TOUR OF BEN NEVIS WITH NORTH-WEST FRONTIERS – JULY 2012
This is a travelogue aimed at providing some sort of insight as to what an upper-intermediate level walking holiday is like with North-West Frontiers. The holiday in question was the third we have taken with this excellent company. We have previously noted high levels of repeat customers, suggesting high levels of satisfaction. My wife and I are regular walkers, but we usually walk over less strenuous terrain on the South Downs in Sussex. This was the most strenuous of the three holidays we have had with North-West Frontiers. You do not have to be superhuman to do even the most strenuous of their holidays and, anyway, North-West Frontiers organise plenty of wonderful holidays at less strenuous levels.
Arrival – Saturday
Our holiday got off to an unpromising start. The train line between Glasgow and Fort William had been put out of action by a prolonged deluge of a kind unusual even for this famously diluvian-prone part of Scotland. We travelled by bus replacement, which proved less comfortable but one hour faster, than by train. Our guide, Sean, was aware of the problem and he contacted us by mobile telephone. On arrival we went straight to our guesthouse. We met up with Sean in the evening and went to dinner at a restaurant with the odd name of ‘No 4’. It transpired that there were only four of us on this Ben Nevis holiday, although I doubt that this influenced Sean’s choice of restaurant. There was my wife and I and two Australian girls, Alex and Chris, from Melbourne. All of us were involved in education. We were ‘guinea pigs’, so to speak, as this was the first time this holiday had run.
Fort William does not improve with age. The town is sited on a magnificent loch and there are breath taking views. You would think that any urban planner would take one look at this and have a vision of attractive buildings facing the loch, of tourists sitting at tables drinking their G&Ts or cold beers or enjoying a meal sourced by local produce, while enjoying the sweeping vistas. In short, there was an opportunity to create a great asset for the local economy and a major tourist attraction. Instead what did he do? He conceived of the idea of running the main road directly next to the loch, thus cutting off the town from the loch and the views. The logic must have been that those passing Fort William en-route elsewhere should be rewarded. They would be able to enjoy the views, whereas those stupid enough to stay, or live, there, and contribute to the economy and culture of the place were of no significant importance. In the end the planner was successful in providing motorists with a splendid view, and he can probably take pride in putting Fort William on the map as one of the worse pieces of mindless urban planning in the country. I suppose we must be fair. Although the urban planner designed it all, some equally mindless moronic planning committee must have endorsed it.
Sean had to address a bit of a problem. The plans for the holiday had included the use of rail travel to reach trail heads. However, the recent deluge had caused a landslip that had led to the derailment of a train. It would take several weeks to get the line up and running again. In the mean time it was a matter of creating a ‘Plan B’ for the holiday. To his great credit, Sean came up with an excellent alternative itinerary. We, the clients, did not suffer in the slightest from the necessary changes although Sean was put to a great deal of inconvenience in terms of the logistics. I suspect that on a number of occasions he only got to bed quite late after having to retrieve his car from the day’s starting point.
Day 1 – Fort William to Spean Bridge – Sunday
Day 1 was the usual easy introductory day. We headed out of Fort William and soon arrived at the ruins of Inverlochy Castle, built about 1280 at the head of Loch Linnhe beside the River Lochy. Two major battles were fought at Inverlochy, one in 1431 between the Lords of the Isles and the Royalists and the other in 1645 in Covenanting times. The first day was easy walking. It always is on these kinds of holidays. The weather was changeable which had the positive effective of keeping many squadrons of midges grounded. Wet weather gear was taken off and put on repeatedly. The route passed through a variety of pleasant countryside, broadleaf and conifer woodland and open land. There were some magnificent views. I caught sight of a fallow deer in the woods near Spean Bridge. We were impressed by the stonework of the now ruined High Bridge put up by General Wade’s soldiers between 1736 and 1745 to span the 80 foot deep and 130 feet wide gorge cut by the river. One of the first skirmishes associated with the Second Jacobite Uprising took place here – an attempted ambush on the bridge itself when eleven men plus a piper prevented the advance of two companies of Royal Scots. The piper played his loudest and the men spread out among the bushes making as much noise as possible. The redcoats fled but more Highlanders arrived and set off in pursuit. Five redcoats were killed and the others were wounded or surrendered. This is possibly the earliest recorded innovative use of piper-generated noise pollution weaponry in British history.
