dingwall – 15 miles (962.5 total)

Today starts my final sub-section of LEJOG 2018. The planned 8 day walk between Inverness and John o’Groats is still ahead of me. It’s virtually all road walking, mainly because there are few possible alternatives as I head north and east. My plan is to follow National Cycle Route 1 (NCR1) for the first 3 days, then, when that goes in a different direction, I will use the A9 main road until I pick up the A99 to take me along to the finish line. A very few short path options look possible on the map – I’ll only know if they’re viable once I am physically there! There is a way walk being developed, the John o’Groats Trail, but it involves some wild – and possibly dangerous – walking, is not comprehensively signposted and would take nearly twice as long to complete.

The end of the Great Glen Way

My rest day in Inverness yesterday (Sunday) with Elizabeth was the perfect tonic. We did a mile or so of today’s walk to officially allow Elizabeth to be one of my walking companions, then soaked up the sunshine and relaxed for the remainder of our limited time together. This morning saw her return home while I set off for the last week of my journey.

My walking companion yesterday

My plotted route out of the city followed the River Ness and the harbour area, keeping to the west of the Longman Industrial Estate. As I’ve detailed previously (Bridgwater/Manchester) industrial estates are rarely walker friendly. This morning I did have pavements to walk on… if I could negotiate my way around the cars parked on them. I also witnessed 3 lorries carrying spectacularly long loads exiting the docks area.

That’s what I would call ‘ a long load ‘
Walking through an industrial estate

Soon my path across the Beauly Firth was towering above me – the Kessock Bridge. Completed in 1982 it is over 1 kilometre in length and carries 30,000 vehicles a day. Unsurprisingly, I was the lone pedestrian making the crossing. It was also my first encounter with the A9, a road, as I said earlier, which I will see a lot of in the days ahead. The walk across was a bit intimidating, as you would expect – thank goodness I wasn’t attempting it on a windy day! On making landfall I entered the County of Ross and Cromarty and the area known as the Black Isle.

The Kessock Bridge ahead
Kessock Bridge
Inverness from the bridge

I followed the cycle route down to the shoreline at North Kessock giving me clear views across the firth to Inverness, my starting point. From there it was a pleasant stroll, following NCR1 through Tore, past Conon Bridge and Maryburgh to my day’s destination of Dingwall. Conditions were slightly cooler than the last few weeks but still warm. Cloud persisted all day with little threat of rain.

This is the first time I can recall visiting this part of Scotland – the whole journey north, now, for me, will be a voyage of discovery. Early indications are that I’m back to being a lone walker although I did pass a number of cyclists heading south – some of them possibly cycling JOGLE (John o’Groats to Lands End). One cyclist, sporting a grey beard and a pained expression, shouted to me (in an English accent) ‘ When is this bloody hill going to end? ’. I smiled to myself, partly because I was walking downhill, but mostly because I knew what was ahead of him. Although I still have some long days to come, thankfully most of the gradient is over.

Walking beside the A835
River Conon

Pete is joining me for the third time, tomorrow evening in Alness, with the possibility that he’ll be keeping me company until the end. Eddie is also driving a long way to join me for the second time, in Wick, to walk the final leg with me. Tomorrow, God-willing, should be my last Tuesday of LEJOG.

Day 61

Drumnadrochit to Inverness – 20.1 miles (947.5 total)

I knew that today’s walk to Inverness would be the best part of 20 miles so I had an early breakfast and was on the road for 9am. The weather was still warm and sticky so, after yesterday’s dehydration problems, I made sure that I had plenty of water on board. 3 bottles of water added to the weight I was carrying but it was a small price to pay for peace of mind.

My B&B was at the far end of the village so my route took me past the Loch Ness Centre, a tourist-orientated area promoting everything possible related to the fabled Loch Ness Monster. Love it or loathe it, the ‘Nessie’ phenomenon is all part of the mystique of Loch Ness and of Scotland.

I followed a pavement alongside the main A82 Inverness road as far as Temple Pier. A path from there soon led me on to the inevitable steep climb, mostly through very thick forest.

