I’m hitting rewind for a moment to catch up on what’s happened so far this year…
It’s been an intense couple of months, like Life in Concentrate. I’m still in shock at the lack of activity in my Whatsapp since the end of the Bristol Mayoral Campaign. After months of social media campaigning and memes, I’m beyond thrilled (relieved) that it all paid off and we now have Marvin Rees, a Labour Mayor, in Bristol! I had just climbed Snowdon when a flurry of messages came in (not sure where the signal broke through). An apt metaphor for the challenge.
And I am glad to have had some head space, for better or for worse. I’m chuffed to have had a story published in Firewords issue six this month, called ‘In a small pond’, for their secrets theme. They’re a fab magazine, and have been on my list for a while. You should buy their stuff. Also, my story ‘The Sandman’ was recorded by Carried in Waves, read by a man whose voice steals the show! If you prefer to read it, I’ve popped it up here on the blog.
There’s some great stuff coming up too! Bristol will be celebrating the fifth year of National Flash Fiction Day with a bunch of events on the 25th June:
- Flash walk (Submissions needed – get your work read by actors)
- Flash Fiction workshop with Alison Powell and Ken Elkes.
- An evening of Flash Tales where I’ll be reading ‘We can be meteors’ with so many amazing people. Be there!
Thanks to Art Council funding, all the events are free! It should be a great day. Can’t wait.
I’ve also got an exciting new project that I’m working on. Once details have been finalised, I’ll let you know more…
For those whose eyes are better than their ears. First recorded in April for Carried in Waves.
Joseph filled his pockets with sand. Instead of pressing it into buckets, he scooped up handfuls of specks and patted them into the ears of his trousers. But the sand always trickled out, and ran down his leg and into his shoes. With every step, the grains rubbed in between his toes, reminding him that he couldn’t keep it.
His mother dusted him off outside, hosed him down every day, and told him that it wouldn’t do; he needed to clean his act up if he ever wanted a wife. He listened, and three decades later he was stalking the High Street with two bum-bags of sand saddling him. The soapy sun dripped through the clouds, falling onto his neck and ears. His gaze swung like a pendulum: left and right, left and right, searching for a grain.
He stopped at a glint and snapped upright. Pulling up the knees of his trousers, he squatted, and pressed a single speck into his finger. He rubbed it against his thumb, and happy with its gritty quality and size, he unzipped the front bag and dropped it in. He unfurled towards the sky and his lips spread into a smile. But he missed the grain that fell; the one that worked its way out of the seam when he crouched. It happened in a second, a blink: a moment in imaginary time.
A boy from number 12 called Joseph’s house the Sandcastle on the Hill. There were beaches instead of floors and dunes instead of stairs. Sea and salt carved through every corner of your nose, prying open memories of seagulls, ice-cream, sand sticking to sunscreen, warm coca-cola, and smeared sunglasses. But Joseph was numb to them. He saw a body, a collective, not a single fragment of rock or beach. He sank into its outstretched arms and let it fold over the space around him.
But as he slept, he didn’t know that the sand was betraying him, slipping away through the high floorboards and into the foundations. He’d forgotten that it couldn’t be kept; he had forgotten about the boy with the grit in his shoes. One morning, his house was almost empty. Most of the sand had fallen down into the earth, tick-tick-ticking away – and his mother went with it. She packed up her thoughts, her breath, and with her feet hanging over the ridge she looked at her single son for the last time, shook her head, and plunged under the earth, extinct, never to be seen again.
In each moment after that, a grain of him chipped away too, weathered by the storm that she left behind. Distance was dividing by speed, and his time was almost up. One night, in his pyjamas that shone like moonlight on a pond, he cradled a pouch of sand, and stared at the pots and pans, the buckets and bags, the upturned spoons and picture frames, peaked with his last mounds, and he did the maths.
Every cup of sand equalled five million grains, and he had one hundred and two cups left when he last counted, roughly five billion grains. But as large as it sounded, it was only four point two days, and his blood grated through his body, wearing him away from the inside. He knew his last option, and placed it on the scale, but he didn’t turn back to see the outcome. He left his tumbling castle and drove throughout the night, his pyjamas rippling in the wind from the open window.
He’d been there before – to the ocean and the beaches with all the time in the world – but he had never touched a grain. It belonged to Earth, not him. It needed it for itself, for its future. The Earth had a beginning, and it would have an end too. So the grains that Joseph had always acquired, until now, were the lost ones, the dregs, the ones that people wasted or let pass them by. He made them count, every second, every moment, every piece he held in his palm.
