Crossing Scotland on Peanuts – Steve Smith’s 2014 TGO Account

 

The TGO is an annual self supported coast to coast across Scotland walk

 

 

“You’re in my seat.” It’s May 8th, the train is somewhere between Euston and Glasgow and the stops are being called out of turn. A rather tall, slim forty something guy, who boarded at Wigan with the automatic announcer insisting on Warrington Bank Quay, is glaring down at me.

 

“I have it booked,” I reply fumbling for my reservation card.

“No, it’s mine,” he replies.

 

We get into pathetic debate as to whether my reservation is for the aisle or the window seat. An argument I lose and to be fair I had booked a rear facing, aisle seat close to the buffer car and the railway company has given me a forward facing seat as far from the buffer car as possible. Thus the likelihood of them having given me an aisle seat is slim.

 

I conclude the negotiation by saying, “I can see you’re going to be a pile of fun to sit next to for the next three hours.” Always best to get the last word in, especially when you’ve lost.

 

After a further hour, entertaining myself by the train calls mismatching reality, my need for the loo has me plucking up the courage to ask the lanky, officious bastard (for that is how I’ve come to know him as he appears to have booked the armrest too) to let me out. He does so without comment and I make my way to the loo and read the instructions. There’s a button on the outside to open it (okay I get that) then three buttons on the inside, Close, Open and Lock. I’m never quite sure if I have to press the Lock button after I have closed the door. It’s fifty, fifty but I press it and a locked symbol appears. An announcement then begins confirming I have successfully locked the door followed by a list of things not to flush down the loo and I’m certain it includes goldfish. I press the Open button, the curved door swishes back and, while confusing the hell out of the guy waiting in the corridor, I press Close and then Lock again and re-listen to the announcement.

 

Please don’t flush Nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down this toilet.

 

I hadn’t misheard.

 

At Glasgow I walk towards Queen Street looking up at the buildings I first saw when I worked here in 1990. A lot of years have passed since I was a mere twenty-five-year-old, I hope for many to come. It feels like an age ago, it was “The European City of Culture” back then, a good buzz. Now as the years tick by things feel a little more serious, if more relaxed. I notice how many people smoke, a badge of honour for the Glaswegians about their daily tasks.

 

I buy a ticket for Fort William and start to feel the buzz of the TGO. I’m here, the first time in four years. I spot a woman, full pack and walking boots already on. I gamble on her being a TGO participant and wander into her proximity until the British-ness deserts us both and we strike a conversation. She’s Brenda Manders from Nottingham. We are joined by two others and we exchange notes on starting places and routes and Jim Taylor – the ninety-one-year-old starting at the same place as me, Lochailort. Brenda reckons if I meet him he’ll probably not look a day over seventy.

 

We join the same train but in separate sections as four carriages are for Oban and the other for Mallaig. The carriages are clearly marked on the station but the onboard display has my half for Oban when I need the Mallaig section. The announcement puts our minds at rest and I strike up a brief conversation with fellow challenger Karl Winkler, who has the window seat booked, before he promptly drops off to sleep.

 

He wakes on the crossing of Rannoch Moor and we comment on the station announcements being out of sync with reality. What I had put down as a Scottish brogue now sounds more Antipodean and I tease out his life story. Originally from Australia he emigrated with his English wife some twenty years ago.

 

I disembark at Fort William; find the hotel where the receptionist, Rachel, on sharing some memory of the town tells me she was born in 1993. I definitely am feeling the passage of time. I sleep well, cook porridge in the bedroom, making use of the kettle, while ruing the changes where breakfast is no longer included in the room rate/

 

I get the bus to Lochailort, after a confusing conversation with the bus driver who had never heard of my pronunciation. Apparently you have to spit as you say it to make yourself understood. Fortunately I’m wearing my waterproofs so it all ends satisfactorily.

