Oh, how disappointing the end of the Great Glen Way turns out to be. For the last few days I've been happily following forest tracks and quiet canals, and after my lack of enthusiasm for the West Highland Way it's been such a relief to find that the first three days of the Great Glen Way make a lovely little walk. But I'm afraid the last day from Drumnadrochit to Inverness is a turgid, pathetic affair that only exists so the organising committee can say that the Way links Fort William with Inverness. They should have ended the Way at Drumnadrochit because the last 18 miles are a complete waste of time.
Let's get the one positive point out of the way nice and early. After about two miles of following the busy A82 out of Drumnadrochit the Way turns uphill and into yet another man-made pine forest, but for one sublime moment just before the pines kick in there's a stunning view back along the loch to Urquhart Castle. Sure, the castle is distant and it's an easy detail to miss if you haven't been studying the map, but it's another of those rare views that make the Great Glen Way more than just another plod through reams of man-made forest.
But I'm afraid that's it. From there to Inverness the walking is absolutely awful, and it's obvious from the weary faces you meet along the way that nobody likes this part of the walk. It's a sad way to mark the end of a long-distance walk that starts off with such great promise.
It's quite possible that people who haven't walked all the way from Northumberland may well appreciate a few days of plodding along forestry tracks with the views obscured by rows and rows of dingy pine trees, but I've had it up to here with bloody Forestry Commission land. As the Way weaves into the pines and joins a huge dirt road through the middle of yet another anonymous forest, it scarcely matters that the route is veering away from Loch Ness, because even when the Way sticks to the shoreline, the views are few and far between. Today, though, it was excruciating because my feet have had enough.
I've already mentioned the aches in my feet and I'm sure my new boots are the problem. The boots themselves are fine, but I've got used to walking on tread that's totally worn down on the outside and still intact on the inside, which means I'm used to walking with my feet slightly tilted. Imagine the way you'd tilt your feet if you were walking along a pole, and that's the way I've been walking for hundreds of miles. To suddenly twist those feet back into a straight, flat gait is asking for trouble, and trouble I have.
The blisters are minor but they're indicative of the problem. I have one blister on each foot, each of them just behind the middle toe, on the underside of the front ball of the foot. This is where the boots are pressing and although the blisters are annoying, the real pain is inside. My feet feel as if they are bruised and every step feels as if I'm kicking a concrete bollard.
Pain isn't normally a problem when there's something to look at, because my mind has the short attention span of the average Coke-drinking, MTV-watching metal-head. My feet might be in serious trouble, but stick a pretty view in front of me or give me some challenging map reading to do and it's amazing how I can forget that my entire lower leg feels like it's in the meat grinder. Pain is a pretty constant companion for a walker like me – if it weren't, I'd probably think it was churlish not to leap to the top of every mountain between here and John o'Groats – but you learn to cope with it. The human mind can't remember pain – if it did, I doubt anybody would have more than one child – and it's very good at conning you into putting up with yet more blisters, strains, bites and bleeding arseholes.
But on a walk like the final day of the Great Glen Way there's nothing to distract the pain-riddled walker. Long, boring forest roads turn into long, boring B-roads that turn into long, boring forest tracks, and by the time Inverness slides into view, the damage is done. My feet hurt and my mind dwelled on it, which made matters considerably worse.
Thankfully I was lucky enough to bump into three distractions at the end of one particularly agonising four-mile stretch of hard tarmac road. I'd only managed to get through the pain barrier by promising myself that I'd drop my pack and have lunch the second I left the tarmac, and mile by mile, minute by minute, step by step it slowly passed, until I finally reached the end of the road and collapsed on the grass. Already sitting there were Bart and Stefanie, a Dutch couple whom I'd met a couple of times along the Way, and just behind me was Heather, a Scottish lass with whom I'd also been sharing the Way for the last few days. Suddenly I wasn't alone.
That little lunch stop helped enormously. Everyone was hurting in some way, from knee problems and foot problems to general exhaustion, and after a good old communal whinge about pain, blisters and how crap this part of the Great Glen Way was turning out to be, I felt a lot better. My feet still felt as if they'd been run over by a lawnmower, but I wasn't the only one and that made it seem a lot more bearable than when it had been just me, my feet and my obsessing mind. Even better, I fell into step with Bart and Stefanie all the way to Inverness, and we nattered our way through the last few miles of this disappointing and uninspiring end to the Way before sharing a couple of very welcome beers at the end of the trail.
Out on the Town
The healing process didn't stop there, for who should be in town but the inimitable Barry. I last saw Barry at the Youth Hostel in Melrose, from where he'd decided on a more direct route north, heading from Edinburgh to Perth before joining a new cycle route to Inverness. Barry isn't the sort of bloke to dither about with diversions, especially diversions like the West Highland Way that he's already walked once, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that he'd taken his time threading past the Cairngorms and therefore happened to be in Inverness at the same time as me. Of course, we just had to meet up for a few beers and a good old feed.
This turned out to be a bit harder than expected. The first pub we tried had stopped serving food an hour earlier, despite the sign outside enticing hungry punters to come on in, but the first words Barry had uttered to the barman had been 'Two pints of Velvet, please,' so I had to follow up the two pints I'd had with Bart and Stefanie with another one, all on a post-walk empty stomach. This helped change the pain in my feet from an intrusive throbbing to an interesting feeling that I could appreciate from more of a distance, which was lucky because we then spent ages wandering around town, trying to find somewhere to eat.
It didn't look like much from the outside, but we eventually tracked down a pub that appeared to be serving food; however, inside it was heaving and it didn't look as if there was going to be any room to sit. Hunger is a great motivator, though, and we managed to persuade a couple of ladies who were perched on the end of a four-seat table to let us squeeze on the end, which they kindly did.
Oh, the food was good and so were the couple of pints we washed it down with, and by this stage we'd started chatting to our friendly neighbours. I don't know the details, but it turned out that the two girls knew someone who had once worked with Barry – the world of local council finances is a small one, it seems – and given this strange coincidence and our bizarre excuse for being in Inverness in the first place, we made friends.
And then the covers band took the stage and our plans for a quiet night resting our feet and getting ready for tomorrow's walk fell apart at the seams, because not only did the whisky start flowing along with the loud riffs and pony-tailed testosterone of the band, but the entire pub exploded. The dance floor was rammed from the minute the guitars kicked in and after a few songs our neighbours kicked back their chairs and joined in. It seemed rude not to follow suit, which just goes to show that alcohol is a genuinely effective anaesthetic.
It also goes to show that I've been away from home too long, because I needed a good bop. The pints helped and the atmosphere was conducive, but I haven't let myself go for this entire walk because I've been alone for most of it and solo hedonism isn't my style. But Inverness demonstrated that not only does my brain need to kick back every now and then, but it's probably getting a bit tired of the working routine. After a long week in the office of the Great Glen Way, I clearly needed a weekend, whatever the consequences for the morning.