Two Wee Adventurers

Rediscovering the great outdoors with a little one

Category: Solo Walking Adventures

Camping and Camaraderie on the West Highland Way

Although all of my long distance walking exploits to date have been solo affairs, they’ve been consistently characterised by the people I’ve met. Walking the West Highland Way (WHW) was no exception. In fact it was even more so. It’s a deservedly popular trail, attracting around 40,000 walkers a year, from all over the world and of all ages and abilities. In fact the trail felt so busy, even at the beginning of the season in early April, that there were times I found myself longing for a bit of solitude!

Enjoying a spot of solitude on Rannoch Moor

The West Highland Way traverses 96 miles from Milngavie, a short distance out of Glasgow, to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. It’s well signposted, easy to navigate and follows maintained paths, old military roads and forest tracks. Despite the dramatic mountain scenery, it’s a mostly lowland route. But although there are only a few hills and high passes to negotiate, the route’s challenges shouldn’t be underestimated; underfoot the conditions are solid and rocky all the way, so although you barely get your boots dirty, your feet and legs take a constant pounding. As my feet developed multiple blisters, despite my well worn-in and normally extremely comfortable boots, I dreamt of nice soft grassy sections to cushion my feet (which never materialised).

Rocky Road: Crossing Rannoch Moor on the military road.

Looking back from the top of the Devil’s Staircase, the highest point on the WHW.

I walked the route over six and a half days bedding down in a mixture of official camp sites and wild camping spots. The first afternoon’s walking, from Milngavie to Drymen passed in a gentle ramble with just one minor incident as I leaped down an embankment to pop for a toilet stop, not realising it was choked with old brambles. My legs got badly scratched, I got a thorn embedded in my finger and it took me a good ten minutes to extricate myself from the tangle. Toilet breaks presented a continual hazard along the way. The route was so well used that I’d be about to jump behind a bush when another walker would appear over the horizon or startle me from behind. Even when there were no walkers in sight there were instances where I’d be surprised by a mountain biker or trail runner materialising from the ether.

Beach front wild camp on the “bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond”

A wet and windy wild camp on Day 5

Local dog walkers from Milngavie stopped me to ask if I was ‘doing the whole thing’. On other long distance walks people have enquired about what I was doing or where I was walking but whereas usually, from afar I just assumed the identity of a Small Girl with a Big Rucksack. Now I was singled out as a West Highland Way Walker, like having been accepted into membership of an exclusive club. Given that you could be 99.9% guaranteed that anyone else you passed sporting a large backpack (as well as many of those carrying smaller backpacks) were also walking the WHW, it was easy to start up a conversation with a fellow walker which often turned into a couple of hours of chat if they were walking in the same direction.

Small Girl with a Big Rucksack transformed into West Highland Way Walker.

I pitched up my tent the first night on a tiny patch of sorry looking grass at Drymen Camping, alongside a father and teenage son walking the Way. Most people walk a similar average distance each day and congregate at the same centres of accommodation in the evenings so you tend to reconnect with the same people throughout the week, which definitely lends a spirit of camaraderie to your walk.

The relative peace and quiet of early mornings and evenings are usually my favourite times for walking and it’s often a couple of hours before I meet other walkers. Not so on the WHW. Day 2 and less than a mile into the walk I’m passed by several Way Walkers with small packs. I pass a group of guys from Germany wild camping, brushing their teeth in the middle of the trail. A mile on and I passed a group of Nepalese guys camping in the forest. They’d overtake me as I stopped for a break, then as they stopped, I’d overtake them. I met a fit talkative retired lady walking it for the second time, a mother and her 14 year old son visiting from Australia and a Scottish gentleman who had wanted all his life to do the WHW, had been training since last August and lost an amazing four stone of weight in the process. I passed a guy from Quebec walking to Africa and a John O’ Groats to Lands End Walker called Pete, who grew up just a few miles away from me in South Wales. It wasn’t just walkers on the West Highland Way either, it’s also a popular route for running and biking. On day 2 as I reached the first hilly bit of the Way, the summit of Conic Hill, I met a couple of cyclists. Not rugged looking mountain bikers that I was to meet later along the trail, but a couple of world travellers, originally from California and most recently living in the Netherlands. They already looked weary pushing up their heavily loaded touring bikes along the trail. I thought of them over the next couple of days and how they would have transported those bikes down the steep steps on the other side of Conic Hill or over the craggy walking hugging the east side of Loch Lomond. Trail runners out training for longer races stopped to chat and I fleetingly (and only fleetingly) thought it might be a fun challenge to run the West Highland Way one day. With such a variety of interesting people to meet, on more than one occasion I got waylaid by the side of the trail chatting for over an hour. The only group of people conspicuous by their absence were solo female campers. Where were all the single ladies??!

