Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Fort William to Gairlochy

Looking back at Ben Nevis from River Lochy bridge
It is difficult to imagine two days of walking more different from one another than yesterday’s and today’s. The first was long, arduous, mountainous; this would be short, easy and flat, being mostly along the Caledonian Canal.

The Great Glen Way starts at the roundabout immediately beside the Alexandra Hotel at which we had stayed, and then rather prosaically goes through a supermarket car park and an industrial estate to get out of the downtown area. There’s then a short stretch through an area of wooded parkland before it flows the bottom stretch of the River Lochy, just below the point where the tail race emerges from the power station. This is a salmon river, and there were two fishers working their way through the rapids. Not, according to the one with whom I spoke, with any success, I fear. (I had brought a trout rod with me on the trip, which travelled daily with my luggage, but I don’t think it was heavy enough tackle for salmon, though I’d have been sorely tempted if it had been possible to get on the water and the fish were on.)

After crossing the Lochy we came to the suburb of Caol, which sits between the river and the canal at the top of Loch Linhe. Officially the Great Glen Way goes all the way round the edge of Caol, following the coast and then the canal. But this seems senseless: it’s much easier just to cut through the suburb itself and join the canal a bit further on. So that was what we did.

Norwegian boat making its way up Neptune's Staircase
This then reaches Neptune’s Staircase – a flight of seven or eight locks which raises the canal some 30m to the level of Loch Lochy, which is seven miles or so to the Northeast. We stopped there, and I had a coffee while we watched a Norwegian boat being worked up the locks. It’s a pretty long-winded process, which takes a good fifteen minutes or so per lock, so the whole flight takes the best part of a couple of hours.

Then it was a long, level walk along the towpath of the Caledonian Canal. This is broad and fairly deep, originally built in the early 1800s to take sailing boats from one coast to the other without having to navigate the rough seas of the Pentland Firth between Northern Scotland and the Orkneys. Nowadays it’s pretty well exclusively used for leisure, though we saw surprisingly few boats actually travelling along the canal. Neither are there any marina facilities on this part of the canal, though there are obviously various facilities in Loch Linhe.

Swing bridge at Moy on Caledonian Canal
The canal is picturesque, and goes through attractive country with mountains in the distance on either side. The bank we were on is largely wooded; the other side is more open farmland. Although the river Lochy is but hundreds of metres away it’s seldom visible, as it’s largely screened by trees. There are a couple of aqueducts where minor streams cross beneath the canal on their way to join the river, and a swing bridge at Moy, shortly before Loch Lochy. It has a keeper, who appears to do little other than sit in a little shed beside the canal waiting to see whether he needs to open or close the bridge at any time. His seems like one of the easiest jobs going: one would have thought that there would be a way of getting canal users to do the necessary themselves. But at  least he keeps the area very neat and tidy with well mown lawns and well tended flowers.

The end of the day's walk:
Tom, Irvine and Katie at the Gairlochy lock
It was a short day, and we arrived at the B&B in Gairlochy in the early afternoon. There we found Chris waiting with the helicopter in the field immediately behind the B&B. This was something of an event for our hosts as the B&B, Heather and Mark Shore, as helicopters landing more or less in their back yard were hardly everyday events.

It was time for Irvine to depart. His walking had been the filling in an education sandwich: he had arrived from Newcastle after visiting the academy schools he sponsors there; he was off to St Andrews for a dinner at the University that evening. At least his second day of walking was light relief compared with the first.

Irvine and Chris depart for St Andrew's
t was still relatively early, so Susan, Katie and I had time for a little expedition before dinner. We drove to the waterfall six miles or so away, which turned out to be a wonderful spot. The route there was through what seemed to be something or an arboretum, with several giant sequoias and Douglas firs as well as more common conifers and broadleaf trees. Wonderful weather, and a pleasant extra for the day.

That evening we went out to dinner with Rosemary and Alan Towers, who were to join me for the walk the following day, having had to cancel their earlier planned participation between Rowardennan and Inveroran. They were staying in Spean Bridge, four miles or so from our B&B in Gairlochy, as there had been nowhere nearer with accommodation available. They had already delivered their car to the B&B we would be staying in that Saturday, and caught the bus back to Spean Bridge.

Susan and Katie on our evening walk
Despite taking a wrong turning and driving an unnecessary ten miles or so we arrived at the restaurant they had booked in good time. This was the Smiddy House in Spean Bridge, and provided us an excellent meal. Cooking in Scotland has clearly improved in recent years.

Fine and sunny all day. 18-24C. Good going on good tracks, roads or canal side. Max altitude 32m, minimum 5m. 15.5 km. 48m of ascents, 33m descents. Midge factor 0.

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