But now, with his heart almost empty and the tick-tick-tick roaring in his ears, the heat and pressure was too much for a single man who wanted more chances. So he ran down onto the beach that held forever and filled his own pockets. Then he loaded up two sacks with sand, and another two, and another, stealing from the world that gave him everything.
He repeated the journey cloaked with night. Sand banks rose up around his home like a fortress. His garden became a desert. When the rain came the neighbours down the hill were awash with eroding sand, and that was where they drew their line. And they knocked, and they knocked, and they put paper to clipboard, and they petitioned. Nobody wanted The Sandman living next door.
Joseph remained solid. He chased away the children who made sand angels in his front garden. But it didn’t matter how fast he ran, he couldn’t get back the bits that they took with them. He stayed awake some nights, prying open a gap in his curtains, watching everything he had worked for, slipping away. The next morning, he cleared up the risen mound of hot bags of disrespect that were pushed through his letter box, and burnt the crust of angry letters.
But his neighbours watched him erupt from his house to chase after the children, and caught sight of his quaking arms, his bellowing lungs, and so they began to take the sand for themselves. They bagged up the golden sugar of the ocean and sold it. And before long, he was losing it three times as fast as he could get it from the beach to his house.
By late November, the ground beneath him shifted. He hit his reserves again: four point two days. He took more empty sacks to Charmouth beach, but instead of packing them up, he stared at his feet. His soles sank into the traces of melting stars that were washed away by the space of the sea, and for the first time he wondered if it was too late for him, perhaps he should give up and follow his mother. Maybe he should let his last grain fall.
He didn’t want eternity, just a bit more time, and he wasn’t sure why or what he would do with it. He only knew that he needed more. The whispers of his mother, that used to get tangled up in her curly hair, rolled across the sea, blowing her thoughts back into his mind: the two-point-four, the layers of sediment that should follow him, the next generation.
And he closed his eyes for a moment and crumbled, and he whispered back to his mother that he was sorry he didn’t have enough for her. He was sorry that he had pretended; that her dream for him had never sunk deep into his core. He didn’t understand why he had kept his gaze to the ground, why he had never looked up into the eyes of anyone else.
He fell to his knees in the licks of the waves and longed for the sand to pull him in and hug him close. But he heard the wind change. It brought a clear whistle into his ears that he thought were blocked with the whispers of ghosts. He looked into the diluted sun, which hurried over the cliff and pulled up off the ground. The rock pools under the cliff were lit up like a stage, and he saw a man crouching on limestone, whistling, and running his hand across the smooth rock. He lifted up a pickaxe and brought it down with accuracy not force.
A piece broke free. He stood up and held it up into the light, squinting and turning it over in his hand. Joseph pushed his way through the soft, unstable floor and pulled himself up onto the hard rocks. And it’s hard to say what made him speak to the man who collected the past, preserved it, and studied it. But the closer he got, the more his core bubbled and burned, and it pushed him towards a collision.
His name was Patrick and he smelt like brewing coffee. He paused for such a long time when Joseph spoke that Joseph unreeled his problems in a handful of seconds. Patrick looked out to the sea with only a hum to show that he was processing his reply. He pushed his glasses up his nose and suggested that Joseph should move. Since he spent so much time taking the beach to his home only to lose it, why didn’t he bring his home to the beach?
It was a bad idea but he was a man with only a few days left; a man with an unstable core. He wanted to see Patrick again and it didn’t matter if the devil was in it, he had to see him. He tried to ignore the tremors and the whispers. Joseph told himself that it was because he didn’t have any brothers or any family, and he just needed someone, only one, and the earth could spare a little more to give him that.
So he left his heirlooms, his inheritance, and his mother’s ashes. He locked the doors, and left his Sandcastle on the Hill. Under the cliffs, on the shore, he built a shack from drift wood and iron. He collected sand up around him, separating out what belonged to him. A stolen infinity lay at his feet, and for the first time in a while, he rested.
At dawn, angry waves awoke him and a whitewash sky glared down at him. He ignored them, and spotted Patrick on the rocks with his head down and glasses at the end of his nose. Joseph waved to him with sweeping arms and a smile that could have been his first: unguarded, unchecked. And he walked the long stretch towards him for the first of many days of soggy newspapers and chips, kicking sand, and humming duets.