Single lady. One of the only ones!

Stopping to check out the Doune Byre Bothy, where I ended up spending an hour by the fire chatting to Mike who was on an extended walking trip.

Hanging out with a group of well spoken, retired bikers in front of the Buachille Etive Mor.

The lovely Pete from Wales, a week into his walk from John O’ Groats to Land’s End.

Recent regulations forbid wild camping on the shores of Loch Lomond and at the National Park visitor centre I was advised I required a permit (£3 per person per night) to camp in a designated wild camping area (an area with no facilities what so ever, it’s ‘authentic’ wild camping but you pay for the privilege) and warned that a park ranger would be out on patrol in the evening so to keep my permit number accessible. I camped alone and didn’t see a soul the entire evening, ranger or otherwise, and later I spoke with others who had camped at a spot in the area, suggested to them by the local policeman. As long as you’re away from the road a bit, I suspect no-one will bother you providing you follow sensible wild camping etiquette and leave no trace. With nowhere flat and clear in the designated wild camping area to pitch even my tiny one person tent I spent half an hour removing small pieces of glass from the shore, rigging up a pitch with the guy lines held by stones. I watched the moon drift over Loch Lomond and settled down to a quiet night.

Trying to pitch the tent with stones on Loch Lomond. Thank goodness it wasn’t wet or windy overnight.

It was a bit of a gamble with the weather to walk at the beginning of April, and most nights I was togged up wearing all my clothes to keep warm, but at least evening camps were blissfully and gratefully midge-free. After a few days of nothing more sinister than cloud, the forecast for Day 5 predicted a wet and windy afternoon and overnight, which coincided with my crossing of Rannoch Moor. The magical reputation of Rannoch Moor had entranced me for some time and was the stretch of the Way I had been most looking forward to. It didn’t disappoint. My guidebook described it as “a point as far away from civilisation as anywhere else on the Way, and in poor weather conditions it can be one of the most inhospitable places in Scotland”. So on the day when a storm was forecast I decided to wild camp right in the middle of it. Well, actually I was persuaded by a guy who worked at the camp site at Tyndrum (who was an experienced winter camper and mountaineer). He advised me on a good spot to camp and assured me that my good quality tent, yet to be tested in high winds, would hold up just fine. I spent the morning’s walking in a state of mild anxiousness about the night ahead but as the day wore on the excitement about the prospect of a solitary wild camp at “one of the most inhospitable places in Scotland” eclipsed any of my earlier disquiet. I failed to reach my intended camp spot before the onset of heavy rain and as the storm whipped up I caught up with the father and son team I’d ‘relay tagged’ throughout the week. They were thoroughly fed up, despite being destined for a dry, snug night in a camping pod at the Glencoe Mountain Resort and looked at me in disbelief when, reaching my proposed camp beside an isolated ruin of a sheiling, I waved them goodbye with a smile and a cheer as they continued, hoods up and heads bowed into the wind. I wasted no time in pitching my tent (double checking the security of the guy lines) then performed the difficult manoeuvre required to extricate myself from my waterproofs and limbo into my tiny tent without soaking everything else. I was thankful for the of the flask of hot tea I’d prepared that morning as I snuggled down into my sleeping bag with a good book to warm up and wait out the storm, accompanied by a rather noisy soundtrack provided by the wind, rain and turbulent river.

Interesting looking weather brewing up ahead.

A wet afternoon walking but still with a smile on my face.

Storm clouds passing overhead.

What a view to wake up to after a stormy night on Rannoch Moor.

After a stormy night of tossing and turning (due to pain in my legs and feet as much as the weather conditions), I awoke to a calm, bright morning, the most spectacular of my walk. There was the small personal achievement of surviving the night but this was eclipsed by Rannoch Moor laid out in all it’s splendour before me. I savoured an hour or two of silent activity, washing in the river, brewing tea and reading a book before the first of the new day’s walkers appeared on the horizon. An hour later and the now steady stream of walkers made me anxious to get going and cover the distance to Kinlochleven via the ascent of the Devils Staircase, the highest part on the WHW.

Beautiful Buachaille Etive Mor.

Head down through the Lairigmor pass.

