The mountains are calling, and I must go. – John Muir
As we shouldered our full packs for the last time today until Fort William, we both had our eyes set firmly on a path beyond the relentless tarmac cycleway we had been following since we joined the John Muir Trail on the Union Canal towpath in Mid Calder. After two and a half days of walking on pavement in boots designed for rugged terrain, our feet were begging us for some soft woodland ground, and our eyes were crying out for a wider perspective of the hill country we have not seen since we came down off the Pentland Hills southwest of Edinburgh. Now north of us above Lennoxtown rose promisingly the lower limestone slopes of the western Campsie Fells, their craggy uppermost layers formed instead of hard, igneous basalt.
The John Muir Way continues on a cyclepath for a couple of hours after leaving Lennoxtown, and the woodland was dark under sticky sycamore trees. The stream we followed was also dark: peaty, the colour of stewed tea, a tantalising reminder of the whisky produced in the local distillery.
We used the marching time to finish off the first of Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy as it reached its dramatic climax. When it had finished so had the slog along the cyclepath, and we had reached Strathblane.
The volcanic origins of the area continued to emphasise themselves with the abrupt jutting up of Dunglass hill to the south east of the town, the ancient plug of a vanished volcano, slanting lava flowlines clearly visible as it rises out of the softer sedimentary layers which surround it.
In Strathblane we followed our rule of asking for local advice and were directed to the Kirkhouse Inn, where we whiled away half an hour chatting to talented chef Scot: his scones were truly excellent, and we were more than sorry not to have been able to sample his rainbow trout and crab sandwiches. It felt totally relaxing to chat about local sources of salmon and trout, and hear about the smokeries in the area, and when he disappeared back into the kitchen after having filled the specials board with mouthwatering items, we carried on talking to Vince, seated at a barstool with a pint in front of him; we compared notes on our favourite long-distance paths.
It felt as though we were on holiday. Perhaps a strange thing to say, but we suddenly realised as we came away from the Inn and diverted off the John Muir Way for the woodland – on an unpaved disused railway track – that a weight seemed to be falling from our shoulders, and the necessity of gritting our teeth and bearing the foot pounding of the last two and a half days was over.
We were out in the countryside again, with views of the western Campsie Fells to our right
and initially the most convivial and immaculately-maintained allotments to our left.
We exchanged pleasantries with several people out walking. This has been one of the joys of this route, how many small but warm-hearted little conversations we have had with total strangers. We strode on past a turning we should have taken and had to retrace our steps. ‘It’s that way!’ mocked a couple sitting sunning themselves in their front garden of gnomes and other ornamental paraphernalia. ‘Why didn’t you tell us before?’ called back Stephen. ‘Because I had a bet with her!’ said the husband, pointing at his wife.
Perhaps the weight has also been literally taken off our shoulders: one of the problems with walking on tarmac is that gait is fixed, putting repetitive strain onto feet and ankles. We noticed immediately on starting on the uneven ground of the woodland track how our whole leg articulation was being involved, and we could feel muscle groups that we haven’t used for some days being re-recruited. It felt as though we were back on the physical journey that we had stepped out of for the last couple of days. We relished the mud, the roots, having to duck under willow and alder branches.
As the disused railway line came to an end, to my immense surprise we found ourselves already on the West Highland Way where it converges with the John Muir trail.
Immediately the character of the path changed, becoming a hiking superhighway, populated with suited and booted walking types, many going westwards on their first day’s walking. All carried packs of varying burdensomeness. One couple, as well as shouldering painfully huge rucksacks with sleeping mats, sleeping bags and mugs tied to the outside, had a spaniel with them. In addition to their own equipment they were carrying dogfood. And sometimes they were carrying the dog as well.
There were groups of co-workers walking for charity and a German family on holiday, the son holding the daughter’s hand as they played word games. There was a rotund young man walking at (what must surely have been) an unsustainable speed. There was a cyclist complaining about having to open and close the succession of stock gates, and two lovely, positive young women resting on a verge by a river with their packs off.
As we got closer to Drymen the first views of the hills of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs came into stunning view.
We didn’t even mind that for the last two hours we were back on made-up track and road: in front of us was the tip of Loch Lomond, and tomorrow’s start of the West Highland Way proper.