 

The bus pulls in and I’m just preparing to make the walk to the sea loch to paddle my feet when I disembark into a large puddle. Feet already wet I contemplate missing the walk to the coast but the purist in me wins through and I walk the mile to the coast, take in the sea air, walk back, sign out and note Jim Taylor signed out half an hour before me.

 

I walk along the road to Arieniskill, the preverbal cuckoo keeping me company, and take the path north east to the wooded area around Prince Charlie’s Cave. That chap certainly got about a bit, there’s caves named after him all over the place. The path through is not clear and I watch some distant challengers on a higher path and make my way up. I find myself in a deep gully with a stream hammering down to the lower ground. Watching the higher ground people turn back I contemplate descending the gully but figure some of the drops would not be re-ascendable should I not be able to make the bottom. I climb out the gully and pick my way down to a bridge over the River Meoble followed by a welcome track to Meoble where I head east over tough ground. Pigging peanuts as I go (I have replaced just about all day time food with dry roasted peanuts) I find flat ground a kilometre short of my proposed camp. I pitch at 1730, just in time for the rains which close in at 1800.

 

I wake, Saturday May 10th, to a damp tent; the underside of my sleeping mat is soaking. I search for a leak but reckon on condensation, dry it off with my towel, pack and take one look at the proposed route over the Graham of An Stac and abandon it but partially take the route to find a safe crossing over the river before the drop to Loch Morar and the path to Oban bothy.

 

I find the uphill section towards Glen Pean painful going. There’s headwind and my body is not getting into the spirit of what I am trying to achieve. I rest often as my legs ache and my breathing is laboured. The ground is boggy and the glen is a deep ravine with boulders the size of house laying on the floor with the ominous gaps in the overhang marking their departure points.

 

I make it to the small loch that, on the map, appears trivial. I look to the right where the water meets a sharp face, cast my eyes to the left to an even sharper face with the water lapping against a shore-less boundary. There’s a path stretching high up which I do not fancy the ascent of. I turn my attention back to the right and figure, with some scrambling and hand/toe traversing, I could get past the 500 meters of loch. Inhaling a handful of peanuts I set off and have a few hair-raising moments as I envelope my body around land protrusions with the water of the loch awaiting my every slip.

 

 

 

Beyond becomes downhill and the weather improves and I arrive at Glen Pean bothy at 1730 just before the rains set in. I was last here in 2001; only graffiti, adding to the earliest from 1966, marks the passage of time. A party of non-TGO walkers have the downstairs and I spend a lonely evening in the attic rooms. I note my habit of picking lonely routes with lofty ambitions of Corbetts and Grahams which I invariably abandon due to the weight of my pack.

 

Sunday the 11th and I am off at 0620 on a tricky route through tree felling operations. I’m frequently stumped having to backtrack around boggy ground and felled timber. It saps the strength from my legs before I get back onto decent tracks that take me to Strathan. I survey my proposed route on the high ground south of Loch Arkaig and promptly elect for the road walk that I once swore I’d never do again. I meet fellow TGO walkers and we share stories. I ask after ninety-one-year-old Jim Taylor and there are stories that he arrived at Kinbreak bothy soaked through after falling into a river; that he’s not carrying a stove, is mixing porridge with cold water for sustenance and likes to keep himself to himself.

 

I find the road walk tiring and boring with my only company the call of the cuckoo. I munch through handfuls of peanuts and recall how difficult it was to find a pitch on this road. After six hours I spot an ideal place to camp, short of how far I planned to get but I remember the last time on this route where I arrived in Spean Bridge early to find my room not ready and time to kill. The tent is sodden from the night before last but it soon dries inside before it starts to rain again. I keep the flaps open to stop the inside becoming too damp and the downside of over consumption of peanuts at bay. Let’s just say that striking a match had to be done with some consideration. I manage to tune into an Irish radio station that obligingly covers the English football.