I woke to heavy rain on my final morning, which poured consistently for the entire day. I kept my head down, now focussed more on finishing than on appreciating the dramatic mountain scenery of the exposed Lairigmor shrouded in mist. After the descent into Glen Nevis and the dispiriting trudge alongside the road and through the pedestrianised high street of Fort William I realised I couldn’t spot a single other walker and felt the panic of sudden separation from my tribe. Arriving at the sculpture of a weary walker that fittingly marks the end of the Way I was somewhat downcast to find myself alone. At the finishing line of a race there’s fanfare and family waiting to congratulate you and other competitors milling around with whom to share the experience. At the finale of a long distance walking trail there is nothing except a small plaque if you’re lucky. I wandered around, forlorn, looking out for another Walker to materialise and to share our achievement, or even perhaps a loitering tourist whom I could ask to take a photo to commemorate the occasion. But failing that I turned on my heel and walked away, already mourning the fact that I was a West Highland Way Walker no more.

The only other Walker around at the end of the West Highland Way.

Memories of sunnier days when I was still a WHW Walker.

Southern Scotland’s Secret Hills

Last Sunday afternoon I escaped alone to the Lowther Hills. I’ve not explored this overlooked but extensive area of hill country in the Southern Uplands of Scotland nearly as much as I’d like. On the occasional days when I don’t have the wee one in tow, I don’t have the car either so I’m restricted to walks more easily accessible by the limited public transport. So despite the grey, overcast afternoon, the usual Scottish damp chill in the air and the cold from which I was recovering, I was excited to be heading for the hills.

To reach my starting point I took a road I’d never been down before, a narrow single track that at one point went under a railway bridge so narrow there was a turning circle before reaching it and a sign urging vehicles to turn back. I braved it in our small hatchback (only after stopping and checking the map, and watching another car turn around) but if I’d been in a modern SUV I probably would have scraped the sides! I parked up at the side of No Through road servicing a reservoir and passed through an extensive farm dwelling that was eerily quiet. As I tramped through saturated fields I was led by a heron, then a hare that I followed away from the fields and up a valley to the moorland edge. The summit of the hill I was aiming for was shrouded in mist as I followed a circuitous route on the track of an ancient Roman road.

I love walking in the Lowther Hills. Most people will never have even heard of them. They are generally low and rounded but offer extensive views across Southern Scotland. The approach to them them feels like entering another world and there is a feeling of remoteness that is difficult to find elsewhere. They have a bleak wildness and beauty that I find alluring but they are overlooked by tourists and hill walkers who drive right through up the M74 en route to the ‘real’ mountains further north. Even on a beautiful summer weekend I’ve had these hills to myself and yet again, on this occasion I didn’t see a soul. The fact that mine were the only (human) tracks in the snow meant that I was the only person to have walked that way since the snow fell the night before, probably a lot longer. It wouldn’t always have been so. This is an area rich in Roman history, and there is evidence of their efforts to seize Scotland in the form of remains of Roman forts and fortlets, ditches and ramparts and Roman roads through the many passes.

As I followed in the Romans’ footsteps and passed over the snowline it became a little slippery underfoot but the presence of tracks in the snow revealed the normally hidden world and lives of myriad animals. Close to the summit the mist cleared, giant wind turbines loomed out of the mist and the Lowthers rewarded me with 360 degree views, distant features highlighted in the late afternoon winter light. I retraced my steps (easy to do in the snowy landscape and as mine were the only footprints!) and drove the half hour home feeling like I was returning from a venture into a secret world.

Blowing Away the January Blues

As a popped into an art gallery and café near the station in Berwick-Upon-Tweed to kill time while I waited for a train to take me north and home, the owner looked me up and down in my muddy boots and sizeable rucksack and asked incredulously “why on earth would you want to go walking at this time of year?” Well, I guess there’s the ethereal light, the quiet paths and beaches, the plentiful accommodation (most offering special deals) and the chance to soak up plenty of mood-boosting daylight at the darkest time of the year while working off some of the Christmas excesses. Or, as I replied to the gentleman in the café, your husband and son decided to go and stay with granny for a few days at short notice and you’ve got to seize every opportunity you can get.

That is how I found myself just over a week ago planning a last minute walk 50 miles along the Northumberland Coast Path. For a day I toyed with where to walk, considering the West Highland Way (not enough time), the Allerdale Ramble in the Lake District (too difficult for me to reach by public transport), the Cateran Trail in Perth and Angus (would require winter walking equipment and more organisation) and St Cuthbert’s Way (I’d already promised to walk it with a friend later in the year). Although I’m more of a rugged cliffs than gentle dunes kind of girl, walking the Northumberland Coast Path would be easy to organise, offers plenty of accommodation, is easy access by bus and train and I wouldn’t need to equip myself with an ice axe or crampons. I also already had a guidebook and map that covered the path, which coincides with part of the St Oswald’s Way, the first half of which I walked a couple of years ago.