John Cobb
My forest climb ahead

Looking backwards, early on, I had a good view of Urquhart Castle, which is one of the most recognisable and photographed castles in Scotland. I had washed 2 shirts last night but already the one I was wearing was soaked through with perspiration. I was grateful for the shade provided by the trees. The atmosphere wasn’t just as muggy as yesterday because an occasional breeze would arrive intermittently.

Urquhart Castle (on the right)
Loch Ness

The high-point of the ascent was 1,250 feet with the rest of the day fairly level after that, the way only descending to finally enter Inverness. Along the lengthy trail I enjoyed some straight stretches of both forest and country road, taking frequent short stops for water. About half way through the day I heard a crack of thunder off to my right. This encouraged me to speed up a little. I rounded a corner after Dunain Hill to get a wonderful panorama of Inverness below. This was the cue for my first rain since Wigan, on Day 30, to appear. It wasn’t heavy, in fact the sun was still shining, but it was enough to cause me to cover my pack and put my jacket on. It started at 2pm and was finished after 20 minutes. At the earliest opportunity I got back to shirtsleeves.

Canadian labour during the war

Passing a golf course I reached the Caledonian Canal and worked my way into the busy city of Inverness via Bught Park, the River Ness and a number of bridges. Right at the end I caught up with my 2 doughty girl walkers from Fort Augustus, the ones I’d left on the bench overlooking Loch Ness 2 days previously. They had walked together ever since. How’s this for a coincidence – they are both called Jasmin? We chatted the last half mile to the castle and the official end of the Great Glen Way. They are both happy for me to post their photo so, Jasmin & Jasmin, I wish you both well in your future adventures… hopefully until you’re both pensioners!

Jasmin & Jasmin
The River Ness at Inverness

That gave me enough time to check into my hotel and have a long, warm shower before meeting my darling wife, Elizabeth, from the Glasgow coach at 6pm. That left her enough time to do my washing before having dinner at 7.30.

My wife Elizabeth and I in Inverness

PS. Only joking about the last bit, ladies. Or was I? Anyway, I’m looking forward to a relaxing day off tomorrow.

Day 60

Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit – 15.9 miles (927.4 total)

When I walked this section 15 years ago, in my memory it was one of the less demanding days on the Great Glen Way. We finished the walk in time to watch the Scottish Cup Final (football) on television in a social club in Drumnadrochit, so we must have been there by 2.30pm. Today’s experience, however, couldn’t have been more testing. There are 2 main reasons for that: the amount of ascent involved and the weather.

If it is to be believed, my GPS gave my total ascent as over 4,000 feet today. I had 2 fairly steep climbs to endure, the second one taking me to a height of about 1,000 feet. There was also a diversion near the beginning of my walk which added length and height to the day. In the afternoon I had a further road climb before a steep descent into Drumnadrochit. Hardly any of the forest walking is level, the path constantly going up and down.

Yesterday’s path & Invermoriston below

What can I say about the weather? For the second day running I expected rain, still, high temperatures, but, at the very least, showers. Yet again, it stayed dry and warm all day. Today though wasn’t just hot, it was extremely humid with not a breath of wind to offer any relief. The sunglasses that I had carefully wrapped up and packed away had to be unpacked before I started walking. My gortex walking jacket, that I had handily placed at the top of my bag, once more didn’t see the light of day. By the time I had completed the first steep climb out of Invermoriston my shirt was wringing wet – as if I’d fallen in Loch Ness. For most of the walk I was bathed in sweat, my eyes were stinging with the salt, my sunglasses were slipping down my nose, making me worried that they might fall on the ground where I might inadvertently tramp on them. I don’t remember ever walking in conditions as humid and oppressive as those I encountered today.

Stone Cave

My water bottle was filled, but, from early on, it was obvious it was going to run out. I knew there was a tearoom of sorts at The Pottery, 9 miles into the walk at Grotaig so it was critical that I didn’t go past it. Of course, it was hidden out of sight and I had to double back to locate it. It was pretty basic, a converted byre, like somebody’s old kitchen – but it was, for the umpteenth time on this journey, an oasis for me. One can of ginger beer plus a glass with 2 ice cubes, one extra glass of water, one fill up of my empty water bottle and I was ready to complete my walk.