 

I wake in the early hours but don’t get going until 0720 having spent around 17 hours tent bound. The weather is fairly kind through the laborious road walk via Achnacarry and Gairlochy. I stop to watch some tree felling and am impressed and absorbed by the modern machinery. A head of multiple cutters and universal joints sits at the end of a long arm attached to a caterpillar type of vehicle. A tree is grabbed by its base, sawn through and is allowed to drop to the ground with the cutters still gripping it. It is then pulled through the cutters that strip the foliage and bark and chop the tree into lengths. Each 200ft tree is dealt with in the matter of a minute.

 

I press on to Spean Bridge via the Commando Memorial and arrive at the Spean Bridge Hotel at 1255. I ring the bell a number of times and, at 1310, am greeted with, “Are you waiting?”

“Yes,” I reply politely and we then go through the routine of hunting for my booking.

“You are in one of the chalets,” she says.

“Not the hotel?” I ask, chalet to me has the hint of a ninety seventies shed.

“No you have asked for a chalet on your booking.”

“Did I?”

“Yes, ‘a non dog friendly chalet’ is what you put on your booking form.”

I take a look and read back, “A non dog friendly chalet please as I have allergies.”

“That’s right,” she says.

“No what I meant was I didn’t want to be in a dog friendly chalet as advertised as being available on your website.”

“That’s right and we are putting you in a non-dog friendly chalet.”

“But I didn’t mean chalet,” I add.

“But that’s what you have asked for.”

“No room in the hotel?”

“No we have a party of eighteen in.”

“Okay, never mind. Does it have en suite?”

“Yes. You are in chalet 2A.”

“Okay,” I reply while thinking 2A suggests that number 2 has been partitioned.

She leads me through the rear car park to a series of ninety seventies looking sheds. At 2A she turns the key and gives the door a deft kick to get it moving. She doesn’t go in and instead hands me the key.

 

At £53 for a room only (what happened to the built in breakfasts we all once enjoyed?) it’s lousy. The window frames are caked with mould and set off the pine cladding and woodchip wallpaper a treat. The curtains are pink, old, translucent and depressing; the bathroom has equal quantity of mould with a laughable sign explaining that the hot water, which is barely lukewarm, can scold.

 

I shower, which floods the floor, and set about hanging up the tent to dry. I switch on the two fan heaters to dry clothes I wash out using hot water from the shower. I then realise my mistake, I’ve littered the room so a complaint might involve an inspection.

 

I wander into the hotel for a look around. The commando museum is interesting but the VHS video at £4 can hardly be a hot seller. At least it wasn’t Betamax. I walk down to the Little Chef, closed for good then back to the coach trip café attached to a shop and wool mill. It’s as depressing as when I was here in the ninety nineties. Nothing has changed with tourists presumably underwhelmed by banality of the food and facilities. Scotland, one of the most beautiful places on the planet, has nothing very exciting for the tourist that does not want to venture out on foot.

 

I order a baked potato and a peppermint tea. When it arrives I refrain from my tired argument that a microwaved potato is a jacket potato and not a baked potato. I’ve had the discussion too many times, I’m beyond caring, and although I consider I do well on the intellectual side of the debate I never quite feel I get my point across. The tea is a pot of hot water, a cup and an unopened teabag. Getting your teabag popped in the hot water is like the costed in hotel breakfast and NHS dentistry, it just slipped away with nobody really noticing or complaining.

 

I spend an hour trying to get a decent picture on the TV in the room. There’s a constant buzz on one channel with all the others silent and flicking. I give up, read, do more washing then go in search of an evening meal. At reception I ask, “What time is the dining room open?”

“It’s closed this evening, booked out by the party of eighteen. You can eat in the bar.”

 

I venture to the bar, nothing for the vegetarian on the menu but they manage to make me a vegetarian lasagne. I get a text from Alison Ogden saying that David Albon had a fall and was walked out by Heather Thomas-Smith and picked up by Alison this morning. This has left Heather with a 40km walk with an estimated arrival time of 2100. I take a stroll to see if I can find her walking in. I pick the wrong route so call at her B&B at 2130 to find she’s arrived safely. I text Alison back then hear more of David’s accident. He fell around 200 meters, bouncing past Heather and going over a lip. Heather descended to his motionless body fearing the worse. Fortunately David was only badly bruised and had a deep cut to his leg which Heather (according to Doctor Alison) did an excellent job of patching up.