We put an extra couple of kilometres onto our walk by continuing up the Commando Memorial dedicated to the men of the original WWII British Commando Forces. It is sited at the Commando Training Depot training area established in 1942 at Achnacarry Castle. The memorial comprises a large bronze statue of three commandos. Their noble faces express the kind of intrepid determination you would expect from a small group of men capable of putting several companies of attacking soldiers to flight, with or without piper-generated intimidation.
After what had been a long day we arrived at our guesthouse, Distance Hills, in Spean Bridge. We were shown into the lounge and the friendly hostess greeted us with home-made cakes topped with cream and fresh strawberries and a pot of tea. We were impressed not only by the exemplary welcome but the style of the place. We liked the modern design crockery. The first impression was that this was going to be excellent accommodation. Our room included a comfortable bed and high quality bedding. In style it was chic, modern and sufficiently tasteful to elicit comment: “Oh, this is really nice” and “I like the …..” and “We must get that for our bathroom” etc. Distant Hills manages to combine the friendly personal touch of the B&B/Guest House with the style and professionalism of a Five Star hotel. We have seldom stayed anywhere to match it.
That evening all of us, my wife and I, Alex and Chris (the two Aussies) and our guide Sean, went to the Old Railway Station restaurant. It is sited on the West Highland Railway line in the old waiting room and comprises a small bar and the restaurant. It is cosy rather than opulent. The menu was not extensive, but the prices were moderate and the food was very good. We enjoyed a very pleasant evening. It rounded off the day quite nicely.
Day 2 -Spean Bridge – Monday
Breakfast at Distant Hills was superb. It was better than most of the countless international hotels I have stayed at. Eggs were provided by resident hens. I had a full Scottish breakfast, all made from high quality produce: excellent bacon, sausage, etc. My wife had a stack of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup and surrounded by an improbable amount of strawberries and blueberries. There were the cause of gasps of surprise and wonder from all quarters in the breakfast room. In addition there was every possible additional breakfast item laid out buffet style: cereals, fruit, nuts, yoghurt etc. The breakfast room was stylishly appointed with a taste for detail; a small vase of freshly cut begonias on each table. It was lovely. It felt more like a good Five Star International Hotel than a guest house. There was none of the nasty industrial plastic sachets of jam and butter that you find in so many hotels and guesthouses. Instead there was a plentiful supply of real quality jam, marmalade and butter in ceramic manikins. My wife rated the porridge as the ‘best ever’ – a great disappointment for me, the cook in the house. Talking of oats, Samuel Johnson drew on his experiences of travelling in the Highlands and Western Isles when, in his dictionary entry for ‘oats’ he stated:… “Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Lord Elibank is supposed to have responded by saying: “Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?” Sam Johnson knew a thing or two about how to gripe, as anyone will know if they have read his ‘A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland’ (1775).
Well-fortified with a high cholesterol breakfast we felt well set up for the day’s walking. The amended plan would take us from the cottages at Roughburn. On our arrival at the trail head we all piled out of Sean’s car. The weather looked changeable, but for now we did not need wet weather gear. The walk started on a stony path leading into a conifer wood and a fast running mountain stream and then out into a large meadow. Our first Munro, Beinn Teallach (915), was one of the ‘grassy’, as opposed to ‘rugged and rocky‘, variety. Sean informed us that the further we go east from the Ben Nevis range the less ‘pointy’ and rocky they become. Our route eventually took us across a stream and onto what would be a long, long climb gaining height through tufty grass and heather scrub. I always find this hard, being used to the less challenging short grass and chalk-flint paths on the South Downs. The long vegetation holds onto the feet and makes going difficult and tedious. But Scotland is not the Lake District where every mountain has a number of good solid paths leading to the summit and few challenges in terms of navigation. My philosophy in these situations is that ‘there is no gain with the pain’. I like to encourage myself by remembering that ‘pain is just weakness escaping the body’.