Apart from one day of walking where the route directs you inland around Budle Bay and the Fenham Flats it’s mostly gentle walking at low altitude so I expected it to be an easy stroll. But then I hadn’t expected a gale to hit from the north west that made my progress depressingly slow (I was headed north west). It did give my cheeks a warm rosy red glow though and I worked up quite a sweat despite the cold temperatures.

If I was seeking peace, quiet and solitude, I certainly got it. Apart from dog walkers on the most accessible beaches and when passing through towns and villages, I barely saw a soul. On day 3, which took me inland from Bamburgh and over moorland before descending back to the coast at Holy Island I didn’t meet a single person in 15 miles, except for when I passed through the town of Belford. In my first night’s accommodation in a small village inland of Craster I was the only person in residence, and aside from the alcoholic brother of the landlady, the only person drinking in the bar (just a half pint mind). As for the scenery, the wide, sweeping coastal vistas, which I mostly had to myself didn’t disappoint, nor the imposing silhouettes of castles brooding on the headlands.

Apart from the very windy conditions and a moment of excitement near the town of Bedford, where I had to use a special phone to call the railway signalman to check it was safe to cross the East Coast Mainline, the walk was fairly uneventful. But if I was seeking to blow away the post-Christmas blues, I can’t imagine a better way to do so, quite literally!

One Wee Adventurer: 100 miles backpacking on the South West Coast Path

My love affair with solo long distance walking began just a couple of years ago. In five days I walked the Great Glen Way from Fort William to Inverness  staying in hostels and B&Bs on the way. I’d always enjoyed walking but had never before walked particularly far or over several days. After that first, fairly gentle introduction, I’ve discovered I can manage just fine walking 15-20 miles a day for a week with a backpack and tent, camping along the way. It’s become addictive and I find myself while out for a walk with Finn, daydreaming as I spy an unknown footpath leading off up a hill and wish I could follow it to see where it goes. Instead I slow down, look back at my son and encourage him along, hoping that in another year I’ll get the opportunity for a week long walk again.

Following the path to see where it goes... In this case, up!

Following the path to see where it goes…

This year it was dramatic cliffs and salty air that called to me and after evenings reading my inspirational ‘The UK Trailwalker’s Handbook’ I settled on walking the first 100 miles of the South West Coast Path, which in it’s entirety stretches 630 miles around the indented coastlines of Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. Feeling more confident after having completed a few long distance walks and given the ample facilities along the route I’d done very little preparation for this trip, aside from booking my trains and taking a cursory look at camp sites.

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Lulled to sleep by the sound of the waterfall at Lynmouth

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Walking boots off, sandals on and time for a cuppa

As I set out on the 10 hour journey south I looked forward to exchanging the cloudy skies of South Lanarkshire for the sunny climes of Devon. I obviously have a jaded preconception of the weather in the south as I spent the first two days wet, but feeling right at home, after continual, heavy rain. I had a couple of soggy, mildly unpleasant nights camping, yet, while I was walking, I embraced the rain. It was freeing to be outside with all my senses alive to the natural world and to have miles of wooded coastline all to myself as the torrents of rain had scared everyone else away.

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Wet, but who cares with scenery like this… when you could see it

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Valley of the Rocks. It was so wet even the wild goats looked miserable as they tried seeking shelter

My journey didn’t start so well. I was almost stranded in Taunton train station when the driver of the last busy bus to Minehead refused my Scottish five pound note. “We only accept pounds” he said curtly and turned away. “But these are pounds”, I replied. “Look, it even says ‘Pounds Sterling’ on the note!” I appealed to the queue of women behind me who backed me up but he wouldn’t so much take a further glance at my note and our exchange continued going round in circles for several minutes as I started to get more and more frustrated. I appealed once more to the queue and one of the women kindly paid my £4 bus fare. I was thankful and relieved but my exchange with the bus driver left me shaking with rage, despite my futile attempts at deep breathing and trying to enjoy the journey. Thankfully, this was the only negative experience I had and the rest of my journey was filled with the friendly, life-affirming encounters that I’ve experienced on every solo walk I’ve done so far.

I chose the scenic route...

