I’ve really grown to enjoy walking. I know it sounds a silly thing to relish — like blinking, breathing or buying milk, locomotion is something most people do without much in the way of metacognition — but over the last few years whether pootling around town or hiking up a (big) hill I’m rarely happier than when I’m outdoors, on foot.
Even the long distance stuff has been fun. Sure, the walk from Dundee to St Andrews might have stung a bit and Kinlochleven to Fort William was really more of a swim, but the sense of accomplishment you can derive from a hard day’s hiking — not to mention the inspiring sights you see or interesting people you meet along the way — has always made it more than worth the effort.
I’d already done quite a bit of walking in and around Dunkeld when Paul and I decided to walk from Perth to Birnam, the neighbouring village — a distance of fifteen miles, fact fans. The two of us had looped Loch Ordie the fornight before, and I’d been back in the interim with my mother to visit Loch of the Lowes and the resident ospreys before they migrated to Africa. On both occasions I’d found it to be a popular and picturesque little town with lots to see and do.
There’s the cathedral of course, or at least what’s left of it; a mixed Gothic-Norman edifice that has stood on the north bank of the River Tay since 1260 — or, in its finished form, since 1501. Famously, it was home to the Battle of Dunkeld, where the Jacobites lost to William of Orange. Not the defunct mobile phone company, presumably — a different Orange. But Dunkeld is interesting now, too; the main thoroughfare is lined with handsome little cafes and boutiques, the grounds of Hilton Dunkeld House are beautiful and beguiling, and signs the town over advertise a whole host of small walks and diversions. You can view a separate photo gallery here.
On my last visit I’d walked the extra mile to Birnam, across the Thomas Telford Bridge and past Dunkeld War Memorial. There we found the Birnam Arts and Conference Centre, and although closed we were still able to view the Beatrix Potter Garden: a small space dedicated to statuettes of the author’s characters and, judging by the suspicious-looking youths skulking over by the information boards, underage drinking. It was leaving the garden that I noticed a sign pointing to Perth, indicating a fifteen mile walk that started right there, within sight of the nameless rabbits indistinguishable for someone as unfamiliar with the Peter Rabbit series as I was.
I’m telling you all this now, because, setting out from Perth the following week, Paul and I never did make it back to Birnam.
Amazingly for two people who had only last year walked the West Highland Way — 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William, for those new to this blog — not to mention lengthy sections of the Fife and Angus Coastal Walks, we were to fall foul of Five Mile Woods — a distance that even Winnie the Pooh (in his inanimate form, no less) could have managed, provided there was either honey at one end or a Heffalump at the other. What was it about Five Mile Woods that was so challenging, you ask? Was it a Woozle, perhaps? Or a Jagular? Well, we’ll get to that, Christopher Robin, because the truth is we almost never even made it that far.
To be honest, I wasn’t having the best morning. I’d slept in, inexplicably hurt my hip overnight and missed not one but two buses, leaving me with no choice but to cross an ominously crow-lined bridge in order to execute Plan C: another bus. By the time I arrived at Perth Train Station and met Paul I was flustered and flummoxed, and, rather worryingly given the distance ahead of us that day, already in quite a bit of discomfort. Still, we reconvened to Starbucks and one Grande Hazelnut Latte later I was just starting to think that the worst might very well be behind me. Having caught up over coffee, Paul and I set off.
To begin with at least the path was perfectly pleasant. It took us north out of Perth along the Tay, through a quiet park from which we could admire a row of increasingly grandiose houses on the other side of the river. Community parkland gave way to golf courses which gave way to agriculture as we followed the path to Inveralmond, skirting the industrial estate and circumventing farmer’s fields as we watched people fish in the Tay — some sat in boats, others stood in wellies. In hindsight I note that it was here that Paul started suggesting detours, almost all of them leading to nowhere. Nevertheless, we made it to the River Almond without much delay.
We had to duck under the same dank underpass twice, once on each direction, in order to get to the other side of the Almond. From here the signage suggested following a road to Luncarty, but Paul pushed for a riverside trail that promised a quieter and more scenic route — provided of course that we could cross the quagmire at its inception. A sign warned of flooding right along the track, but I conceded that it might be worth the extra effort and we were soon off-road and on our way. As Paul had predicted, that was the biggest puddle we would cross prior to Luncarty and just over an hour later we were playing our new favourite game (Co-op or Spar?) as we walked into the village proper. It was a Spar, obviously, so I bought a cake — the packaging of which completely confounded the clerk, a newly hired woman who was probably newer to the shop than my cream bun.