Progress was not encouraged by the frustrating ‘false tops’. You think you can see the top of the mountain but when you get there you are faced with more climbing; so it is plod, plod, plod at a steady pace and eventually the sceptic inside has to admit that you are making progress and that those mountains over to the left no longer tower above you. There were the usual instances of donning wet weather gear then taking it off again when the rain stopped, but the rain was never heavy and we continued to enjoy good views of green mountains and impressive skies. The steady plodding eventually paid off when we reached the rocky top and a cairn. To the east lay a coll between ‘our mountain’ and the next Munro, Beinn Chaorainn (1052). Beinn Chaorainn was obviously higher as the top wasn’t visible in the cloud. We paused long enough to enjoy the feeling of satisfaction at a goal achieved and to have bite to eat. In our case, it was not much, an orange and a piece of chocolate, because of the huge breakfast. We then headed off down to the coll between the two Munros. I think it was around 200 metres of decent.
At the coll it was decision time. “Do you want to go back via the route of the stream or do you want to go up the second mountain?” Sean asked. Height and distance are deceiving in the Scottish mountains as there is little to provide perspective. On this occasion I was lucky. I glanced upwards and saw a group of five ant-sized people descending. Oh yes, it was a long way to the top, I thought. Of course, no one was going to be a wimp and vote for early tea and cream cakes in some cosy café, so we unanimously opted for the more Spartan ‘onwards and upwards’ option. A little voice inside me was telling me that this would mean an awful lot of weakness escaping my 65 year old body. However, I am always confident on these holidays that the guides are able to accurately assess the level of fitness in the group and adjust the pace accordingly. It is my experience that when there is a prolonged, hard, slog uphill over tough ground then everyone is hermetically sealed in their own personal hell. Psychologically everyone will be hoping that they are not holding back the progress of the group as a whole and you just have to ignore that defeatist nagging voice telling you to take a break for a few minutes. But you know if you keep on stopping it will go on for ever. Stopping is for losers. A stoical mind set is the only solution, so you have to tell that defeatist ‘little voice’… “Hard luck, I’m going to keep on going and it will be painful. Get used to the idea. Belt up and get on with it”. Yes, an unforgiving approach is necessary. You can’t pander to weakness. As W.C. Fields once said: “It’s a hard life. You’re lucky to get out of it alive”.
As usual there was no path through the tufty grass and although it was a long climb to the top it surprisingly proved less arduous than expected. Perhaps the grass and heather were shorter. The top remained obscured in cloud. Now, on a good day we would have been rewarded with a wonderful ridge walk on Beinn Chaorainn with precipitous cliffs and views of all of the neighbouring mountains. Instead, as often is the case, we walked through mist. Instead of views we had to be content with ‘atmosphere’. We could see far enough to appreciate the ruggedness of the cliffs but we could not see the bottom, except the occasional glimpse of a lochan. Once again a cairn marked the summit. We continued along the ridge with Sean informing us that this ‘top’ is used for navigation training in winter as it can be tricky. The trick in poor visibility is, as is often the case, not to fall over the edge of the cliff. Those who fall, fail the course, I presume. We continued along the ridge and eventually descended out of the cloud towards the conifer wood and our starting point. It was a long haul off the mountain. It had been an eight hour day and a very satisfying one.
That evening we returned the Old Railway Station for dinner. Spean Bridge is no metropolis but there are other options. However, we liked the Old Railway Station and were happy to go a second time. As usual on North West Frontier holidays we enjoyed the company at dinner and we had an opportunity to learn a little more about the others in the group.
Day 3 -Spean Bridge to Kinlochleven – Tuesday
The day commenced with the amazing Distant Hills breakfast. We already knew that we wouldn’t be needing a packed lunch. Sean drove us to the start point of our walk. There was a long off road drive from Corriechoille that took us to what would also be an access point for the Grey Corries. The skies were a mixture of ominous black clouds and blue sky. We headed off up a wide stony path until we arrived at just about the most unexpected and bizarre thing I have encountered in the mountains – a life sized painted wooden sculpture. It was the so-called ‘Wee Minister ‘, who greets all those who walk this path with a blessing. He is dressed in an ecclesiastic black gown and white clerical collar – Presbyterian, I presume. Sean informed us that he replaced an old stone sculpture. We then followed the stony path eventually having Cruach Innse (857m) followed by Sgurr Innse (809m) on the left.