 

I wake early on the 13th, the aged thin curtains cut out no light. I take my time repacking and estimating the amount of peanuts I’ll need. My digestion moans at the thought and I manage to give away two packets to the hotel receptionist. Breakfast is served at 0730, half an hour early, and the hotel further redeems itself by providing an excellent feast which, by all calculations, will delay the need to reach for the peanuts.

 

Peanuts are not the only variation I’ve made for this crossing. Investing in a lightweight pack with a frame is a great improvement on my previous frameless one. It’s comfortable whichever way I load it and there’s a large side pocket which means I can erect and dismantle the tent while keeping the rest of my kit dry. Finding them more hindrance than help I’ve also dispensed with the pack cover and the water pipe leaving the biggest hardship as the mere two hundred miles of walking.

 

I make my way past the station and, accompanied by the call of the cuckoo, I take in the minor road to Corriechoille where I branch south east onto the tracks. It’s warm and I find the gentle ascent tiresome and elect to miss the planned Corbett of Sgurr Innse and rest for lunch at the bothy. I am joined by John and Sue Plume and their companion, Jane Asell and shortly after by John Sanderson. I tuck into my peanuts and, as they pull out ready made sandwiches from the Spar Shop in Spean Bridge, I rue not having done the same. We share humorous incidents from past challenges and hill walking, including stays at Gerry Howkins independent hostel at Achnashellach. We discuss she-wees at length and I manage to pop in the joke about asking Alison Ogden, on her declaring it a penis for women, where she fitted the batteries.

 

Looking back in the direction of Spean Bridge

 

Sue mentions a group of German lads that are walking through the Glen and they obligingly put in an appearance. On their departure, with reference to Gerry’s independent hostel, I take leave to recount the time I was relaxing alone in the common room when I was interrupted by a minor commotion outside terminated by the opening of the common room door.

          “Hello, how much is it to stay in the hostel?” the accent was distinctly German. The figure was a strapping young German man.

          “Nine pounds a night,” I replied.

          “Nine pounds a night. But we have, how you say it, a Youth Hostel discount card.”

          “This is not a Youth Hostel,” I replied in what I hoped was a helpful voice.

          “But it says on the map that it is a hostel.” These Germans were sticklers.

          “Not a Youth Hostel, it is a private hostel.” With that the spokesman disappeared. I sensed, heard and saw much movement about the outside. The door then swung open again and there appeared a second appointed spokesman.

          “You are Gerry?” he asked.

“No, English,” I replied.

 

Jane, who is Danish, finds this particularly amusing. Though from my perspective I know a comedian is dead when he has to draw on old material to beef up new work.

 

I mention the impressive tree felling machine I’d witnessed the other day and John Sanderson explains that it is computer controlled with the saw mills requirements programmed in such that the machine will sense the width of the trunk and cut the logs to length to fulfil the order. For better or for worse the days of two chaps with a saw have long gone.

 

I press on but take the wrong track and have to cut east, in a bitterly cold breeze, to pick up the route via the Allt na Lairige to the southern shores of Loch Treig. It warms up and I find the route slow and draining and constantly review the time it’ll take to get to Peter’s Rock.

 

The Southern Shore of Loch Treig

 

At 1655, eight hours into my day and five days into my walk I catch glimpse of the West Highland Railway line that I travelled up on. At 1840 and very slow, I reach what Sue Oxley refers to as “Puke Island”, the site of my upset stomach in 2006 where I spent a miserable night, camped alongside Sue, in a massive gale and a stomach that required me to exit the tent on numerous occasions all but two of which I made it out of the sleeping bag.

 

Due to a hydroelectric scheme “Puke Island” is no more and now sports an impressive bridge.

 

Puke Island with new wooden bridge in the bottom right. The metal bridge is the West Highland Railway.

