Thursday, 16 October 2014

Fort William

 After the best night's sleep of them all, I awoke early, gave a great creaky stretch, and walked across the street to Loch Linnie.

Watching the sun come up, kissing the peaks and hills and crags as it makes its way through the sky in the early chill, and wanting coffee badly, I decided that I should probably start looking for a home here.

 After much debate over a really nice breakfast - do yourself a favor and stay at the Laurel Bank Lodge if you are ever here- we decided to forego the climbing of Ben Nevis.  I thought that I probably could do it, but I felt like if I did go up and down that hill, it would be pushing myself well beyond my comfort zone.  Climbing a mountain at the end of 100 miles was just not in the cards.  As much as I wanted to, my sense of self-preservation kicked in.    

 Instead, we decided to do some nice leisurely activities.   We were debating renting a car and making our way down to Glasgow going along the coast, but after looking at all the things to do around Fort William, we stayed put.  Or, relatively put.

 On our way to the train station, we saw a boat cruise on Loch Linnie was about to leave, so we hopped on board.

Naturally, we were the most fashion-forward of tourist.  Getting a break from the boots was like walking on air.

Amazingly, the top of Ben Nevis was clear.  We whimpered as we pulled further away from the hulking elephant that we wished to be climbing.  A clear day on the highest mountain in Scotland?  You get about three of them a year.

The day was absolute stunning.  Warm, sunny and windless and a near-glassy loch.  Linnie is a saltwater sea loch, so we got to see a salmon fishery and a mussel farm, along with countless herons, eider ducks and wigeons.    

While the salmon farm was a big, cage-and-net affair with quite the odor, the mussel farm was less intrusive.

They don't even seed the ropes, they just let nature take its course and then harvest the ropes after a couple of years.  They don't fence or net in the treasured bivalves, so there are eiders that hang out hear year-round, enjoying the free lunch as far as they can dive down.  

 We finally made our way to dry land and hopped aboard the train to Mallaig.  They have a steam train that makes the route, but we decided the pedestrian diesel train would get us there all the same, and cheaper, but I'm also known as a killjoy.

This route is a big train-spotting and train geek affair- it is reputed to be the most scenic line in the UK, and they filmed the train journey in and out of Hogworts along this line.  You totally felt like a wizard here anyway.  I tried to cast a few enchantments...

 Although taking pictures from a moving train yields less than stellar results, that seems to be what everyone was was almost compulsive.  It was really beautiful, but I was bothered by the nagging feeling that I should be out there with my boots on.

 Malliag was a great little day-tripper town and fishing port.  You can get a ferry to Skye from here, or just take the train in and see the village.  Lots of cafes and pubs and fresh seafood to be had.  We had lunch of hot drinks and fresh sea loch shrimp, which were spiny little bastards and hurt your fingers to ease open, but were the best shrimp I've ever had.

The sky was so clear, well, you could see all the way to Skye.  It was a highlight of my last Scotland trip- it's just amazingly beautiful.  See those peaks?  The gentle, conical hills of the mainland are not what you find on Skye, but jagged peaks.  They look like the Alps.  While sitting on the jetty looking out, we were tempted to make some hasty plans to extend our stay.  We frantically devised plans to stay longer, call in sick to work, eat the cost of the return train ticket, somehow get a friend let in our place in, this was not the right thing to do.  We need something to get us to come back, and those peaks on Skye would be it.

 The return train trip back to Fort William was much faster, as it was all downhill.  The engine barely switched on and we had a quiet coast down through the valleys and loch-sides.

Even at the late hour, the top of Ben Nevis was still cloudless and visible.  I realized around 2pm that my feet were fine after being off them for most of the morning, and we were kicking ourselves for not undertaking the big hike on our last day in Scotland.

Instead, we wandered around Fort William, walking barefoot through the immaculate lawn of the cemetery, exploring the very small remains of the original fort, taking in a dram and the salt air.  

The main street becomes a parade late in the day as hikers come off the trail.  It was fun to watch the reactions of people as they saw the end of the trail- it really shows a person's soul if they are cheerful or looking dejected, or just happy that their misery is over.

 I guess I'm glad I didn't do the big Ben Nevis hike after all.  For a few hours in the afternoon, I was feeling a bit sore in my neck, and my lymph nodes were lumpy bumpy.  By nightfall, I had a nice head cold working its way out, and started with the hacking cough.  I don't know why this keeps happening, but the silver lining was that at least it waited until I was off the trail this time.  I hacked my way across the last three days of the Coast to Coast when it hit me mid-hike.  I survived, but somehow this felt worse.

The next day, we were taking a bus back to Glasgow, and a train to London from there.  What I had thought as a cold was now a flu, and I was feverish and wearing all the layers of clothes that I barely touched all week, and sipping at water and eating crackers when I could, and crunching myself up into a pathetic lump of shivering misery.  Well, the bus ride was nice- it basically followed the A84, so we got to re-live the trail in a mere 3 hours, which was a bit infuriating but a good way to remember just how long that trail really had been.  I had brought a lace shawl to knit on, and due to my lack of concentration and just general feeling of misery, nothing got done on it at all.

We stopped by the Pot Still in Glasgow, as I was told by everyone and their mothers the only answer is a dram.   They opened just as we were rolling past, so the bar was quiet, with just a few people milling around.

I loaded up on cold meds for the ride home, had a lovely chat with an eccentric local, and curled up on the crowded train back to London, where somehow a large Russian family with many small children managed to get seats in the coveted "Quiet Car".

I fear I will never encounter a bar so lovely as long as I live.  

I found this trip has inspired me to want to hike in Scotland more.  This might be the most romantic place on earth.  I will return to it always.  It's pretty much an outdoorsy wonderland, with lots of quiet corners to get lost in, and every place you stop for the night has at least a good bottle of whisky for you to wax poetic about.  While the West Highland Way was worth while, I would search far and wide for a more remote trail next time.  There's one trail that goes across Skye in a week that piques my interest.  Some of the outer islands might fit the bill.  There's plenty of trails that you would need to rough-camp in order to complete, but many of them can be strung together with campgrounds and pubs as your overnight.

I'm so happy I ended my hiking season here.  The days are getting short, and the rain has been endless recently, so there was a certain finality to this journey.

I miss it there already.

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