We stopped briefly at a bothy. It was gloomy and very Spartan, equipped with two chairs that would be rejected by most decent rubbish dumps, the obligatory latrine spade and robust shelving to sleep on. We amused ourselves reading comments left in a book. Some of them revealed a curious and surreal sense of humour. One entry, of an overtly scatological nature, was quite amusing, but I couldn’t possibly reproduce it here. If you want to know more, register for the holiday and check the book yourself. In winter the bothy must be intimidatingly grim as there seems to be little chance of finding any fuel nearby for a fire. There isn’t a tree for miles. After the bothy the path climbed. We first topped up our water bottles with free Highland water. We were mindful of the fact that we would be paying £1.20 for a bottle of infinitely inferior H2O in a supermarket. I doubt that there is better tasting water anywhere. Meall a Bhuirich (841m) was on our right. We arrived at high flat terrain where we found a suitable spot for lunch next to a small but deep gorge and waterfalls. We put on an extra layer of clothes while we were sedentary. Few people in the world had a more magnificent view at lunch then we did on that day. The decision to bring a thermos flask for tea was a great one. Tea and fruit cake or chocolate always seems to ‘hit the spot’ in the mountains. Heaven!
After a bite to eat we descended to a wide and fast running stream, Abhainn Rath. Sean had forewarned us that this would mean either wading across in our boots with water over the top of them or taking them off and negotiating the rocky bottom. We all chose to keep our boots dry. It was the only occasion I have ever found a walking pole to be an essential, or even desireable, item of kit. River crossing successfully negotiated we found ourselves in a broad, valley.
The Meananach bothy was visible on the other side of the river. We quickly noticed that it was holiday-time for the local midges. Fortunately, before they could bite us to pieces rain spoilt their fun. As we donned our waterproofs it was interesting to note the ruins of an extensive house here in the middle of nowhere. It must have supported something more lucrative on the estate than sheep, so I guess it must have been connected with deer stalking. We continued along a stony path at around 400mtrs and eventually we arrived at Loch Eilde Beag on our left. Soon after this was Loch Eilde Mor. Lesson one – Scottish Gaelic: Beag= small, Mor = Big. The lochs were impressive with Glas Bheinn (792m) towering above on the left and Sgurr Eilde Mor (1010m) on the right. We stopped for some brief refreshment at the ruined Locheilt Lodge. With dark clouds overhead it was a very atmospheric place. There was a sandpiper on the rocky beach, a change from the only other bird life we had seen, namely sky larks.
After we set off again a couple of bikers passed by, destination unknown. Where could they be heading at so late an hour? It was already around 4.00pm and there was no civilisation that direction. They were the first people we had seen since setting off. When we reached the far end of Loch Eilde Mor we were met by the welcoming sight of Kinlochleven and the Leven sea loch. The cloud base at first was low and the view of the town was partially obscured by drifting cloud, but this suddenly lifted to give a magnificent view along the length of the loch. When I later checked the map I saw that we descended to the town from only 350m. We must have been tired after a long day because it seemed much higher at the time and the walk down the slope and through the woods to Kinlochleven seemed to take for ever.
Kinlochleven was full of screeching house martins. On the way to our guest house (Tigh na Cheo) we stopped at the ‘Co-op’ to buy a few essentials for the following day. After a very long walk we were surprised and pleased to find we were at a guest house equipped with a very large drying room. This, in itself, must make Tigh na Cheo a great place to stay if you are walking the West Highlands Way. I remember arriving in Kinlochleven looking like a drowned rat when I walked the Way. Our room had obviously been recently renovated/decorated; a very nice room with a comfortable bed. There were a few unexpected, nice touches. The hosts obviously take pride in what they do and have a desire to ensure that guests are made to feel comfortable and welcome. There was attention to presentation. The room had a modern, fresh ambience. I enjoyed watching the multitude of birds on the feeders outside the room, including ones not found where I come from, i.e. siskins and coals tits etc.
After a shower and changing into civilised town clothes we all went to dinner at a local pub. Our legs were quite stiff after the day’s walking but we were still able to laugh at the way we hobbled down the steps to the car park. Kinlochleven is not blessed with gourmet restaurants but the fare in the pub was acceptable. After dinner we went to have a look at the Ice Factor Climbing Centre. This includes the world’s biggest indoor ice climbing arena plus artificial climbing walls, a bouldering area and beginners instruction cave. After exhausting yourself on the walls you can enjoy the steam room and hot tub and there are lecture facilities, a mountaineering shop and cafeteria. The views of the Mammores come free. I envied the agility and skills of those, not all young, who were climbing the walls; and so to bed and some well-earned rest.
