I really didn't want to go to work today. I never thought I'd end up classing a day's walk as a day's work, but after two months of getting up early, strapping on the boots and hitting the trail – which then, more often than not, traipses through endless bog and moor – this walk has most definitely graduated from a holiday into a full-time job. The novelty has worn off; in fact it wore off miles ago. Now, although it's a job with a large number of excellent perks, it still feels too much like hard work for an annoyingly large proportion of the time.
It's especially difficult when you have to go back to work after a holiday, and yesterday's rest day was most definitely one of those. Peta has booked all the accommodation in this area and Ardoch Cottage, the bed and breakfast in which we've just spent two nights, is one of the best I've ever stayed in. Tucked away in the small village of Gartocharn, a couple of miles west of Drymen and right at the southern end of Loch Lomond, it provided the perfect setting for the rest day my right foot needed.
We spent yesterday loafing around on top of Duncryne Hill, a small bump of a hill that's easy to climb and just a stone's throw from the main street in Gartocharn; it's also home to what must be one of the best views in the country, that of Loch Lomond. The loch, the biggest expanse of fresh water in Britain, is hemmed in by steep slopes at the northern end of its 27 square miles, but to the south, where the glacial ice of the distant past ground the mountains down, the loch widens into a much bigger vista. Perched on Duncryne Hill, bang in the middle of this southern plain, you can look right up the length of the loch and the effect is magical.
Loch Lomond has 38 islands that peer over the top of the loch's waters and most of them are crowded into the wide southern half. From Duncryne Hill their tree-covered slopes take on all sorts of shapes, from the one that looks like a man who's fallen face down into a shallow puddle, to the one that looks exactly like a motorboat, complete with a wake when the wind picks up. Peta and I popped into Drymen to pick up some lunch, drove back to Gartocharn, walked up Duncryne Hill and didn't come down all day. Few views are this captivating or this vast; from the top of the hill you don't so much get a view as a panorama, and with perfect weather, soft grass to sit on and a whole bag of food to munch on, the day passed by like a dream.
As if that wasn't enough, we chose to eat in our B&B last night, as Gartocharn's only eatery, an expensive and slightly tacky establishment called the Hungry Monk, was most definitely only worth visiting once. It turned out to be an excellent move; Mabel and Paul, our hosts for the night, put on an incredible spread, and Mabel's cooking deserves more analytical praise than a culinary philistine like me can hack out. I did jot down the menu, though, which might give you an idea of how much Peta and I enjoyed our romantic dinner for two at the edge of Loch Lomond. If this is Scottish cooking, then I'm happy to be called a convert:
Soup of butternut squash with vanilla, orange, apple, parsley and a swirl of cream
Venison fillets with a whisky and cream sauce
Yellow peppers stuffed with mushrooms and spring onions
Syllabub with forest berries in raspberry coulis
Nottage Hill Cabernet Sauvingon Shiraz
Coffee and mints
Is it any wonder that I didn't want to get up when the alarm started yelling at 7.30 this morning? See, I told you this walk was work.
Onto the West Highland Way
I've been looking forward to the West Highland Way for a long time. I've heard only good things about the track, which takes in some of Scotland's best landscape in its 95-mile route from Glasgow to Fort William. The first day from Glasgow to Drymen is a pretty standard walk, though after the ridiculous initiation ceremony of the Pennine Way, an easy first day gets my vote. However, the second stage from Drymen to Rowardennan is another story; it really is special.
This section of the Way starts off with a hike up Conic Hill, from where the views of Loch Lomond are apparently lovely. I can't confirm this, though, as I decided to save wear and tear on my foot by walking along the main road from Drymen to Balmaha, cutting out a few miles and the steady climb of the official route. After yesterday's cinematic extravaganza on Duncryne I felt I could safely omit the first hurdle of the day, especially as the heat was stifling. Besides, I didn't want to be at work in the first place, and the shorter the walk, the shorter the office hours.
But the West Highland Way really isn't like work; I'd still rather spend time with my girlfriend than on the seemingly endless mileage of Land's End to John o'Groats, but if the rest of the Way is as pleasant and easy going as the walk from Balmaha to Rowardennan, I'm in for a treat. The path follows the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, sometimes coinciding with the main shore road and sometimes ducking into forest, and it's this aspect of the walk that makes the views, when you glimpse them, that much more intriguing. Every now and then the Way climbs above the trees, suddenly running into small clearings that force you to stop in your tracks and stare at the loch. Under the deep blue skies of this surprise heatwave the loch is a picture, and because the Way flirts with you, showing you tiny snippets of the loch through the trees, it's all the more impressive when the views jump out from behind a rock and startle you into dumb silence. They're beautiful and they more than make up for the long sections of relatively uninteresting forest.
However, my favourite bits aren't the views, but the beaches. When the Way isn't plodding through trees or hugging the main road, it's weaving its way along the stony shore. Paths lead off the Way to tiny snippets of shoreline, framed by trees and more often than not looking out over one of the loch's many islands. Every now and then the path winds along the back of a beach that's accessible by road, and on a day like this these public beaches are happily buzzing with splashing kids and lightly poached adults, providing an interesting shock to the system after the relative tranquillity of the lochside forest. Walking is a lovely way of exploring these edges of the loch; there might be some stiff climbs and some stifling forest sections, but compared to the monotony of canal towpaths, the dirge of man-made pine forests and the depression of the Dark Peak's peat hags, this is walking that only the most miserable bugger would think of as work.
Still, that's how I thought of it, like it or not. I loved the walk, I soaked up the views and I sweated more than I thought possible, but I got the whole thing out of the way as quickly as I could. I pushed myself hard to make sure I got to Rowardennan as soon as possible and I was happy I did, for as soon as I'd arrived Peta whisked me off to tonight's holiday destination, the Village Inn in Arrochar on the shores of Loch Long. Overlooking the loch, whose name comes from the Gaelic loch luing or 'lake of the boats', the Village Inn has excellent food on offer and serves great real ales; as I write this I'm thoroughly enjoying the dark bitterness of Orkney Brewery's Dark Isle and the hoppy, golden taste of Brydge Bitter. Suddenly I feel as if I'm back on holiday again; it feels good, which probably means I need it. You really can have too much work, even if working is walking.