I chose the scenic route…

The first stretch of the footpath is rugged coastline, alternately open and wooded with deep clefts entailing steep climbs and descents. Climbing out of Minehead towards Porlock felt like steeping into another world, dominated by verdant, dripping woodland and drooping creeper plants. Combined with the humid weather, the mist (which looked like rising clouds of steam) and the lack of people (I didn’t see another soul for hours), I felt like an intrepid explorer trekking through virgin rainforest. The strenuous ascents fuelled my appetite and by 10.30am, I’d eaten all the snacks I’d brought for lunch. Every so often, there’d be a gap through the trees where I’d be treated to a view of one wooded headland after another, capped by a top of mist. It was magical. I startled a red deer which loped gracefully away and then I caught up with it again twenty minutes later. All was quiet except for the rain dripping off leaves and the occasional chirruping and rustling of birds in the undergrowth. The spell was broken when I arrived at the quaint little hamlet of Bossington but with it’s charming thatched architecture, so different from that of Scotland it continued to feel like I was somewhere exotic. Arriving soon after in Porlock I felt the closest I’ll probably ever come to being a celebrity when a local woman on hearing of my lone escapades proceeded to introduce me to everyone we met walking through the village, including the local policeman.

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A glimpse of mist covered, wooded slopes

Aside from the stunning scenery, the characters I met are what made the walk special and this has been a feature of all the solo treks I’ve done. On a daily basis I made connections, heard interesting stories and shared personal conversations with people I met. Until his fast pace defeated me, I walked for a while with a retired ex-army officer who disclosed how his perspectives had changed when 6 years ago he received a letter from one of his identical twin daughters explaining she was trans-gender. I sat and drank tea and mused over the meaning of life with a Swiss couple visiting Clovelly and I stood talking for over an hour to an unemployed south Londoner who had been walking vaguely round the coastline for over 6 weeks week with no map, sleeping wild. And as always I was asked over and over again… “Was I travelling alone?” “Didn’t my husband mind?” “Wasn’t I lonely?” “Was I afraid?” Yes, on some occasions I was afraid, but always as a result of my over active imagination as opposed to any real threat. Of course, real threats exist; we hear plenty of bad news and horror stories through the media. However television and newspapers seldom report on the kindness, generosity and feelings shared by the majority of people. On a previous walk along The Cumbria Way I was one day invited in to the home of a retired couple for tea, cake and a chat and the next day, in a café at the end of my walk, I had my meal paid for me anonymously by a stranger.

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Sun, sea and sand at last!

The sun comes out at last and I'm the only one waking the beach with a huge backpack

The sun comes out at last and I’m the only one waking the beach with a huge backpack

After three days of walking the landscape changed and I exchanged the wilder hills and cliffs of Exmoor for the wide expanse of beaches that North Devon is well known for. The type of tourists changed too, from middle age walking and wildlife enthusiasts to surf dudes and bucket and spade wielding families. The character of the camp sites was also notably different and I got a few quizzical looks as I pitched up my tiny solo backpacking tent between the huge static caravans at Woolacombe. I turned down the free bingo and entertainment and opted instead for the best entertainment there is; watching turn the sky red as the sun set behind Lundy Island.

 

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Apart from the dull grey skies, this scenery could be straight out of Jurassic Park

Nearly everyone I met advised me to take a bus around the next stretch of flat walking around the estuaries between Saunton and Westward Ho!. The landscapes weren’t as dramatic as the Exmoor coastline, or as stunning as the sweeping beaches, but the small settlements I passed through had a character all of their own that made the otherwise monotonous miles worthwhile. I had trouble communicating to those not walking that taking a bus would defeat the point of a journey on foot. Following a linear route in it’s entirety at walking pace you experience the changing of the cultural landscape and geography in a way that you don’t appreciate when you’re being whisked along in a car. My destination was arbitrary. It was the journey that was the experience and the knowledge that it’d be my own self-reliance getting me there.

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The brightly coloured, historic village of Appledore

My final evening’s walking was the best of all. It was the end of a long 23 mile day, the sun was out, the evening light was enchanting and I was enjoying rugged cliffs once again with a view to the cascading village of Clovelly. Another backpacker had informed me of a tiny, basic camp site, half a mile inland of the coast path, that wasn’t marked on any map. There was only myself and a couple of other campers and after pitching up I doubled back to the coast to watch the sun setting out over the ocean and daydream about just carrying on and following the path ahead.

Idyllic last nights camp.

Idyllic last nights camp.