Despite the climbs today, I had very few sightings of Loch Ness, or anything else, to be honest… other than trees. Now, trees are fine, maybe even beautiful to some people, but you kind of get the feeling that when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Much more impressively, the forest paths were lined with gorse bushes and broom bushes, both in full bloom in similar shades of yellow. Their perfumed aroma and bright colour, although not exclusively Scottish, cheered this wilting walker up on his tramp today.

One of the rare glimpses of Loch Ness on today’s walk…
… and another one

After Grotaig the remainder of the walk was country road all the way to Drumnadrochit. Strictly speaking, the last part of the GGW was a path following the River Coiltie but I continued on the road to rejoin the GGW, before crossing the inevitable bridge into Drumnadrochit.

Drumnadrochit below

I met very few fellow walkers today but I must mention the first one of the day. It was at the top of the second climb and he was coming in the other direction. I had just reached the top, thinking the ascent would never end and he was obviously thinking the same thing, coming from his side. I would guess he was the same age as me, perhaps slightly older, and just as weatherbeaten. We got talking, as you do, and exchanged details of our journeys. He was walking from Dover to Dunbar (I think he said), but in a roundabout route, staying in hostels and bothies. He was on Day 59, I am on Day 60. I have printouts of my route and a GPS to navigate with, he had a compass round his neck which he says he has only used 6 times. What a wimp I feel. His accent was Antipodean, possibly New Zealand, but I can’t be sure. We only chatted for 10 minutes but he was shaking my hand when we parted as if we’d been friends all our life. I could never be brave enough (or confident enough) to attempt his epic task, but it was nice to feel that we had a little bit of something in common.

Tomorrow there really is a strong chance of rain. It is also the last section of the Great Glen Way, a long walk to Inverness. Elizabeth is coming up to meet me and I’ll take a day off (Sunday) before starting the final assault on John o’Groats.

Day 59

Invergarry to Invermoriston – 17.5 miles (911.5 total)

Today’s walk started with a path climb out of Invergarry into Nursery Wood, then a series of forest trails, before descending towards Aberchalder at the head of Loch Oich. A change (for the worse) in the weather had been forecast with the possibility that rain would arrive today, more likely tomorrow. I am so used to warm, dry walking conditions that I found myself having to remember my routine for double-wrapping all my technology and valuables in freezer bags for extra protection. As things turned out, it was cloudy, but warm, early on, with the sun appearing mid-morning and ending up with another scorching, sunny day.

Path out of Invergarry

At Aberchalder another section of the Caledonian Canal connects Loch Oich to Loch Ness. When I had returned to canal level, the Great Glen Way was – according to my Ordnance Survey map, anyway – supposed to cross the Bridge of Oich, which was built in 1854 and renovated in 1997 by Historic Scotland. Whoever now owns the cottage at the bridge has decided to padlock the gate at one side thereby making it impossible for pedestrians to cross. If there was another way of crossing it then I couldn’t find it. So, after a little bit of dithering about, I crossed the main Oich Bridge and the Swing Bridge to continue along the canal. I asked the lock keeper at Cullochy Lock about it but he said he wasn’t aware of the problem.

Locked gate at the Bridge of Oich
Bridge of Oich

There followed a pleasant long walk to Fort Augustus on a path sandwiched between the canal and the River Oich. At the town itself it was interesting to see the queue of small cruise boats, tied up, waiting to descend the series of locks, 7 or 8 vessels at a time, to eventually be discharged into Loch Ness. I had intended to get some biscuits and soft drink in Fort Augustus, but the town centre was so busy with tourists I headed straight out of town following the signs for the GGW.

Caledonian Canal
Fort Augustus
Boats crammed in to the Fort Augustus locks

Yet again my route was uphill, first on road then on forest path. Unlike the previous 2 days, I was suddenly aware that I was not meeting any fellow way walkers. It was strange to be walking alone, beautiful as it was, through long stretches of forest. At the top of my climb I found a bench offering the first elevated view of Loch Ness. My pack was feeling heavy and the heat was tiring so I sat down to drink some water and admire the scenery.