 

I look at the map and figure I’ve gone as far as I can for the day and start to pitch the tent. I make poor progress until I discover the inner is twisted such that at one end I’m effectively pegging it upside down.

 

I cook and remove my walking shoes to discover a new phenomenon – swollen ankles. They both look quite puffy and I start to prod them in some attempt to explain what is going on.

 

I doze, sleep and listen to the occasional train pass. I have to force my aching body out of the sleeping bag to get going. Half a mile in to the new day I smell a cigarette and soon get talking to its owner, an old chap from the North West with a musical Scottish accent employed to work on the new roads for the hydro project. He points out Schiehallion and I press on and pass Loch Ossian and, amidst a game of distinguishing between the noises of trains, plant machinery and rushing water, I take a total of two hours, across boggy ground, to get to Peter’s Rock.

 

Loch Ossian

 

My plan is to take in the Corbett of Meall na Meoig but, having started at 0700 and taken until 1230 to the branch in the path to start the ascent, I elect to take my foul weather alternative with a view to getting myself on schedule to take in the fellow Corbett of Beinn Mholach tomorrow. However, it soon becomes apparent that my pace is so slow that my estimate to get to the Struan Inn at Calvine tomorrow is slipping back to a very late arrival. I survey the map for alternatives and reckon on dropping to the B846 and B847 and road walk it. I don’t have all of it on the map and am unsure of the route. At this precise moment a walker passes who has the full OS maps and I’m able to check the route is possible. He points out Schiehallion and gives me an apple and advice that the terrain of my original route would be extremely hard going. I ask if he knows of any places to get food on the road, he shakes his head. I resolve to make do with road kill cuckoo.

 

Not a very helpful sign

 

I press on down to where the track meets the road a few miles east of Rannoch Station and begin the long road walk. Schiehallion looks very distant. With a good phone signal I text Challenge Control requesting the grid reference of where the B846 and B847 meet and my boss at work asking him to use www.theaa.com to calculate the distance for me.

 

Both come up trumps and I know the task ahead of me. I pause at the Bridge of Ericht to gather water. The signs of human occupation have me climbing over a fence and lowering myself via the bridge parapet through discarded garden waste to the river below. I press on and am impressed with how the local council have embraced the land reform act by providing bins and helpful signs along the shores of Loch Rannoch. A woman stops her car to check I’m okay and we have a nice chat. At 1630, and a short distance past the Rannoch Power Station, I camp on the beautiful shores of the loch. The water laps gently against a sandy beach as birds call and the trees swish in the evening breeze.

 

I wake early on the 15th and get going at 0725 for the 21 mile road walk to Calvine. It’s a long plod without the map to check progress. Therefore I use my GPS and the grid reference texted by Roger Smith on Challenge Control to plot my progress towards the B847. I reach the junction at 1310, having begun to rein in Schiehallion and making use of a café in Kinloch Rannoch for lunch.

 

I slog my way uphill the initial section of the B847 and pick off distant power lines and hamlets until I reach the edge of Calvine. As I take the small road which branches off to the Struan Inn I reflect that, after a ten and a half hour day, I’ve never been so pleased to see the A9.

 

“Mr Smith?”

“Yes,” I reply to man waiting at the gate of the Victorian hotel.

“Welcome to the Struan Inn.”

“Great, thanks.”

 

I’m shown into the bar area where a log burner radiates its welcoming heat. I contemplate whether they’d mind if I dried my undies in front of it. I complete the registration and my order for evening meal and breakfast (included in the room rate) are taken. I’m shown to my lovely room and take a shine to the piping hot radiator where I can dry clothes. In all it’s only six pounds more expensive than the Spean Bridge Hotel. They should pay a visit, especially if they want to watch the telly.

 

At the evening meal the chair is pulled out for me as I take my table. I couldn’t imagine such service at the Spean Bridge Hotel but reflect that to be fair, the chairs are bolted to the wall there.