When the Sandman retired, the sky was a chalky Wedgewood blue bowl with clouds decorating the rim. Patrick had carved out a perfect ammonite from the skin of the cliff to the hum of Joby Talbot’s Once Around the Sun. He held it out to Joseph and gave him part of the Earth’s memory. Joseph covered the ammonite with both hands for a moment, and said that he would make room for it. He delved into his pocket, scooped out his last handful of sand and held it out. Patrick caught the grains trickling through his fingers and smiled. And in his gaze, Joseph saw all of time and space, huge and expanding. He had collided with the past to be in the present. And he wondered why all this time, he had been looking for something so small, so tiny, and so insignificant, at his feet.
I love a goal and I love lists. So my New Years resolutions are a pretty big deal (although I don’t always wait until New Year). I love looking back over the year, because it’s so easy to forget the good things that happened in it. Some feel like yonks ago! So it’s a healthy exercise to review the year, and I love to read other people’s goals to help inspire mine. So I hope mine will inspire you and you can help me with my 2016 ones…
This year I split my goal into five categories: health, family and friends, finance, house, and writing. It was a good plan. I did okay in my health category: I started and maintained cycling to work, eating less red meat, and actually went to my four-year-delayed smear test (TMI?). I did okay with family and friends – I put together a friend’s 30th birthday party as a way to say thanks for being a good friend. I also kept up date nights, and finally told my family about something that had burdened me for so long (which prompted my journey on the WHW). I didn’t see my Nan as much as I’d of liked.
My dreams of getting out of my overdraft were shattered. But I did okay with the house stuff, and stuck to my cleaning rota and did some projects that needed doing. I did about half. I’m all for unreachable goals. Didn’t someone say ‘aim of the moon, and if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars’? I like to think I’m chilling next to Orion’s belt.
My writing goals? Well they were a bit hit and miss. In previous years I set a target to ‘win a competition’ or whatnot, but this year I decided I just needed to focus on submitting more, and consistently.
- Submit two stories a month – tick.
- Do a reading – tick. I read at National Flash Fiction Day and at Novel Nights.
- Finish second draft of novel and rewrite voice in 3rd draft.
- Sub book to agents.
As you can see, I had a pretty good year with shortlistings, a third place win, and longlistings. I also had some pieces published and was voted ‘Author of the month’ at Short Story Sunday for my story Moonquake. All of this happened because I submitted more and committed to sending my stuff out on a regular basis. I would definitely recommend that goal. I’ll be carrying it over. So to all of you: SUBMIT, unapologetically. Submit your asses off.
Half way through the year I revised my goals about my novel. I had broken down what I was going to do each month, but once I diverted from it and got behind, I struggled to find my way and lost hope with it. Even when I changed the details of the goals. I altered my bigger goal to ‘finish’ the novel and submit to someone for advice by the end of the year. I failed at that too. Life just got a bit much. Some of my other goals had taken over my life. I stopped writing in the morning. I stopped writing full stop.
I had so many doubts about the novel, that it was weighing me down, crushing my motivation. So what I did do, was get a beta reader to read the first half of it in November, and their response was really positive and got me back on track. Definitely worth doing if you lose sight. So of course, all my writing goals will carry over to next year. They WILL! *forces unrelenting aims over the cliff into 2016*
I love having goals. They shape you, they help you to form new habits. Next year I think I might struggle with balancing too many balls, so I’m going to be careful and realistic about what I might be able to achieve in the first half of the year as I have a lot of volunteering projects going on in my spare time too. And I’m still working out how to manage my writing goals when I slip… Any tips?
What will you challenge yourself to do next year?
Let me know if you want to see my 2016 goals when I’ve drawn them up.
Walking 96 miles, in seven days, with 14KG of weight and camping along the whole of the West Highland Way was probably THE worst and best thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. It’s a mental challenge, a physical one and a spiritual one. It requires all of you. Getting yourself to keep going when you’re in so much pain takes a lot of will. But I think going alone makes it near impossible to keep your spirits up. My advice would be to go with someone else. I usually love my own company, but I struggled more than I ever thought was possible.
I did meet many lovely people along The Way – Bothy Pete, Gordan and Eric, many Germans, and a group of people leading a legally blind man. His accomplishments put my moans and cries to shame. Most meetings with people on the WHW involve you stumbling across them (or vice versa) while they’re sat down, boots and socks off, and examining a foot over one knee. And you know they’re wondering how they’re going to get their feet back into the boots of agony.