Portclair Forest
Loch Ness
Loch Ness

I was just about to leave when a young girl appeared, carrying a heavy pack. She had started at Fort William yesterday morning, wild camping, and was halfway to Inverness already. Made me feel ordinary, I can tell you! She was Belgian but spoke perfect English… with an American accent. I’ve come across this before – they pick up the accent from films and television.

I took the Low Route

Then, I was amazed to see yet another, unrelated girl with a heavy pack, appear, so now we were 3. This second girl was the one I met yesterday morning walking with Patricia. She’s from London and, like me, had walked the West Highland Way then straight on to the Great Glen Way – again she’s wild camping. I introduced them to each other, gave up my seat, then moved on after a few minutes talking. My perception of the modern Miss has certainly had a major overhaul this last 2 weeks.

The only island in Loch Ness

There followed a rollercoaster 6 mile walk through Portclair Forest, ending in a switchback, to my destination at Invermoriston. The hotel – and a welcome pint – was straight ahead, once I’d crossed the bridge over the River Moriston, and, thankfully, my B&B was right next door. I’ve now walked over 900 miles. Somehow it seems more when I see it written down. More importantly, I’ll have to be prepared for rain tomorrow.

Day 58

Gairlochy to Invergarry – 17.1 miles (894 total)

Being well and truly in the Scottish Highlands now means that internet and phone signals are very patchy. It’s an inconvenience as a visitor but it must be infuriating to those who live here. From Milngavie on, every single place I have visited, every hotel, bar, restaurant, shop where I have stopped, at every stage of the West Highland Way and, to a lesser extent, the Great Glen Way, has been packed with tourists – most of them European, many of them young. Tourism has to be one of Scotland’s most successful industries. It surely can’t be that difficult or expensive to offer them a strong Wi-Fi and mobile phone signal? Just thinking out loud.

I started this morning by crossing the swing road bridge at Gairlochy. I’d finished yesterday sitting at a picnic table watching the bridge being opened and closed to let a boat pass. Once it was reopened an articulated lorry negotiated its way across with only inches to spare. The water route through the Great Glen now changed from canal to Loch Lochy with the Great Glen Way following the northern shore of the loch. The track itself wasn’t on the shoreline but followed forest paths and roads as it headed along the Glen.

View from the Swing Bridge at Gairlochy

Quite a wind picked up early on causing the surface of the loch to become choppy as waves reached the shore below me. I was never too far above water level although my views were often restricted by the trees lining both sides of the path. When there were gaps in the trees I could clearly see the very busy Fort William to Inverness road on the far side of the loch. I had a better view of the steep hills lining the other side of the valley than on my own side.

Waves lapping the shore at Loch Lochy

Just after the driveway to the Clan Cameron Museum at Achnacarry, 2 walkers joined the path ahead of me, having obviously visited St Ciarans Church. One of the pair was Patricia, a lovely Canadian lady I first met yesterday. We are both the exact same age and had a great chat walking along the canal towpath as we started the Great Glen Way. She is doing it at a slower pace than me so I thought our paths wouldn’t cross again. Last night in my B&B I shared a table with another 2 Canadian ladies who are walking the GGW. People are so friendly and I find it interesting talking to them – it’s a lovely environment to meet and converse with kindred spirits. All 3 women have recent Scottish heritage and are happy to be here in Scotland on a walking holiday. The West Highland Way was just too busy to meet and talk to people, this walk is about right. Each time I say goodbye and move on is probably the last time I’ll ever see them – but your life is that bit richer for having spent a few minutes in relaxed conversation. I really love that aspect of way walking. After jumping with fright, and shouting my name, as I said ‘Good Morning‘ from behind, she introduced me to her younger walking companion, saying to me, ‘ It’s Day 58, isn’t it? ’. I soon moved off as I was travelling much further than them today.

As I approached Laggan Locks, which is another part of the Caledonian Canal linking Loch Lochy and Loch Oich, I saw a man up a ladder, painting the gable end of his cottage. Complimenting him on his work led us into conversation. It turns out that he is scheduled to cycle LEJOG, with friends, starting on July 4th. He reckons on taking about 17 days. What a small world it is!