Day 4 – Kinlochleven to Glen Nevis and Fort William – WednesdayAt breakfast our hosts had taken the trouble to put little flags on the tables so everyone could see that fellow guests were from Australia, Canada, England, Spain and Russia. There was a terrific, well-cooked breakfast using quality ingredients; enough to keep us going on the day’s long walk. We were impressed on the impeccable appearance and friendliness of the hostess at 7.45am. I would be surprised if you could find better in Kinlochleven.
After the previous day, when the walk down into town had been so wearisome, the wife and I had been expecting the climb out of Kinlochleven to be a killer. Instead our fresh legs took us up to the level of the loch in no time at all. We wondered why it seemed a problem going down the day before. There was a cloud base at around 700m but it was otherwise good walking weather. After reaching Loch Eilde Mor we turned north east towards to Mammores. To our left, the tops of Sgor Eilde Baeg (956) and Binnein Mor (1130m) remained constantly in the clouds. There was a decent path for most of the way which made the going easy.
Far over to our right Sean pointed out the Backwater Reservoir and he told us something of its history. At over 914 m long, the dam is the longest in the Highlands. It was built as part of a hydroelectric scheme in the early 1900s for the British Aluminium Company for the purpose of smelting aluminium. It was constructed in rugged and almost inaccessible terrain largely using hand tools and without the benefit of mechanical earth moving machinery. It was the last major project in the UK completed using large numbers of ‘navvies’. 3,000 were employed in the dam’s construction. Aluminium smelting has ceased in Kinlochleven but the power station still produces electricity for the aluminium smelter in Fort William. Surplus energy is sold to the national grid for public supply. A number of workers lost their lives constructing the dam and their graves lie close to the dam. I suppose that the regimental neatness of Kinlochleven is the legacy of British Aluminium.
We were now in the clouds so although the waters of Coire an Lochain lay directly below the path and Sgurr Eilde Mor (1010m) towered above it on the other side, we saw nothing at all. A one point we heard and saw a golden plover which was obviously concerned about our presence. The solid path eventually ran its course as we dropped out of the clouds and approached the lochan that lies below Binnein Beag (943m). We had already changed from dry to wet weather gear several times by the time we crossed a small stream and arrived at the lochan. From the angle of this lochan Binnein Beag has a pleasing Toblerone shape and it is properly rocky. If you slipped on that one you would not stop until you hit the bottom. Nice! I find mountains shaped like an isosceles or equilateral triangle somehow more pleasing than those resembling a lofty version of Telly Tubby Land. We decided that this was a good place for lunch. We found a suitably cosy rock so sit on and enjoyed our hot tea and modest lunch while enjoying wonderful views. Once again we were still well fuelled-up from breakfast.
At the lochan we saw the only another human we encountered until Glen Nevis. He was purposely marching in the direction of Beinnan Mor; an intrepid Munro-bagger, no doubt. From the lochan our journey was pathless. We traipsed over tufty grass, low heather and lots of sphagnum moss northwards in the direction of Glen Nevis. There was levity when someone put his/her foot on something that appeared to be solid only to find his/herself calf deep in soft bog. We soon had wet feet. Eventually, the glen was in sight and we made our way down the steep boggy slope towards the Waters of Nevis and a stream joining it from the south. Here we undertook another river crossing, balancing on rocks and using sticks as aids. Although it wasn’t either dangerous or particularly challenging it was still rather exhilarating.
We were all very pleased with ourselves that there would be no more climbing today. All we had to do now was enjoy a stroll along the Waters of Nevis as far as the road. To add to our euphoria, the sun decided to show its face. We immediately arrived at the Na h-Easain waterfalls. The Waters of Nevis plunge here into a deep, very narrow gorge. The falls run for some distance. Stunted silver birch line the gorge. The falls were a wondrous sight. We marvelled that no-one else was here to admire them. The falls eventually give way to a fast, boulder strewn mountain stream lying in a valley surrounded by Munros – Aonach Beag (1234m) and Ben Nevis to the north and An Garbhanach (975m) and Sgurr a Mhaim (1099m) to the south. It was very pleasant in the sheltered valley; easy walking, picturesque views, lots of things to arrest the eyes and no sphagnum moss. We progressed eastwards, down the glen, with a spring in our step. The sides of the glen were so steep it was impossible to see the top of Ben Nevis.