But it was a week of extreme lows and highs for many reasons. There are two parts to my hobbit adventure – but I can only tell you one as the other is not entirely my story to tell. But I learnt a lot along the way about pain, bravery, loneliness and how the very worse things can save you. And never forget to look up. Ever. So much of our lives are spent just trying to take the next step, making sure we don’t trip up, that we forget to look around and admire where we are and how far we’ve come, or to feel the moment.
But sometimes looking up was not a joy. It only added to my misery – the vast, empty landscape, brooding in heavy clouds, imprisoned in foreboding mountains. The West Highland Way broke me many times. I was weak most of the way. I shattered into fragments more than once. I wanted to quit a hundred times. But I finished it – I actually finished it. Sometimes we need to break in order to rebuild, to start again. Sometimes we need to walk through pain, to let it soften us, weather us just like the landscape. How beautiful are the worn and weathered feet, the blisters and scars…
Here’s my journey, day by day:
- Day one: Milngavie to near Blanefield (5 miles)
- Day two: Blanefield to Conic Hill/Garadhban forest (13 miles)
- Day three: Balmaha to Rowchoish Bothy (13 miles)
- Day four: Rowchoish Bothy to near Ardlui (8 miles)
- Day five: Near Ardlui to Tyndrum (14 miles)
- Day six: Tyndrum to Ba Bridge (14 miles)
- Day seven: Ba Bridge to Kinlochleven (14 miles)
- Day eight: Kinlochleven to Fort William (15 miles)
When I was prepping before I left, there was some information out there, but not enough about what to expect, so I thought I’d keep a diary for all those considering either hiking the WHW alone and/or camping all the way.
Best piece of non-essential kit: My light-weight umbrella. I don’t have a porch on my tent and I was worried about how I’d cook in the rain. I thought I could tape some tent pegs to the umbrella and use it as a cover if I needed it. But it also acted as a good walking stick – helping to stabilize me over some dodgy paths. And it’s perfect for keeping the rain off when it’s too hot for the waterproofs.
What I wish I had brought: Flip flops. At every conceivable moment you want to get out of your boots. And if you have waterproof boots – your socks too. My feet often needed to dry out, and so it would have been nice to potter about camp or lunch with something that didn’t feel like an iron maiden on my feet. Bloody boots.
Tips from other walkers: Good ol’ Gordon who I met on the Way advised getting some boot insoles and swapping them over every break to offer extra cushioning. Might be worth trying out. Not that I’ll ever be doing anything like this again…
And take some sort of repellent for the midges – even in October I had trouble with them because it was fairly warm still. You can never tell whether they’ll be about or not. Lots of people swore by Avon’s Oh so soft.
West Highland Way Check list (12KG without water)
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping mat
- Gas and top and lighter
- Toilet paper and trowel
- Money and keys
- Waterproof coat and trousers
- Anti bac wipes
- Notebook and pen
- Gaffa tape
- Phone, charger, extra battery charger (there’s a surprising amount of signal on WHW)
- First aid kit: Blister plasters and pain killers
- Water containers and purifying tablets
- Plastic bags
- Head torch
- Book (don’t bother – you’ll be too tired to read it and it’ll be ruined by the end)
- Clothes – fleece, two pairs of trousers, leggings for sleeping, 6 pairs of socks (yes take lots of socks because you will need them!!), one base layer, running t- shirt, scarf, gloves and hat (with ear flaps to cut out noise and keep ears warm).
Lunch: At the tea rooms on the train station platform.
Dinner: Pizza at Green Wellie Café (open until 9pm)
Yesterday’s short walk meant I had a super long one today. I woke up at 6am, and made tea in the dark. Something was scratching at my tent in the night, and slugs slithered over everything. My hair keeps getting caught in the zip, and I found a tiny slug in my hair. Then it started to rain. Oh how I hate packing up the tent in the rain. I skipped breakfast, ate a snack bar, and started to walk. It rained and rained some more. But it was too hot for the waterproof coat and trousers – so they came off quickly. Thank heavens for the brolly!
I felt incredibly lonely and depressed in the rain. But the trail was easier and listening to music took the edge off. I made 5 miles in 2.5 hours – not bad. Fear and loneliness was the hardest part. It didn’t feel brave to be doing this, I just felt a constant fear as if I was made of it. But maybe that’s what bravery is. There is no bravery without fear. You have to walk with it. I couldn’t quite believe I was actually doing it. My feet felt a little better – perhaps there’s a walkers wall and I was over it now?