My view across Loch Lochy

I saved some walking distance by following the main A82 into Invergarry rather than the more meandering GGW, crossing, by bridge, over the River Garry in the process. By the time I reached my Guest House, I had walked a healthy 17 miles – all in brilliant, warm sunshine. Well, it is sunny Scotland, isn’t it?

River Garry
A game of shinty in Invergarry

Day 57

Fort William to Gairlochy – 9.9 miles (876.9 total)

For me, the 169 miles from Milngavie to Inverness is technically one very long Kerching. The Great Glen Way meets the West Highland Way at Fort William and heads north-eastwards, following the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness, to the River Ness and the city of Inverness, the largest city in the Scottish Highlands. Five of us walked the Great Glen Way in 2003 so this is my final individual link of LEJOG 2018, Kerching No.15.

I had an unsure start to my day. Because the railway line was between my hotel and my intended route, I had to take a path that would get me across it. There were few options on the map that didn’t involve me doubling back. Setting off at the start of the day is definitely not my strength. Today I selected a likely route, became unsure and ended up doubling back anyway.

I was the organiser when we last walked the GGW. The first day took us to Speanbridge, which is nearly 4 miles off route. This was dictated by the availability of accommodation. When I tried to book there this time I was faced with hotels fully booked or outrageously expensive. A little bit of luck landed me with a room at a B&B in Gairlochy which is directly on my path and saves me 8 miles walking – 4 each way. It wasn’t cheap, proving to be the dearest of the whole walk, but I was grateful to get a bed at all!

Looking back at Ben Nevis

After crossing over the railway line I joined the Great Glen Way at Inverlochy. Where I met the River Lochy my route was upstream, crossing 2 footbridges to enter Caol. Ignoring the official path, I walked straight up the road to rejoin it at the Caledonian Canal. A slight detour around the small railway station brought me directly back to the canal and its towpath, which I followed for the remainder of the walk.

Great Glen Way
River Lochy

Right in front of me, at Banavie, was Neptune’s Staircase. This is the longest ‘ staircase lock ’ in Britain. It is comprised of 8 individual canal locks which in total can raise/lower boats 64 feet. The feature still looks very impressive considering it is nearly 200 years old. I climbed the 64 feet in a couple of minutes (maybe 3) – a boat would need 90 minutes!

Neptune’s Staircase

Once up I enjoyed some of the most pleasant walking of the whole 2 months. The towpath was wide, well-maintained and excellent to walk on; the canal was also wide, clean and surprisingly quiet; the weather was dry, sunny, very hot (high twenties again) but with a cooling easterly breeze stopping me overheating. There were also plenty of trees offering shade as I walked along.

For the most part the GGW path was sandwiched between the Caledonian Canal and the River Lochy. The views to the far bank of the canal were picturesque with the trees and bright-yellow gorse bushes adding colour and depth to the hillside. Twice I sat fascinated watching lock keepers opening sizeable swing bridges, once to let a tractor across and once to let a boat through – the perfect stress-free career, if ever there was one.

Caledonian Canal
Canal & Path

On a happier note, it was nice, at last, to start passing and saying hello to fellow way-walkers. Not masses of people, like last week, just a smattering of like-minded souls. My destination for the day, Gairlochy, was the perfect backwater in which to slowly end a relaxing day’s walk.

River Lochy from the canal

The earliest check-in at my B&B was 4pm leaving me struggling to progress slowly enough on a short day. I set out late, tried walking slowly, sat down in the shade a number of times, chatted to people… yet still arrived far too early. So I stopped at a picnic bench at Gairlochy bridge for a good while and watched the world go by.

Gairlochy swing-Bridge
A friend waits with me at walk’s end

Day 56

Kinlochleven to Fort William – 15.4 miles (867 total)

If, like almost everyone else, I had only been walking the West Highland Way, then today would have been the final leg. For me it was just another day on my long-distance trek. A number of people have asked me how I am coping with the enormity of the walk. The easy answer is the honest one: at no point have I looked weeks and months ahead… and panicked; each evening I plot the next day’s route into my GPS then write my blog for the day just ended. I’m literally taking the whole project one day at a time while setting mini targets on the way: Bristol, Manchester, Carlisle, Glasgow, Fort William. Next is Inverness with the last one being John o’Groats. I knew that the first stage, to Bristol, would identify any problems with my planning. When that went smoothly then it was only something serious that could stop me in my tracks (pun?). I’m not there yet… but I am getting closer.