Eventually we met the inevitable ‘tourists’. Give them their due, they had been adventurous enough to have walked all the way from the car park to the Steall waterfall (An Steall Bàn). This is Britain’s second highest waterfall. It has a single drop of 120 metres. An Steall Bàn means ‘The White Spout’ in Gaelic. We did the ‘tourist thing’ and posed for photographs with a backdrop of the falls. I lay in the grass to take arty photos of the falls framed with blue and yellow flowers. The fun still wasn’t over as there were more gorges and falls as we continued our journey out of the glen. By now it had become very pleasantly warm, so when some light rain started to fall, and the sun stayed out, we enjoyed the light rain instead of putting on waterproofs. The last small section of the walk followed the now broad Waters of Nevis in broadleaf woodland and meadows. Glen Nevis is very beautiful. As a final reward, the birdwatcher of the group (me) was rewarded with a view of a dipper, just as we hit the road to Fort William. Sean arranged for transport to pick us up and ferry us back to our accommodation in Fort William. In the meantime it was nice to take of our boots, lie back in the sun, and enjoy a few minutes of bliss.
That evening it had been decided that we would all ‘do our own thing’. My wife and I decided to try the Crannog Restaurant. The write ups on Trip Advisor had been good. A crannog is, in ancient history, a dwelling build out in a lake on piles as protection against enemies, so the place was not hard to find as it was the only construction along the loch that fitted the description – a restaurant standing on piles in the loch. We arrived without a booking at 7.30pm only to be told that they were full. Could come back at 9.00pm? They asked. We decided we could and headed off to kill an hour and a half. We went to The Crofters Bar. As it was a nice evening we decided to sit outside on the veranda. First of all I had to remove half a dozen glasses and an ashtray from the table and take them back into the bar. The bar staff at The Crofters do not appear to overwork themselves. I ordered a couple of drinks and returned to the table. The veranda faces the loch so on a fine evening we should have been blessed with a magnificent and peaceful view. Instead, we got to watch, and listen to, cars speeding down the road. We also got to share the tobacco smoke from the adjacent table. The view to our left was of the Crofter’s rubbish bins. This is Fort William for you.
At 9.00pm we returned to the Crannog and were shown to our table. We had a marvellous view towards to open sea end of the loch. The menu was very tempting. As one might expect so near to the sea, fish figured strongly. I opted for Cullen Skink followed by moules mariniere in a cream sauce and chips, and the wife went for the warm mackerel salad followed by dressed crab. I was pleased to be able to use my standard Cullen Skink joke – “Tell me, do you make this out of wild skink or is it farmed?” In case you are challenged by Scottish cuisine, Cullen Skink is made of smoked haddock, potato and cream. My soup was excellent. The serving of mussels was huge and greedy me could not finish it all. On the other hand, my wife thought her starter far inferior to the same dish I prepare at home and she thought that the dressed crab was terrible. The accompanying potato salad, she said, could have come straight out of a plastic tub purchased from Sainsbury’s and on that I had to agree. In short, I was a very happy bunny but the wife came away thinking that the place was disgracefully expensive and pretentious.
Day 5 – A ‘free day’ – Jacobite steam train to Mallaig – Thursday
As usual on these holidays there was a ‘free day’. You can opt to climb a non-scheduled mountain, hang around town, stay in bed and read a book…whatever takes your fancy. We opted to go on the Fort William-Mallaig steam train. It is touted as one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. It is an 84 mile round trip passing close by the deepest freshwater loch in Britain, Loch Morar and the shortest river in Britain, River Morar, finally arriving next to the deepest seawater loch in Europe, Loch Nevis. It is made even more popular by the fact that it is a steam train. It has become even more popular since it featured in the Harry Potter series of films as the Hogwarts Express. No comment: I don’t watch children’s films. It is best to book your tickets in advance on-line but they always keep a reasonable number of tickets free for those who want to travel on day. We went down to the station early and there was no problem in buying tickets. They cost £32 each.
We found that we had seats on the left hand side of the train. This is the best for views, of lochs and mountains. We were very lucky to be travelling on a beautiful sunny day. The train set off along the side of Loch Nevis. On the right we passed the River Lochy and the ruins of Inverlochy Castle, which dates from the time of Edward I. We were there on Day 1, so we knew all about it. King Achaius is supposed to have signed a treaty here with Charlemagne in 790 AD. At Banavie the train crossed the Caledonian Canal and a series of eight locks known as Neptune’s Staircase. The canal was finished in 1822 to link the East and West coasts of Scotland.
