I think it’s safe to say that I was feeling pretty confident about walking the West Highland Way in April.
Having walked from Broughty Ferry to Arbroath, climbed Kinnoull Hill outside of Perth and completed a practice run of the first leg of the Way itself, all without so much as a blister, I was feeling positively cocky.
That all changed on Thursday, when Paul Greenwood arrived at Dundee train station and we set off across the Tay Road Bridge on a 23-mile trek to St Andrews. I had scouted a part of the route the previous week (a round trip of 14 miles in itself) and hadn’t seen any reason for it not to be another relaxed stroll.
Admittedly, it was to be the furthest we had walked in preparation for the Way — quite possibly the furthest we had walked for any reason, ever — but we saw no cause for concern. We would be taking the established Fife Coastal Path, with dog walkers and ramblers; it was going to be easy.
Having crossed the bridge — all 1.4 miles of it — we turned left, crossed the car park of a small service station, and took the stairs down to the coastal path. The day was cold and overcast, but according to the weather forecast it was the only one that week that wasn’t set to be a washout.
The path soon left Tay Street, taking us at first down a slight verge and then away from the road completely. We cut down a small path leading to the first of two lighthouses, and ambled along Commonty Road as it took us into Tayport. There we bought supplies, before rejoining the path at the harbour and following it around a small residential area, along the promenade and out through Tayport Links Caravan Park.
The tide was out, and as we left Tayport you could just about make out waterbirds wading through the surf. The path, which was lined on one side with Dragons Teeth — remnant defences from World War II — afforded stunning views of Broughty Ferry castle and Monifieth on the opposite bank of the river. Between us stood Old Larrick Beacon, also known as Pile Lighthouse, slap bang in the middle of the Tay.
Choosing to continue through the forest rather than along the sands, we followed the path past a pair of wartime pill boxes and disappeared into the treeline. Tentsmuir Forest was planted with pine trees in the 1920s, before which time the area had been primarily sand dunes and moorland. It is still owned by Forestry Commission Scotland, and as we passed through we saw occasional signs of maintenance and upkeep.
Having chosen to walk on a weekday morning in January, we were alone for much of the journey. It was quite eerie, with the sounds of nesting birds and falling branches seemingly amplified in our relative solitude. Despite signs telling visitors to watch out for deer and other wildlife we didn’t anything of interest. At Tentsmuir Point — where the Tay meets the North Sea, and the point at which I had turned back the week before — we took to the sands in a similarly pointless search for seals.
It’s amazing the difference between walking on solid ground and walking on sand. We can’t have walked more than a mile along the beach, with occasional forays into adjacent grassland, before we gave up and returned to the forest. We stopped at an information point and picnic area for something to eat, before setting off on what each of us expected to be a pretty undemanding walk to Leuchars. It didn’t look far on the map, and I estimated we would be there within the hour.
Unfortunately, we took a wrong turn almost immediately upon leaving the car park, and found ourselves walking a good mile in the wrong direction. Paul consulted his GPS after yet another skew left. Having somehow wound up walking north, almost back the way we had come, we turned around and headed back to the path. A few miles and almost an hour later, we were back on track. It was now after three o’clock, and the sun would soon be setting.
To reach Leuchars we had to cross more scrubland, snaking through thickets of dry grass in a landscape that — having just left the forest — looked just a little incongruous. Handily, bridges had been erected over the various bogs, and we were soon back on solid ground as we walked up Earlshall Road, along the outer perimeter of RAF Leuchars. Typhoons could be heard overhead as we joined Main Street and walked between the two halves of the base.
It was the first time I had been to Leuchars since covering the Air Show for this blog back in September. My parents had been stationed at RAF Leuchars for a number of years, and the path took us within a few hundred metres of my old house. Unfortunately, with light fading fast and St Andrews — visible through the fence, just over the runway — looking as distant as ever, we didn’t have time for a detour.
By this point my feet were hurting, and I could feel my toes blistering as I walked. According to signs at the outset, Leuchars had been 16 miles from the Tay Road Bridge, whereas St Andrews had been 20, leaving just four miles left to walk. None of the signs we now passed seemed to agree on distance, however, and as we walked around the Eden Estuary from Leuchars to Guardbridge it became impossible to tell how much further was left to go.
Leaving Guardbridge, mild discomfort had developed into full-blown agony, across almost my entire body, and with each step we slowed, eventually becoming unsteady on our feet as we apparently lost the ability to walk in a straight line. After two milestones, each about a mile apart, informed us that we still had three miles to go, it was clear that things were becoming desperate. What’s worse we could see, hear and often feel buses (the 99A, B, C…) belting up the A91 and seriously considered hitching a lift the “short” distance to St Andrews.
We didn’t, however, and finally the fields gave way to golf courses and the lights of St Andrews became visible through the night. Eventually we reached the threshold, and vowed to stop at the first open restaurant we could find. Or, as we had to compromise, the first open restaurant that was not the preposterously expensive Old Course Hotel. Sadly, excruciatingly, that meant walking into the heart of the town, adding yet another mile to our increasingly impossible itinerary.
At first we sought refuge at 1 Golf Place, where Paul aired his feet and charged his phone, but when the barman informed us that they had stopped serving food at five (FIVE?) we had to move on, this time to Ziggy’s. Despite being hungry, neither of us really had the energy to eat, and after attempting a second course we had to call it a night and return to Dundee.
It only took a day or two to get back to normal; to be able to use stairs without wincing. Unfortunately, on the West Highland Way we will not have a day or two. While we can take some reassurance from the fact that our planned route will not require us to walk 23 miles in a single day, we still have to walk 96 miles in six consecutive days.
It’s time to pick up the pace.