Over the last few days the weathermen and women have been glowing with the news of the hottest heatwave to hit the country in years. Their charts have been beaming with pretty yellow sun symbols and the temperatures have been soaring above 30°C, setting new records for the time of year and giving the forecasters the happy task of predicting clear skies and wall-to-wall sunshine for the next few days. It's a happy time.
But poor old Scotland seems to be the odd one out. 'It's going to be a beautiful day,' says the weatherman. 'Oh... except in Scotland, where it's going to rain. But who cares? I'm in London and it's a gorgeous day here, and that's all that matters, right?'
Not if you're here, it doesn't, and the last few days have been cloudy, windy and totally devoid of the cloudless sun afflicting the rest of the country. But all good things come to those who wait and today, finally, the heatwave hit Scotland. Well, except for the Outer Hebrides, but who cares? I'm heading towards Glasgow and it's a gorgeous day here, and as far as I'm concerned, that is all that matters.
Scenery? What Scenery?
Annoyingly I have just bitten off more than I can chew, and it hurts. Although the longest individual day of this walk remains the 24 miles from Tiverton to Taunton – matched only by the 24 miles from Melrose to Peebles, though that was done with a lighter pack – the last few days have collectively been the longest haul of the trip. Since my bonus rest day in Peebles, itself following on from the long Melrose-Peebles leg, I've covered 14, 18.5, 22 and 21.5 miles per day, and today was another long slog at 23.5 miles. That's 99.5 miles in five days straight, and it's a been a long trek.
I think I have found my limit, for this morning I woke up with a niggling pain in the front ball of my right foot that slowly grew into pure unadulterated agony. It wasn't a sharp pain – it felt more like walking on a nasty bruise – but just a few miles after rejoining the Forth and Clyde, I was thinking seriously about whether I could carry on. Blisters are one thing, but I haven't had a pain this intense since my tendon injury back in Dartmoor and it's worrying.
I eventually made it to Drymen by removing one of the socks from my right foot and necking a couple of painkillers. This seemed to help, though a nasty side effect was that the small blister on my right heel, which I'd hidden under a blister plaster, rubbed itself into a frenzy of activity that has come to rival any of the blisters I had in Cornwall. Luckily I didn't discover this until I reached Drymen and peeled off my sock to reveal the extent of the damage; on the walk itself I was far too preoccupied with the ominous feelings on the inside of my foot.
Pain really does ruin things. Today was a lovely day for walking and I should have been enjoying the lack of wind in my face as I finally reached the kind of stunning scenery for which Scotland is famous. From the grey misery of Kilsyth I walked along the canal to Kirkintilloch, from where I took a path along a disused railway line that ploughed through Milton of Campsie and Strathblane and all the way to the West Highland Way, which then took me to Drymen. And Drymen, at the southern end of Loch Lomond, is where the highlands of Scotland really kick in, creating picture-postcard views everywhere you look.
It wasn't a long, lonely slog either. There were plenty of people out enjoying the Sunday sunshine and they were happy, friendly people who were as full of the joys of the heatwave as I should have been. On the way into Kirkintilloch I beamed at my fellow towpath walkers and they beamed back, some of them even managing to breathe life into an old classic. Back in Kilsyth a man on crutches had looked at me and said, 'Where are your bloody skis, eh?' in a tone of voice that indicated he wasn't laughing with me, but at me; I ignored him and kept my eyes low. On the towpath, though, an old man beamed at me as I poled past his defecating dog and he happily quipped, 'I see you've lost your skis then!' I dutifully smiled; I've heard this joke a hundred times before on this walk, but when people say it with a smile, it's always a pleasure to laugh along with them.
The views were as pleasant as the people and the Campsie Fells to my right provided a lovely backdrop to the walk. Milton of Campsie and Strathblane are pretty places and even though I got lost in the former trying to follow a diversion round an unsafe bridge, I was happy to explore because the towns along the dismantled railway are a long, long way from the pebbledash misery of Kilsyth.
But despite my relief at discovering that Kilsyth is not the norm, I just couldn't concentrate. When walking is a constant exercise in pain control, you can't avoid the awful gnawing feeling at the back of your mind that maybe, just maybe the pain indicates a serious injury and that this could be the end of everything. After over 800 miles of walking, the thought of failure is enough to bring me right down; I've come far enough to be cautiously optimistic about finishing this walk, but I can't let myself get too carried away. It only takes one twisted ankle to spoil the party... or even one swollen and slightly throbbing right foot that at times is just too painful to walk on.
I didn't do anything except keep on walking, but slowly the pain subsided from an intense and unavoidable jolt to a dull ache. It wasn't comfortable but I figured I could cope with it, and it was in this state that I reached Strathblane, the point in the walk when I decided to test my shortcut theory.
McCloy's guidebook takes another heavy hit from the Stupid Stick at this point and sends you off on a wild goose chase around a country park, adding quite a few miles to an already long day for no reason that I can fathom. I decided early on that I was going to ignore his advice and make up my own route, so I sat down with the map and instantly spotted two possible alternatives. One option was to walk along a minor road from Strathblane directly to the West Highland Way and then to follow the way-markers all the way to Drymen, but in the manner of all scenic routes the Way itself doesn't half dither around, taking in some pretty little climbs that are fine for those starting from Glasgow but far less interesting to those of us who've already walked a long way to get here.
The other option was more attractive, but I couldn't work out from the map whether it was actually possible. I wanted to stick to the dismantled railway, but the path appeared to stop in Strathblane, and stop it did; I came to a B-road and the path simply disappeared. Still, you don't get anywhere if you're not willing to take a few chances, so I hopped over a farm fence, navigated round a field full of horses, ducked through a gap in the woods and found myself on a track that shadowed the embankment where the railway used to be. A little further on a left-hand turn took me back to the line of the railway, and as if by magic, I found the path again. It took me all the way to the West Highland Way, and in a straight line; I don't know if I was supposed to be there and I'm damn sure I wasn't supposed to be sneaking past the gardens of Duntreath Castle that lay on the other side of the old track, but nobody complained and there were plenty of footprints to follow, so I stuck with it.
Hell, I didn't care. My foot hurt, my legs ached and I wanted to get to Drymen, for waiting there, relaxing on the village green with the latest Harry Potter, was Peta, who's flown up to join me for a few days. Today might have been an awful walk and my body might be at breaking point, but tomorrow's a rest day, I've finally reached real Scottish scenery and for the next few days I don't have to stew over how much I miss my girlfriend because she's here. The outlook here in Scotland is extremely rosy; oh, and the sun is shining too.