 

I listen to the distant chat from the bar. The baritone of an aged colonial type describes his days fishing. The food is delicious but I decline pudding and a cup of tea but do rather suspect that if I’d imbibed the teabag would have been taken out of its envelope for me.

 

I sleep well and at breakfast an elderly lady is shown to the table next to me.

“Is the colonel having a nice time?” asks the waitress.

“I think he is,” replies the old lady. The ancient colonel arrives, leg stockings to the knee with tweed breeches above, and announces his presence with his baritone voice. His wife chooses her conversation to test his mood as he complains about the wages he has to pay his gillie.

 

I get going around 0920 and cross under the double-decker bridges formed from the 18th century road bridge and the 19th century rail bridge that flies over. I’m slow along the roads and tracks to Old Blair but the weather is warm with a gentle breeze which the trees rustle their leaves to as the proverbial cuckoo makes its call.

 

Beyond Old Blair I’m on mountain tracks and as I descend towards Gilberts Bridge I spy a couple in front of me. They appear to be man and woman and are donned with full packs. Without TGO company for three days I pick up my pace and remember to use my trekking poles. Suddenly, with a cooling wind behind me, I’m really motoring and I catch them at Marble Lodge and debate whether they are man and woman or woman and woman. It’s a close call and, neither being on the TGO, I am bereft of an answer or company. I press on at my new found pace until I rest beyond Forest Lodge in Glen Tilt. I reflect I was last in this glen in 1998 with accompanying mountain bike aiding my Munro tally.

 

 

The beautiful Glen Tilt

 

Forest Lodge, miles from the nearest road

 

The glen is stunning, beautiful with a meandering river, rich green grass set off by a deep blue sky. I am caught by fellow challengers Sue Foss and Bill Rettie with Robert and Fionna Ridgwell shortly behind. It’s good to hear their stories.

“What challenge is this for you?” I ask.

“The first and the last,” replies Fionna. Only Robert has done a challenge before, Bill and Sue are enjoying themselves but Fionna is really struggling. We compare maps and discover my campsite is the same as theirs. It’s a lovely spot, just beyond the Francis Bedford Memorial Bridge.

 

The Francis Bedford Memorial Bridge – a fine Victorian Structure

 

The view upstream from the bridge

 

Our campsite on the north bank of the bridge

 

I pitch next to Sue and we exchange challenge stories so far. Apparently ninety-one-year-old Jim Taylor is still going well and I catch a few other names of people I recognise. We chat until the cooling air has me snuggled away in my tent and I sleep to the sound of the river tumbling on by.

 

I add clothes throughout the cold night and wait for the sun to rise to begin to dry the tent. I finish it off with my pack towel and we are all ready to set off together. Fionna discovers a hole in the bottom of her rucksack, a hole in the bag of raisins inside and the bag of raisins now empty. Sue has duct tape to patch up the passage of some pesky mouse.

 

It’s 0900 when we say our goodbyes some half a kilometre north of our campsite. I’m heading across to the ruin of Altanour Lodge where I plan to camp for a foray across the Corbett of Morven tomorrow where the others are aiming for Mar Lodge via the Linn of Dee.

 

I’m quick up onto the high ground then very slow across. The highest point is peaty buy manageable before I descend into Glen Ey. I reach the ruin and recognise it from a Munro mountain biking approach in 1998. I look for a pitch and view the route to Morven. I’m just not up to it. The Corbetts I have selected for this crossing should be straightforward but my mind and body are protesting at the thoughts. I look at the ascent, descent and re-ascent and, with a sore throat and a tight right calf muscle, elect to head to Mar Lodge, via Inverey, for some company.

 

Mar Lodge is full so I sit in the annex room and get through two mugs of soup and exchange stories with other challengers. I ask after Jim Taylor and hear he is still going. I mention whether he’s the last challenger to cross having fought in the Second World War. This is likely confirmed and I learn he was RAF ground crew.