The views were spectacular and highly picturesque. Cameras were soon out to capture the scenery. A place next to one of the door windows was the most prized location for photographers. There were a number of stops along the way. At Glenfinnan the train stopped long enough for everyone to disembark and enjoy the views. We were greeted by a piper. Yes, it is very touristy. There is also a buffet car café, so we went there and bought a tub of ice cream. Then it was across the famous 22-arch, 100 foot high viaduct and on past Loch Eilt, and Loch Ailort before reaching the Loch of the Caves. The guide book informed us that Prince Charlie landed here in 1745 from a French frigate. I find it difficult to see why Charlie is considered, by some, to be some sort of hero. I have had a poor opinion of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Forget all the romantic nonsense. At Culloden he was a totally incompetent general who was responsible for a massive defeat, a huge number of unnecessary Scottish casualties, and the ensuring massacre of the local population. He was a fool whose silly enterprise gave Scotland’s enemies the pretext they needed to subjugate the country fully, after the 1707 Union, and to destroy Highland culture and the language. Charles was a personal coward and wife beater. He finished up a dissipated drunkard and sponger- not the stuff of ‘heroes’.
When the train went into a tunnel we were all able to experience real 1940’s steam travel as smoke poured into the carriage. And then it was on to Lochailort, Arisaig, Morar and Mallaig, admiring the endless beauty of the landscape. One of my favourite films, ‘Local Hero’ was filmed somewhere near to Morar. The sands at Morar did not disappoint. They were white and the sea emerald and duck green. Despite the relative short distance the journey takes two hours. Passengers get two more hours in Mallaig before the train returns to Fort William.
Mallaig is a working town, a fishing town. The harbour was full of small fishing vessels. I imagine that most of the local restaurants have a season that coincides with the running of the train, the middle of May until the third week in October. We did not want to waste our two hours in a restaurant so we bought fish and chips – minus chips, of course, and ate them on a wooden bench with a view of the harbour – delicious. There is precious little to do in Mallaig so went to the shore, sat on granite boulders and looked at the sea. The ‘Small Isles’ of Rum, Eigg, Muck, Canna and the southern tip of Skye were all clearly visible. The journey back was the same as before but it was still quite an experience. I would recommend the Jacobite Train to anyone going to Fort William.
That evening we ate in The Alexandra Hotel. There seems to be two quality restaurants in Fort William, The Crannog and The Lime Tree. We had already been to the Crannog and Sean was taking us to The Lime Tree on the last day of the holiday, Friday. We didn’t much like the look of the pubs we decided to try the Alexander Hotel. We had to walk past the hotel on the way to the shops/pubs and we had checked out the menu. The food we quite reasonable in terms of both price and quality; nothing exceptional but almost certainly better than in the pubs, we thought. After dinner we decided to ‘do a bit of culture’. We went to Skipinnish Ceilidh House. It is run by professional musicians & record company owners Andrew Stevenson & Angus MacPhail of the well- known Celtic Music band Skipinnish. There were three young but accomplished musicians and they played a range of traditional and contemporary. Of course it was touristy, but we were tourists, after all. We had great fun making idiots out of ourselves, to the delight of the crowd, by accepting the invitation to get up and attempt to do a couple of Scottish country dances. I particularly admired the young Japanese guy who was brave enough to get up and tread the boards. As always, it wasn’t that the Terpsichorean muse abandoned me; she had never visited me in the first place. I have an unnatural genius for clumsiness. I sometimes wonder how I manage to put one foot in front of the other to actually walk without tripping up and landing on my nose. I did not cover myself in glory on this occasion, but I still enjoyed it, so who cares?
My Russian wife, Svetlana, thinks that Scottish music and dancing, especially if it involves the pipes, is the most wonderful thing imaginable. She thinks that men in kilts are the sexiest thing on God’s earth, that Scots speak the most beautiful English, and that anything Scottish his superior to anything else…with the exception of deep-fired Mars bars. Nevertheless, she is still struggling to grasp the difference between a Scottish reel and an Irish jig…..and that can be quite amusing.