I looked back for Bothy Pete but there was no sign of him. I arrived in Crianlarich at 12.30 pm. Not bad at all. Eight miles in a morning. I was desperate for somewhere dry with warm food so I went into the tea rooms on the train station platform and it was perfect. There was no one there, and it was big with plastic chairs so I didn’t feel guilty about bringing my wet-self and The Burden in. I bought a tea and a juicy bacon, brie and cranberry toasty, but then I couldn’t find my wallet…
I took my bag to one side and unpacked everything. Still no sign. Then I had a sinking feeling and started to unpack my tent. Sure enough – it was inside. That would explain why I had such a hard time packing it away and managed to split the tent bag with it. Sigh. Note to other campers: don’t rush packing, even in the rain.
Boots off. Socks off. Feet up on the chair. I stayed for an hour. I hobbled about like an old lady and wrote a postcard. I had a stamp with me already. And I was excited to find a toilet too! Just as I was reassembling my bag to leave, I caught sight of someone on the other side of the track looking a little miserable – it was Bothy Pete. I shouted out to him and he came over to the tea rooms, but was keen to go to the shop nearby. Just as we were leaving, a man stopped and ask if one of us had just been to the toilets. I was confused until he held up my wallet! Whaaaat?? Stupid woman. I had a million thank-yous for him.
The Londis at Crianlarich has a haven of goods. It’s definitely one of the better/bigger towns and worth the slight detour off the route if you need to restock etc. There’s even a working Public telephone box, which was useful because I had no phone reception here. I left Pete eating lunch on a picnic table – the sky was brightening but he was threatening to catch a train. I had another 6 miles to go and it was getting late.
Lunch gave me a boost of energy and the sun cheered my spirit. I trekked up through a pine forest, their trunks and roots still black from the rain. Mud still glooped, and the path still dripped with streams. It didn’t smell like pine – the air was sweet, sickly-sweet like sugar. I’d witnessed a fellow hiker yesterday whistling cheerfully and decided to do the same. But it was tricky to keep tune while keeping up pace, so I slid into singing instead.
I sang my granddad’s favourite: ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee-A, My oh my, what a wonderful day, Plenty of sunshine heading my way, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee-A’. Followed by a few ‘Oh brother where are thou,’ tracks. The last four miles were super hard – I’m not ashamed to say I whimpered a lot in the last mile. (Just the beginning of actual whimpering to come.) But the views were glorious and I had reached half-way! I did a dance – hands only of course because who would actually ADD unnecessary steps. Each step is precious.
A lady chased after me with my map – I’d left it behind on a bench. Doh! What an idiot. A day for leaving things behind, clearly. It was a miracle nothing had actually been left behind. Ferns became heather in Tyndrum woodland and I finally arrived at the ‘On the way’ campsite. I washed my socks, set up my tent, sat in the drying room for a while, then set off for the Green Wellie stop for dinner. I had Pizza and gallons of Diet Coke. Mum messaged me to tell me there might be Northern Lights. So I set my alarm read, excited, hoping to tick it off the top of my bucket list.
Lunch: Bought from Kinlochleven (didn’t happen)
Dinner: At Glen Nevis Youth Hostel (didn’t happen)
All the plans above went out of the window. A phone call the night before and in the morning meant I didn’t get out of Kinlochleven until 9.30am and so I didn’t buy any lunch and threw the last of my wraps and chorizo in the bin (WHY??!). I got a bit lost finding The Way again and the way out of Kinlochleven, but got there eventually.
Despite the morning drizzle and midges, the day was a sun masked in a whitewashed sky. The climb was steep but I enjoyed working out my upset in my lungs, instead of my feet. In the forest, web hairs tickled my face and arms as my body cut through them like a winning runner. The trees were a welcome variety from the bracken and heather skinned moors. I used my phone most of the way, but lost signal at mile 83 and left the black loch Leven behind. But my husband was coming to see me.
Gordon and Eric came upon me just before Tigh-na-Steubinaich ruin. We sat around the fallen bricks and a building without a roof. I watched, amused as Gordon tried to fix the trials of another fellow walker and his bad ankles and knees. He had five new knee supports on him and I joked that he was the WHW first aider. They bought goodies back in Kinlochleven while I ate cheese and nut bars. They gave me some malt loaf and I moved on, knowing they’d overtake soon.