 

I camp by Victoria Bridge, twisting my body around the lumpy ground and my now punctured sleeping mat. I am ready to leave at just after 0700 on Sunday the 18th along the road to Braemar that I have always vowed never to walk on again.

 

I make Braemar at around 0830 and attempt to book myself a room at The Fife Arms hotel.

“Yes, we have one room free.”

“How much will that be?”

“Sixty five pounds,” replies the young Romanian woman.

“Does that include breakfast?”

“Yes. Do you want an evening meal?”

“How much extra is that?” I ask.

“For a non-resident it’ll be twenty one pounds.”

“Given I’m resident how much will it be?”

“Sixty five pounds.”

“Erm, I think I’ll give dinner a miss.”

“Okay, let me check again.” She types on the computer, “Oh I see it’s the same price. Sixty five pounds is for dinner, bed and breakfast.”

“I’ll take it. What time can I have the room?”

“Three o’clock.”

“Any chance of sooner?”

We agree on 1300 and I go in search of today’s breakfast. The Old Bakery, a favourite with challengers, does me a fantastic meal and I get chatting to fellow challenger, Martin Angell.

 

Sat in the lounge of the Fife Arms I get chatting to Alan Sloman, Phil Lambert, Andrew Walker and Mike Akin-Smith. All challengers of old it’s good to see the familiar faces. I pop back to the Old Bakery for lunch and am joined by Sue Foss, Bill Rettie and Kate Kowalska. I ask after Fionna and she’s still struggling.

 

I have supper with Mike and Paul Myerscough with a repeat performance at breakfast. Setting off at around 0900 I walk with Mike for the three hours along the tracks and forest to Gelder Shiel bothy. I settle down for the rest of the day as he heads off to Shielin of Mark.

 

Gelder Shiel – the bothy is to the right

 

The skies form a backdrop of tranquillity as the afternoon light contrasts the trees from the land and draws ones eyes into the distance. The leaves make their whispered hushes as the shadows become the objects.

 

I am joined by Stuart Dixon and Darren Fowler, prison officers from Durham. I glance over the bunk filled room and figure this must feel like a busman’s holiday. We chat about the state of the nation, the state of crime and the state of the prisons. I ask how drugs manage to get into prisons. There’s a variety ways from a dead pigeon thrown over the prison wall, kissing a prisoner goodbye to an offender ‘loading up’ on the day of sentencing.

 

Darren declares himself a snorer and duly camps outside. Stuart keeps quiet. That is until about 0100 whereupon he tests the structure of the bothy with some roof raising snoring. I make do with snatched sleep while listening to the BBC’s World Service.

 

Lochnagar from Gelder Shiel                                      

 

I make a good start at 0810, cutting from the bothy up to the track which, in the cool blue sky of the morning, sweeps around the mountains and drops towards Loch Muick. My throat is sore but the light breeze and blue skies make up for it. Lochnagar towers on the horizon behind me as I meet a woman ascending. We stop for a chat.

 

“Are you camping out?” I ask while surveying her pack.

“No, I’ve a wee job collecting water samples.”

I contemplate asking her how often she’s practised that sentence. A slight mix up could be embarrassing.

“Is that your main job?”

“No I’m an artist, based in Aviemore.”

“Watercolour or oils?” I ask tying to appear knowledgeable.

“Mixed media, I tend to do people and animals.”

We enthuse on the beauty of the surroundings. She asks why I don’t move up, the prospect suddenly got better but I relay my time in Glasgow when I got hassle for being English.

“That’s a real shame,” she adds and we say our goodbyes.

 

From the Loch Muick Visitor Centre I make the streamed gully ascent towards the high ground of the Shielin of Mark. I plan to stay here but, sat in the bothy at 1330 with a lonely afternoon of peanut munching ahead I wonder about pressing on. There’s an unopened flapjack on the table along with other food left behind. The flapjack is welcome and I munch my way through. I resurvey the table and a thought strikes me that perhaps this is a walker’s supper who is currently out for a hike. I make a swift exit after logging my progress in the bothy book and noting Sheila Farley is only half an hour ahead of me.