Day 6 – Ben Nevis – Friday
Today was going to be the grand finale of our holiday. We were going to do Ben Nevis. Sean decided to avoid the holiday crowds by starting from the north of the mountain, as opposed to the usual Glen Nevis route. We disembarked at car park and set off through a conifer wood. The sky was grey but the weather forecast had been very promising, no rain and a possibility of sun. We eventually left the trees. In front of use was an expanse of tufty grass, scrubby heather and bog. Directly in front of us was a high mountain but there was another behind this covered in cloud, Ben Nevis. The path kept disappearing only to reappear a little further on.
Our first goal was the lochan where our route would meet with the ‘tourist route’ (Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe). We got there with little trouble and after a breather we set off up the well paved tourist path. We were immediately able to look down into Glen Nevis and Fort William. Some wispy cloud below us provide atmosphere. It was already apparent that we would probably get some good views from the summit. There were some prolonged periods of sunshine. The half-way point up the mountain is the Red Burn. We stopped here to fill up our water bottles; more delicious spring water for free. Then we went up the many zigzags until we left behind all vestiges of grass and greenery and the long, stony, rocky section up to the summit. We passed some small areas of snow on the way. Despite the attitude gained, it was not an overly strenuous climb.
We arrived at the top to enjoy wonderful views in all directions. While there was plenty of black could around there was also a lot of blue sky. Although there wasn’t a great deal of wind the temperature was only around 3ºc. We posed for the obligatory photographs and examined the ruined observatory (abandoned in 1904). The peak that we had saw at the beginning of our walk, (Carn Beag Dearg), and which had looked rather intimidating, stood off to the north east at a mere 1,010m. The sun was now out, a perfect ending to both our climb and our holiday. We celebrated with tea, chocolate and an orange. Then we walked over the rocks to the more southerly part of the peak and looked down into Glen Nevis. Steall Falls looked quite insignificant so far below. In all we spent about an hour on the top enjoying the amazing views but then it was time to return. At the lochan, instead of returning the way we came we headed off down the tourist track. We passed a lot of people coming up. Going down seemed to take much longer that going up. It was certainly less trouble as the path is paved for most of the way. On the other hand it is rather steep and is harder on the legs. Our route up the mountain had included a decent walk to the lochan, and this had included gaining one third of the total altitude.
The nearer we got to the bottom of the mountain the more people we seemed to meet. Many were walking in groups and were wearing T-shirts proclaiming the name of the charity these martyrs were exhausting themselves for. Given that it was around 5.00pm when we got down to the valley, some of these walkers were not going to get back down until very late. Some of them may have been completing the Three Peaks Challenge, Snowden, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis. Rather them than me. It includes 462 miles and 10 hours of driving plus climbing the highest peaks in Wales, England and Scotland all in 24 hours. It is a good job it is still light at 10.15pm around here at this time of year. For the record, there are almost 18 hours of light in this part of the world in June. The enjoyment of the walk was not over yet. The route along Glen Nevis and the River Nevis was a joy. There were rapids and white water, leafy trees and insects buzzing around – all this and sunshine too.
That evening Sean took us to The Lime Tree restaurant. It is housed in an old manse. We were shown into a cosy lounge with comfortable Chesterfield sofas and a real open fire. We were able to look at the menu while drinking a G&T. The restaurant proved to be overtly up-market. As The Times newspaper put it:… ‘The Lime Tree Restaurant style is one we have come to know as Fiddly Posh Scottish: Lamb with a family tree, duck that went to Gordonstoun, fish that kept its nose clean. All this technically superb, and while served in a part of the country not blessed with an abundance of fine dining, nonetheless worthy of comparison with the cities best. Fort William finally has a heavy-weight culinary destination.’ I had Clapshot soup followed by lamb. It was superb. It was a great evening and a fitting end to our holiday.
In retrospect we were incredibly lucky on this holiday. Whereas the rest of the UK was suffering floods and a month’s rain in a day, Fort William remained reasonably dry all of the time. Now that is a highly unlikely scenario. Fort William had had the heavy rain the week before and it had wiped out rain communications in the entire area. Despite this Sean, and North West Frontiers, succeeded in putting together a great itinerary and thanks to Sean’s professionalism and profound knowledge of the area, we all enjoyed a wonderful week’s walking.
We can’t wait to see what walks will be available in 2013 at NorthWest Frontiers