My feet started to crumble after mile 85. The views were stunning, and the weather framed them, but I was breaking. I couldn’t do it anymore, but I knew I had no choice. There was only one way out and it required my feet. Miles 86 to 91 lasted forever. I tried to rush it, in the hope that I could end it quicker. But the miles seemed only to expand. Woods that weren’t woods anymore, just more tree graveyards made it impossible to pinpoint where I was.
I wanted it to be over. I never wanted to walk again. I wanted to quit. I bumped into a group of guys who I’d met before – with too many names to remember who were walking with a legally blind man. It made my achievement seem tiny. Insignificant. They had such good spirits too, despite their ailments.
At Mile 89 I saw the majestic Ben Nevis break out into the sky and I collapsed, wondering if I’d be able to make the final 3 miles to the Youth Hostel or if I’d ever walk again. The path finally finds an actual forest running with rivers under Ben. I met the group-of-many-men a few times after that. One of them was eager to show me pictures of when he climbed Ben Nevis in June when there was 9ft of snow on it.
My signal kicked in under Ben Nevis, a mile from my final stop and I got a flurry of messages. My husband had gotten the train, but it would be going to Glasgow and wouldn’t get in until 10.30pm. My only option was to meet him there – which meant I had to walk another 4 miles to Fort William (the end of the West Highland Way) in two hours and catch a coach. I despaired on the phone – said I could never make it. I was in so much pain.
But I walked physically faster than I thought was physically possible for me to do. I said goodbye to my reservation at the beautiful Glen Nevis Youth Hostel and bullied my feet into Fort William. The train station toilets were luxurious (there’s a fee) – you can pay for a locker and there are showers. The coaches picked up next to Morrisons, and because I couldn’t go a step further I went in there to have a ‘baked’ potato, salad and diet coke. Oh how nice it was to have fresh veg! It wasn’t quite the celebratory meal I’d envisioned, but I had finished. I had finished. And as the coach pulled away into the dark night, I promised I would come back to see the end properly, to see the Youth Hostel and climb Ben Nevis.
And as I finished that brutal walk, I left more than Fort William behind. I had broken open, but something new was waiting for me now. A weight had lifted. The West Highland Way was more than 96 miles. More than just a hike. Sometimes the hardest things we do are also the best of what we do. Everything that hurts will end. And how amazing it is that those ends look very much like beginnings…
Lunch: Bought from Green Wellie – Cheese, crackers and branson pickle
Camping dinner: Chicken tikka camping meal
At sixish, I woke up at Ba Bridge to a masked sky. Rays of sun striped through gaps. I sizzled up some tea, packed up and set off at 8am. I climbed up onto the path and turned back one last time. Two deer stood on the path, ears turned towards me, eyes beaming like headlights. I said good morning and set off on slightly refreshed feet – following the grass verges bordering the path. A black bird rose up and its call laughed like a mixture of a turkey and a sheep.
The problem with this landscape was also its very beauty – its vastness. I could see Kingshouse from miles away, and it seemed close, but it wasn’t. You walk for hours and for miles, with the scenery changing very little. It is the same. The same mountains, the same moor, the same path – it doesn’t vary quickly. There are no covers for toilet privacy.
The cold, hard mountains were accentuated with a heavy grey sky. The Southside of Buachallie Etive Mor mountain was brutal and jutted up like The Lonely Mountain. The river and bridge at Kingshouse offered a moment of relief from the moor. Boxes of pine trees surrounded it, a brief popup of life and vitality before moving back under the gaze of the mountains.
A large group of young Germans overtook me on my way to the Devil’s Staircase. Three of them I’d met the day before. The path skirted around Etive Mor, and I ate lunch while gazing up, trying to put my finger on why I didn’t like the mountain. Clouds oppressed its head, severe crags and crevices split the tip, and streaks of white bled out from the base.
When I picked myself up, I met two Scottish men – Gordon and Eric – who walked with me until the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase. This was their seventh West Highland Way walk and they knew it well. They were good company and picked up my pace as well as my mood. He showed me a patch of rubble under the mountain. “You see that,” he said. “That used to be Jimmy Saville’s holiday home,” he said. I asked him what happened to it, but he shrugged. I wondered what sort of person would live under the scowl of that mountain, and it didn’t surprise me.