Somewhat buoyed by the whole riverside experience (it wasn’t just a sugar-rush; a close-encounter with a bulldog-walking skin-head on the outskirts of town got the adrenaline going too) I happily deferred all directional duties to Paul, following in his wake as he lead us along a B-road on another diversion — a secondary route he had downloaded from the core paths section of the Perth & Kinross Council website that promised slightly more varied terrain than the roadside alternative. After a few hundred yards we hopped a fence, followed by another fence, until we found ourselves waste-deep in a field of corn or wheat or barley. All I know was that it was a crop of some sort, as my attention was almost immediately drawn to a deer startled by our presence. It bound elegantly, effortlessly across the field before disappearing over the fence. We attempted to do the same.
This didn’t feel right. We were used to walking through and around gates but not so accustomed to clambering over them. In Scotland you have the right to roam, but on this occasion it felt more than a little bit wrong — like we were about to get ploughed or perforated with pitchforks by an unhappy farmer. However, with the council on our side we tentatively set off along a pair of tractor tracks — not elegantly, nor effortlessly, but presumably in the direction of Birnam. The presence of the deer and the length of the crops had Paul worried about ticks, while it was quickly becoming apparent that whatever the plant being cultivated in this field might have been it was roughly 95% water. By the time we reached the other end of the field our trousers were stuck to our legs and we were wearing Weetabix instead of shoes. Unfortunately, Paul’s prediction of a nice path didn’t quite pan out and we were instead met with warning signs. We had arrived at a quarry.
Undeterred — well, slightly deterred, but not quite deterred enough — we continued on, bound for an underpass marked on the map that would hopefully allow us to cross the railway currently separating us from Five Mile Woods. However, this passing was inexplicably blocked — strung with barbed wire that hadn’t been shown — leaving us with no choice but to rejoin the road over an hour later and less than a mile from where we had left it. It was a busy road with no sidewalk or even a substantial verge, costing us around another hour as we walked — one foot on the road, one in the brush — two miles out of our way to the town of Stanley, where we might finally be able to cross the rails and continue on our way. At this point (nearly 2pm) we knew that we were never going to make it to Birnam, but we might still get to Bankfoot — originally intended to be our halfway point.
We made it to Stanley just after two, shortly after Tayside Hotel stopped serving lunch. Puppy dog eyes at the ready, we did manage to blag (or more accurately beg) a burger from the receptionist, and nominally rested and refueled we marched for the wood, via Duchess Street. I couldn’t help but notice that the rifle range was located right next door to the local primary school, but was at this point already too tired to even raise an eyebrow. For some reason I had found the walk so far considerably harder than usual, not just because of the pain in my hip but because my shoes were proving increasingly uncomfortable and I couldn’t stop sweating in the humid air. I had thrown away the shoes I’d worn for the West Highland Way shortly after returning home, and the replacement pair I had bought for the Great Glen Way (eight weeks and counting) just weren’t cutting muster.
We arrived at Five Mile Woods a short time later, ignoring a nearby standing stone as by now we both just wanted to get it over and done with. Our expectations of Milne-esque wish-fulfilment were quickly proven woefully unfounded; I for one wasn’t feeling bouncy, trouncy, flouncy or pouncy, just more than a little bit lost. Considering how well signposted the path had been, at least up until Paul rerouted us into a quarry, it was surprising to find the route lacking in any sort of directions whatsoever. We kept walking north as best we could, for another hour or so, but we didn’t seem to be making much progress. It was only when we bumped into a dog walker that we realised we had walked in a five-mile circle. We had reached an exit; it just happened to be the Stanley one.
It became clear why we had missed the Bankfoot exit when we backtracked with the dog walker, who had offered to show us the way. It had been liquified in the wet summer we’d had and was now completely submerged, leaving only a tangle of overgrowth either side of a river of sludge. I immediately demanded that we go straight back to Stanley, where we had a slightly reduced chance of drowning in primordial soup — we’d surely just be shot by pre-schoolers instead, nice and quick. Paul, however, insisted that we could make it, like on the riverside path, if only we could make it over the first puddle. Only this wasn’t a puddle, this was a swamp. I couldn’t help but flash back to Dunvegan, where he had slipped on frozen grass and injured his knee. If we were to fall here there was a real chance we would never be seen again. Or never see again.
We forayed into the surrounding brush, walking over fallen trees and using thickets as stepping stones, but it was no use, the ground was saturated and the way unstable. Where root systems had been unearthed black pools of who-knows-what could be seen below, a film of bubbles and froth only adding to the overall awfulness. We returned to what had once been the path, and miraculously Paul managed to tease his way alongside it, only getting completely soaked in the process. Giving into peer pressure I followed suit, landing a short time later on the first section of solid ground I had felt in just shy of half an hour. The nigh thirty-minute scramble had done my hip no favours whatsoever, and so it was with a pronounced limp that I stalked the last couple of miles into Bankfoot itself. We passed a sign saying that it was five miles to Dunkeld, moments before boarding a bus back to Perth.
I’d really grown to despise walking.