 

I reach Muckle Cairn in half an hour and get caught in a brief storm. I check my compass so I hit Glen Lee and pass the uninviting Stables of Lee. My throat is still bad and my right calf muscle tight but I am making good ground. I run into Sheila, resting with sore knee and ankle. We walk to the end of Loch Lee then on to where the path branches off to Tarfside. We say our goodbyes, she’s been great company and is very strong with a pack weight almost twice that of mine.

 

I cross the fields and tracks to Tarfside where, in the evening sun, I’m chasing down my lengthening shadow. I’ve now caught up with the TGO pack and first run into Bert and Suus from Holland. Other familiar faces appear on the village green and I pitch the tent before wandering up to the hostel. This year it’s being run by the Over The Hill Club. I get made a bowl of soup and made to feel welcome. I drop in at The Mason’s Arms and the barman has trouble finding me something non-alcoholic.

 

I enjoy the company and ask after Jim Taylor and Fionna. There’s no news on Jim but there are many stories of how much Fionna is struggling.

 

I wake to rain drumming on the tent and some impressive, unshielded by canvas, snoring. I gather my things, make my porridge and set off on the long road to Edzell. I walk awhile with Barbara Sanders and Peter Kenyon before catching up with Tina Davis and father and son team of Graham and Peter Lewis. They show me an alternative route via the Rocks of Solitude. We are caught up by Mike Akin-Smith and we walk out together. The scenery is stunning, with a deep gully to the river below the path hangs on the edge of the ravine with the light playing through the trees onto the clear, tumbling water below.

 

In Edzel I eat with Tina, Graham and Peter before the haul, with a painful calf muscle to North Water Bridge. It’s a lovely evening but I’m tired and retire to my tent. I wake at some unearthly hour and am walking at 0520 and dip my feet into the North Sea a little before 0900. I can’t enjoy the finish as I’m desperate for the loo (the type where it's impossible to paddle both feet simultaneously) so make a hasty retreat to the Park Hotel.

 

The receptionist takes a look at me and says, “You’ll be wanting the Kinnaird Room.”

“It’s been hard enough as it is,” I reply.

She doesn’t get the joke but tells me the Kinnaird Room is where the TGO sign out point is.

“I need the loo first,” and she points me in the direction.

 

As I wash my hands a sun bronzed challenger walks in.

“Is that John Hooper?” I ask.

The man stops in his tracks.

“Yes,” but I don’t know you.

I tell him how we walked together on his first challenge, about his redundancy package and the death of his mother-in-law.

“You’ve got an incredible memory,” he says.

“Things just stick in my mind,” I reply.

“I’m really sorry but I don’t remember you at all.”

“No problem,” I say and to be fair if some random bloke stopped me in the gents toilet and told me my life history I’d deny all knowledge.

 

I walk into the Challenge Control room and am greeted with a hug by Alison Ogden. I never got that service from Roger Smith, but hey ho times move on. Alison is in the process of moving her family to Newtonmore, having taken over the hostel there with Sue and Neil Oxley.

“We are about to exchange contracts on a house there,” she says.

“Oh great. What’s it like?”

“It’s a shed with a toilet.”

I try and look enthusiastic. As a bothy goes it would be luxury but as domestic accommodation I’m having reservations.

“You’ll have to come and stay.”

“Sounds like it needs a lot of work,” I reply.

“It does, it’s made of wood, six bedrooms, four fire places and up a track. But the toilet is fantastic. Great views.”

“What from the toilet?”

“Turret Steve, turret.”

“How is Jim Taylor doing?” I ask.

“He finished yesterday, amazing and he doesn’t look a day over seventy,” Alison replies.

 

I get a handshake from John Manning and some nice comments about my blog from Gayle Faulkner. I check the train times, 1033 there’s a direct train to Kings Cross and I head off. Challenge number seven complete and the certificate to prove it.

 

© Steve Smith
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