Ever since I saw Jennifer Steinman’s Desert Runners at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, a film that tracked four athletes as they attempted to complete the Four Desert Ultramarathon Series (you can read my HeyUGuys review here), I have become more and more determined to test my own limits.
I’ve never been a runner — not even lamppost by lamppost, let alone mile by mile — but I can walk, and walk I do. I admittedly showed myself up at a relatively early age by climbing Mount Kosciuszko with my parents, but since then I’ve explored many a city by foot, walked Scotland’s east coast Broughty Ferry to Arbroath, and strolled through the hills surrounding Loch Earn. Part through not owning a car and part through actual enjoyment, I’d say I walk more than most.
But now I want to try harder, to walk further and to generally pick up the pace. Having grown up listening to Bill Bryson’s account of the Appalachian Trail (the audiobook rarely left the car), and more recently enjoyed Simon Armitage’s travelogue of the Pennine Way, I decided that I would like to at least attempt something similar, to push myself and see more of my native Scotland in the process.
The West Highland Way seemed like the obvious choice: it’s easy to get to, challenging without being treacherous and long enough to feel like something of an accomplishment. Also appealing was the fact that I wouldn’t have to walk it alone — shortly after mentioning my intentions on Twitter I was speaking to Paul Greenwood, the film critic of Glasgow Evening Times and fellow walking enthusiast, who had actually done some research and helped to make my sketchy plans more of a reality.
With the walk itself penciled in for the first week of April, when the weather would (hopefully) be at its mildest, we decided to tackle the first leg of the journey in advance, as a measure of our abilities and to determine just how much work we would have to do over the next few months. I bought new, waterproof walking shoes, booked a bus to Glasgow and travelled onwards with Paul to the commuter town of Milngavie (pronounced “mil-guy”, for some reason), where the trail begins.
And so it was that we found ourselves in Milngavie. From the granite obelisk located at the centre of the high street, the official starting point for the West Highland Way, we set off through an archway at the side of Costa and almost immediately disappeared into the wilderness. It was an illusion, clearly by design but also facilitated by the autumnal season, and although you could hear the sounds of civilisation any visual trace of the town itself was obfuscated by foliage.
It was reasonably easy going for the first few miles, as we passed signs for Mugdock and Drumclog, and we delighted in overtaking dog walkers and getting our new shoes dirty in the name of adventure. It was warmer than expected, and I soon found myself shedding the layers of Russian clothing I had packed in response to the unfounded forecast of heavy rain and bitter cold. There were darker clouds in the distance, admittedly, but for the time being at least we could enjoy our good luck.
With Milngavie behind us, we quickly entered open countryside, skirting Craigallan Loch along a path flanked by bracken and passing a few pockets of fishing lodges placed in close proximity to nearby Carbeth Loch. We then scrambled through a field of cows and over the perimeter wall (gates are for pedestrians, and Paul), entranced by sensational views of Drumgoyne and the Campsie Fells as they emerged from the treeline marking the edge of the farm.
From here we began our descent, always in the shadow of Drumgoyne, verging west passed Dumgoyach, a wooded and strikingly dome-like rock formation that looks as though it belongs in a cartoon. Similarly surreal was a plush monkey toy which dangled improbably from an overhead power line. The trail then leveled out as we transitioned onto what was once a railway line, a distant rainbow suggesting that there was perhaps trouble ahead.
To wait out the bad weather and hopefully talk our way into a few free tasters, we left the trail at the A81 and headed for Glengoyne distillery. We didn’t have time to take the tour (we had planned to take the 16:20 bus back to Milnhavie and it was already after midday) but we visited the shop and got talking to the saleswoman, a friendly and knowledgeable member of staff who invited us to sample their 21-year-old and teapot products, and patiently explained the difference between the two.
We left a short time later, all but cured of our aches and pains, and returned to the track only to happen almost immediately upon the Beech Tree Inn. Ordering a couple of coffees and taking a seat outside, we ignored the signs discouraging picnics and helped ourselves to the packed lunches we had brought with us. It already felt as though we had covered a great distance, and it was almost surprising to find the Inn so busy, with customers who looked absurdly dry, rested and clean.
At this point it started to rain again, and to ensure we didn’t take shelter in the pub with a pint and a plate of chips we set off once more. Back on the old railway line, we soon found ourselves flanked by farms, and had to stop every few yards in order to open gates and wade through near-liquid bogs of mud and muck. We were now about seven miles into our journey, and we were beginning to feel the strain. Eventually, however, the rain stopped, and we found a bin into which we could deposit our coffee cups.
A few miles later we finally left the railway in order to make our way along a minor road. At Gartness (over Gartness Bridge) we passed a number of handsome brick cottages, one of which boasted an honesty box inviting you to trade something for an ice cream. We followed the road, stopping only to try and fail to take a picture of some grouse as they flapped across the road, startled by our increasingly encroaching footfall, heavy with fatigue. A sign at the side of the road revealed that it was two and a half miles to Drymen, where we would end our journey for the time being.
Needless to say, it felt like substantially more than two and a half miles, and Paul’s GPS supported our suspicions when it later declared we had walked fourteen miles rather than the official twelve. But eventually, after walking alongside endless fields, a pack of international tourists and an unexpectedly attractive quarry (so impressive, in fact, that we even bothered to admire it), we crossed a final field and found ourselves on the biggest road we had seen for hours to Drymen.
A brief detour later, in which we accidentally followed the map onto the next phase of the journey rather than the road signs pointing us in the opposite direction, we arrived at the bus stop with twenty minutes to spare. Before we could decide whether to wait it out or have a quick wander into the centre a school bus bound for Milngavie pulled in and we managed to commandeer a pair of seats.
Determined to celebrate our achievement — and before you ask, it was an achievement — we searched Milngavie for a suitable venue. We asked a street cleaner for recommendations, and having already ruled out the Talbot Arms on the grounds of taste and hygiene we set off for the two Premiere Inns he placed on the outskirts of town. Finding a Beefeeter Restaurant & Pub we poured ourselves into a pair of chairs in the corner and ordered food and a drink.
So it’s doable. And, more than that, it’s good fun, too. We’d just walked twelve percent of the full West Highland Way, and we were very much still standing. It became clear that the challenge wouldn’t be so much the daily ordeal, but in getting up to endure it all again the following morning. With five months to prepare for the main event, however, it shouldn’t be too much to ask at all. West Highland Yay.