We had chosen to tackle the West Highland Way in April for a number of reasons: the clocks had just gone back, so we would have longer days in which to walk, and the arrival of Spring meant weather that was too warm for snow but not quite warm enough for midges.
Another happy consequence of our timing was that accommodation was not as in demand as it might have been. I made the most of this on the morning of our second day on the Way, rising early and treating myself to a morning soak in the hot tub outside our cabin at Bay Cottage in Balmaha.
The weather hadn’t improved overnight, but from where I was sitting the low-lying mist only added to the sense of sleepy tranquillity. It was so calm — at least until I sent the next stream of bubbles surging into my back — and for the next half an hour I enjoyed absolute contentment. With breakfast set for 8am, however, it couldn’t last forever.
We breakfasted in the conservatory with a couple who were en route to a wedding in Calendar, helping ourselves to cereal before being served a full Scottish fry up. Ms Bates recommended making a sandwich from our left-overs, but everything was so good (particularly the black pudding) that there was not enough left to fill one.
Our cases had been collected by the time we finished eating (Inversnaid, our next stop, was apparently a nightmare to drive to, and Travel-lite had requested an early pick up), and after a short stop at the local shop for lunch supplies we set off on the second part of our journey. Today we would be walking sixteen miles, most of them along the banks of Loch Lomond.
We followed the footpath along the loch to the pavement’s end, where the Way crossed the road and began to climb Craigie Fort. There was signage here instructing walkers to take an unspecified detour at the behest of the Forestry Commission. We, however, could see no other obvious alternative, and carried on regardless.
It wasn’t the most comfortable climb — our breakfasts sitting unsteadily in our stomachs — but we made it to the top without any real issue. It seemed that walking at the outset of the season had set-backs too, as it became increasingly clear that maintenance work on the trail was still very much underway, even if we didn’t pass any workers just yet.
We descended the hill into an oak woodland, skirting Arrochymore Point to arrive at Milarrochy Bay. At Cashel Paul and Nathanael stopped to refill their water bottles and I headed over to the campsite’s car park to take some pictures of the loch. It was hard to imagine how our friend from Dover might have made it all the way here on day one, especially considering he had a tent strapped to his back.
There was still a dark gloom hanging over Loch Lomond, but to the east there was the slightest suggestion of sun. The sky brightened as we passed a solar panelled house, made our way through Sallochy and ascended our second hill of the day (this time ignoring the protests of a faceless Operative). We were soon sweating profusely. Rowardennan — Tuesday’s lunch stop — was still miles off.
At the bottom of the hill we met an elderly Dutch couple who had heeded the Operative’s warning and followed the road rather than the path. They were visiting their daughter in Drymen; she had apparently moved to Scotland nine years previously and decided to settle. We assured them that the path was perfectly safe for their return journey, then pushed on.
After passing a Glasgow University field centre (which kick-started a running joke about small settlements with universities) we stopped to eat at a picnic table near Rowardennan, the Dutch couple catching us up as we rested. I braved a quick paddle in the loch, dipping my toes into its icy waters for whole milliseconds at a time. Reinvigorated, we made our way to Rowardennan for a go at its tuck shop (I bought Coke; Paul opted for a cream soda), before setting our sites on Inversnaid.
In addition to booking the hotels and making the arrangements with Travel-lite Paul had read Charlie Loram’s guide to the Way, and we deferred to him whenever we needed information about the day’s route. Loram regarded the next stretch to be among the West Highland Way’s most challenging, particularly for those carrying packs, and so it proved as the trail disappeared into a tangle of roots and rocks.
After a short stretch along the high road to Rowchoish bothy, the next three miles descended into an undignified scramble over boulders and under branches as the Way stuck as closely as possible to the loch, occasionally overhanging it. We saw a trio of feral goats grazing beneath us, crossed a bridge over an attractive waterfall and finally made our way into Inversnaid, where we called for a lift uphill to the Inversnaid Bunkhouse.
We were met by Nick, an employee at the bunkhouse who had fallen in love with the place on his own West Highland Way, and who had returned there to work in the years since. A converted church, the Inversnaid Bunkhouse certainly has a lot of character, with a stained glass window brightening up the communal area on the first floor. The staff, Nick included, were just as charming, each of them happy to give advice and share their own anecdotes.
There was a laundry service and a hot tub, but both came at an additional cost. We wiled most of the evening away on a pair of sofas upstairs, playing chess, reading the books we had brought and making notes in our journals. We couldn’t help but overhear Nick’s wife detailing their meeting; she had left the Way at Inversnaid, where she had met him, and had yet to make it to Fort William. It was nice, but according to Paul/Loram there was even nicer to come.
After Ms B’s home comforts and breakfast spreads, the substantially cheaper bunkhouse was never going to quite live up to Bay Cottage. The bedroom was rather more spartan than the common area, and we divided the beds (one bunk bed and one single) between the three of us. We hung our wetter clothes in the drying room, ate dinner and went to sleep. This proved to be the biggest challenge of the day; the pillowand duvet were both encased within the bottom sheet — no doubt to save on laundry — and we spent whole minutes trying to worm our way in.
We were now going into day three of the season proper, and the route was about to get livelier.