The Devil’s Staircase had been bigged-up online and by other walkers as a murderous, so I had a brief sit down before and said goodbye to Gordon and Eric. Gordon dropped his backpack and started to rummage. He gave me a dressing, hand warmers and a pack of wine gums. What a lovely guy! They wished me luck and I started to chat to the German couple boiling soup. I’d seen them before, and they’d seen Bothy Pete a few times too, including when his eye swelled up from a mozzy bite. We swapped stories about The Way.
The Devil’s Staircase is aptly named, not because it’s deadly, but because it is deceptive. I kept thinking ‘I’ll stop at the top, I’m almost there.’ But what I thought was the top, was never the top. It kept winding. The way after that was a beating to the feet and felt like it was forever turning, never reaching the reservoir.
Since time was on my side, I decided a while back to go the extra mile (literally) and press on to Kinlochleven to sleep at a campsite. I’d heard the climb after Kinlochleven was steep, and would be best handled first thing in the morning. I felt lonely again too. The heavy grey clouds saturated the skies and it was just me and my pain, with the occasional sighting of a walker. And I was glad I decided to stop at a campsite. The forest around the reservoir was steep and blunt on the feet. There didn’t seem to be enough flat land for camping, especially off the path.
I practically ran down the last part because my feet were so sore and I wanted to be off them. I set off my tent at Blackwater campsite with a cloud of midges around my head. I cooked up the BEST chicken curry that I’d saved for my last night and made a huge hot chocolate for dessert. All the Germans I’d met had caught up, or I had caught up, and were there too – although not camping. Lucky jammers.
Lunch: From the Green Wellie shop
Camping dinner: Cous cous and baked chilli chickpeas
Last night, sleep was bullied away by the pain in my legs and feet. At 4am I wriggled out of my tent, which is more like a coffin because you can’t sit up in it. I walked around in the dark, avoiding the gravel so that the rustle wouldn’t wake other campers. The cold shook me, but I didn’t see any lights. After a while, I gave up and let the dream rest.
I got up at 7am and had my first warm shower in five days. Smoke from the bothy had scented me and all my clothes, but now the warm oaky smell was being gradually washed away. Just as I was getting myself together, it started to drizzle right in time for me to pack my tent away in it. So I dragged most of my things, including my tent into the drying room that was more like a sauna, and my hair dried in a matter of minutes. Poof!
I quickly topped up my phone battery, and spoke to someone doing the WHW in crazy-time. He planned to do 25miles that day with his backpack on, which made my 14 miles seem piddly. I set off at 9am, picking up lunch from The Green Wellie along the way.
You’d think that being dry and well fed that today would be a hundred times easier. In fact, it made it even harder. I’m not sure whether every day is the same, but the present pain feels worse because it’s the closest to your memory. But despite good weather and stunning views, I wanted to quit. My feet felt like they were going to explode after the first mile, and I felt sick with every hobbling step. I missed home and I never miss home.
I met fellow WHW people who stopped to chat and ask me where I was stopping. They were a quirky pair, on their way to a WHW reunion, and they nodded and agreed at my choice of staying at Ba Bridge for the night. Phew! The selection was an educated guess among the exposed moors.
At lunchtime I made it to the Bridge of Orchy, just about. I stopped to bubble some water and eat lunch. I made a quick call home and James tried to convince me to quit (along with many messages from my parents trying to tempt me home). But I couldn’t – not for any pain. I can’t have spent 5 days walking to quit now. I only had 2.5 days left until the finish.
The day now was big puffy clouds with cracks of blue. The sun would find a gap every now and again. The path led away from the mountainous hills – the ones showing their age with rivers wrinkling their faces. The yellowing grass around their necks was the colour of mustard.
The old military roads that were like rocky popcorn took me though a forest. The smell of pine was so strong and fresh it was like someone had cleaned their teeth in my nose. Golden yellow and green grasses sprang up out of red weed carpeting the sides – all the colours and smells of Christmas. Up and up it went, over Mam Carraigh. The pain in my feet ruined the staggering views. Annoyingly, the route has to go around Loch Tulla, which feels as if you’re going an extra long way around. I counted down to Victoria Bridge where I allowed myself a break and tea.
It was about 4pm and I was keen to arrive at Ba Bridge around six to give me time to set up and eat dinner with daylight. Plus, the quicker I got there, the quicker I could stop walking! 4.5 miles in 2 hours – boy it hurt. Listening to music helped to distract me. Saw the same three German lads a few times – we all complained about the rocky road and how crippling it was.