Loch Leven

My brother, Mark, phoned me on Saturday, while I was walking between Inveroran and Kings House. He wanted to join me for some of the walk. Being very busy at the moment, Sunday (today) was the only day that suited him. I didn’t have my notes to hand, but my memory of the route between Kinlochleven and Fort William was that it was quite remote. Anyway, he identified a potential meeting point about halfway into the walk. When he offered to bring a picnic that sealed the deal, but it was going to be a long drive for him.

Pete was happy to join me for his last planned day of this visit. I delayed our departure in the morning for fear of reaching our meeting point too early. Kinlochleven sits at the head of Loch Leven, which is a freshwater loch so our starting point wasn’t too far above sea level; 348 feet above to be exact. The WHW leaves Kinlochleven by way of a steep climb into the Mamore Mountains. It’s a pretty tough ask at the best of times, however, on one of the hottest days of my whole walk, it seemed almost as demanding as the Devil’s Staircase had been the previous day. We climbed to over 1,100 feet, passing Am Bodach, Stob Coire na h-Eirghe and Stob Bàn to the north, and Beinn na Caillich to the south. Underfoot the path was awkward to walk on, with loose stones of varying sizes here, and part-buried larger stones there. The main ascent was early on with the route then following the contours.

Kinlochleven from the Mamores
The walk ahead

Our meeting place with Mark was at Blar Chaorainn, where a remote country road comes close to the WHW. He was slightly late because of the heavy bank holiday traffic coming up Loch Lomondside and through Glencoe. The hot day meant that Pete had already exhausted his large supply of water and was already drinking fresh, clear water from a mountain stream – at 7.8 miles, we were only halfway through our walk! What a welcome sight it was to see the car approach with Mark, and his wife, Gillian, inside. When he wheeled out a monster-sized coolbox full of food and cold, cold drinks I could have kissed them both… well, I did, actually! We weren’t too hungry, but a can of cider each followed by a couple of bottles of chilled water was one of the treats of the walk. It was also good to see them both, making me appreciate, once again, how many individual contributions have helped me get this far.

Me, my younger brother Mark and my sister-in-law Gillian

Gillian drove the car back to Fort William while Mark accompanied us for the last 8 miles of the WHW. The afternoon walk was certainly more undulating than we remembered. On my map it looked as if we would be walking through forest but most of the trees, on both sides of us had been cleared, deliberately leaving a mess of roots and branches for conservation purposes.

“This is easy… “

The majestic mountain that is Ben Nevis – which, at 4,411 feet is the highest mountain in the British Isles – welcomed us as we finally dropped down on to the road for the last mile into Fort William. All 3 of us were tired when we joined Gillian for a drink at our hotel. The 4 of us had a lovely evening and a meal together before my little brother faced the long drive south.

Fort William below
Mark and Pete enjoying today’s walk against the backdrop of Ben Nevis

This finishes Pete’s second, very-supportive stint with me. Tomorrow he goes home and I enjoy a rest day in Fort William before setting off on my own again along the Great Glen Way towards Inverness. I’ll use the time to do some laundry and double-check all my accommodation bookings through to the end of the walk. Pete is talking about maybe joining up again for Day 64 (Alness to Dornoch) to the finish at John o’Groats on Day 69, on Monday 11th June.

West Highland Way done and it didn’t rain once! This is definitely the west of Scotland – I checked the map and everything…

It will be exactly 2 months ago tomorrow since my first day with Christopher, walking from Lands End to Penzance. 867 miles have come and gone, I’ve lost nearly a stone and a half (9 kilos) in weight and my skin is the colour of dark tan shoe polish. My appetite has been back to normal for a few weeks now and I feel fit and healthy. Maybe something unforeseen is on the horizon, maybe not – the last 13 programmed walking days will tell the story.