The skies were bluer now and the sun was getting syrupy. The land, or should I say, moor, was boggy and I was relieved to find Ba Bridge more doable for camping. Equally glad of more than one spot too because someone else had driven down the track from in front and set up camp. I was hidden from them by some birch trees, all flitting with silver petals. It was cold out there and I was desperate not to be on my feet. But the ground gave me a soggy ass. But the sunset was peaches and cream, and the sound of rushing water through crags of rock, lulled me to sleep.
11 am – Walk 3 miles to Inversnaid.
Midday – each lunch and walk 7 miles to Invernan and camp.
Lunch: Wrap, chorizo and babybel
Camping dinner: Cheesy pasta in a mug
It was nice to wake up late with no need to pack a tent and with a short walking day ahead. Bothy Pete slept badly, falling off his mat throughout the night. He built another fire, bringing in a ‘faggot’ of twigs (his words, not mine – the official term apparently). I made tea on the fire. It was surreal, like stepping back in time.
I went down to the lake to wash my hair. The lake was soapy with fog. It drizzled, but the still, drifting quiet was like magic. The glassy water didn’t have a single imperfection. After pouring the first pan of water a little down my back, I decided to strip down a bit and just grit my teeth. But the water wasn’t as cold as I’d expected it to be. And if I’d of had the right kit, I’d of loved to have taken a swim.
Bothy Pete went down later for a swim and I was pretty jealous, and when he came back he’d had a change of heart. He’d been tempted to stay at the bothy because of the rain, but nope – he was going to do The WHW now. Hooray! I started to pack and found a hole in a bag of almonds and fruit with half the contents missing. Vermin! That would explain all the odd noises in the night and why my map was covered in dirt despite being on the table. Ugh! I wiped everything down with anti-bac wipes and took care sterilizing pots etc. Most of me and my gear dried out by the crackling fire.
I said my goodbyes to the Bothy and Pete, and left at midday in the dregs of the rain. Bothy-Pete was going to leave later. The Way was hairy – subsidence, stairs of rock or black roots and a few sheer drops. But I finally made it to Inversaid to see a huge, waterfall beating down the rocks. I ate lunch looking out at the loch and mountains, sock and shoes off, naturally. The sun pushed the clouds apart . The day was warm and sticky. My little toe was better than yesterday, so far, since I popped the blister on it. I decided to keep my boots loose for now.
From then on, the walk was MAGNIFICENT. I saw five toads (one small red one), and a family of startled goats. I scrambled about the rocks at Rob Roys cave (bit tricky). And when the sun really blazed, I took an afternoon break on a beach and dipped my feet hoping the cold water would help sooth them. The weather was like something you could eat or would want to roll around in. The loch was as blue as the sky. We could have been somewhere entirely different. Painful feet are more manageable with views like that.
As I waited for my feet to dry, I started to write up notes on yesterday when I heard my name. Bothy Pete had caught up! He was dripping, and it’s no wonder. He didn’t leave until 1.30pm and had done 5 miles in under 2 hours with all that weight on his back. I’m surprised he didn’t come a cropper in any of the waterfalls that run over the path – there are only a few wet stepping stones that get you across.
We soaked in the sun before I set off before him again, crunching along the path. The land flattened out before the end of Loch Lomond. Bothy Pete caught up again, and we slipped and skidded over a muddy mess of a path that was impossible to find. But Pete’s the sort of person who doesn’t avoid puddles or mud, but goes straight through them. I just fall in them – and now I’m covered in mud. But at least both of us had slipped in waterfalls earlier.
We finally found Doune Bothy but it was locked. We knocked and knocked but there was nothing. Although I needed to push on to Invernan, I decided I wanted to stay for one night on a loch-side beach. Despite the cloud of midges that followed my head, it was worth it. Not being able to stop walking to avoid the cloud, was worth it. Slapping my face to swat them, was worth it. The sunset was a carnival – luminescent candy floss pulled across the sky and loch.
I stuck my head out of my tent at 9.30pm, and found the midges had fallen back. The clear night sky was like looking at a reflection of the world from space – cities and cities of light. There were so many stars that I couldn’t find a single constellation. A bright, chalky shooting star scratched across the sky, and there were odd patches of semi-darkness covering parts of the sky – not quite cloud or anything I could see – just a black haze. There was an odd glow about the sky above the lake too. I didn’t find out until the next day that the Northern Lights might be the reason.
Never forget to look up. It makes everything worthwhile – even the sore, numb, tingling feet as I lay in my tent at night. I’d hear the same lines in days to come from another walker – never forget to look up.