 

Beautiful Clovelly. A fine place to end my walk and even better, if you hike in you avoid the £7 entry fee

Beautiful Clovelly. A fine place to end my walk and even better, if you hike in you avoid the £7 entry fee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life at three miles an hour: Thoughts and experiences of a walk across Scotland

‘If the mind like the feet works at about 3mph, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness’ (Rebecca Solnit)

“Leave your bags by the door, don’t pet the cat, he’s a wildcat and doesn’t take kindly to strangers, and now, tell me you’re voting yes for independence? I hope so. You’ll watch the debate with me tonight”. I hadn’t even stepped through the door or uttered a word as I was welcomed thus at my first night’s accommodation. I was on a traverse of the Great Glen Way, an almost 80 mile walking trail in the north of Scotland, from Fort William and the Atlantic Ocean in the West to Inverness and the North Sea in the East.

I had always dreamt of walking, for days on end, not only the sense of adventure at the prospect of ending up somewhere entirely different from where I started, but the journey itself, the getting from A to B. When walking, or being in the outdoors in general, the practicalities of life are simplified, down to when to rest, what to eat and where to sleep. You start out walking, a bit clumsily at first, then strike a rhythm and your mind begins to wander in time with your step. In fact it becomes an almost meditative experience (as long as the blisters aren’t too painful) and you arrive at your destination, tired, but with a clearer mind. Time spent walking out of doors is uncluttered time. Unfortunately, such uncluttered time is becoming rarer than ever before, as increasingly, ‘time spent ‘meandering’ is deplored as a waste, reduced, and it’s remainder filled with earphones and playing music and mobile phones relaying conversation’ (Solnit 2014). So let us reclaim our uncluttered time. Walking is an antidote to the speed, efficiency and busyness of our post-industrial world, and it’s an activity that’s widely accessible. It’s simple, it costs almost nothing and for the most part it doesn’t require any special equipment, training or expertise.

At age 16, I made plans, together with a couple of friends, to walk the Pembrokeshire Coast Path in West Wales, but when one of our trio dropped out, our anxious parents forbid the remaining pair of us from going. I lost sight of my walking aspirations somewhere through the years of university, meeting my husband and starting a family. Until two summers ago. My husband offered to take our son away to visit his grandparents for five days, leaving me behind to give me a break (very welcome after almost four years of attachment parenting a highly sensitive child). I had been planning on heading somewhere quiet and taking it easy for a few days when a friend suggested ‘why not go for a long walk?’ An idea was re-born. A chance to honour the dream I had at 16. Unfortunately, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path would take two weeks to walk so I looked for something shorter and closer to home and decided on The Great Glen Way.

“You’ll be going with your pals then?” questioned my next door neighbour, “You’re surely not going… alone?! It’s not safe for a woman on her own, the world’s full of nutters…”. I forget whether or not I pointed out to my neighbour that it would be some ‘nutter’ indeed who would lay in wait somewhere several miles from a road in rural Scotland, in the rain, in peak midge season (if you’ve ever tried remaining in a single spot in a still, damp, forest in Scotland in August, you’ll know what I mean) on the off-chance they would happen upon a lone female on a long walk. His comments reminded me that we live in a ‘fear-gripped society’, as a friend of mine refers to it. One facet of this, fuelled by the media, is that we are collectively too scared to let our children, or come to think of it, even ourselves, venture out alone any more. It’s actually considered a little odd to want to spend time in solitude. I was frequently asked why on earth I wanted to walk on my own and wasn’t I lonely? For the record, no I wasn’t. As I heard someone say once ‘if I don’t like my own company, why should anybody else?’ Exactly! And anyway, such an experience offers a great opportunity to get to know oneself a lot better. Solitary experiences can be trans-formative, can increase real self-confidence, self-belief and self-reliance.

So, on a mild and fairly sunny day in early August I said goodbye to my boys, took a train North and disembarked at Fort William. Finally I was alone, for the first time in a long time and I felt at peace. Almost instantly I felt alive, refreshed and content. My first day of walking was no less than wonderful, along the tow path of the Caledonian Canal to the head of Loch Lochy, where spurred on by my sense of freedom, I strode into the loch for a refreshing (read: very, very cold) dip in my underwear. Not something, I might add, I would have done on an ordinary day back home, but I must have been spurred on by my new sense of freedom. (I also happened to be reading about the wild swimming adventures of Roger Deakin in his book Waterlog). By the late afternoon I had arrived at my first nights accommodation and after that initial welcome, I quickly warmed to my wonderful host. By the time I left the following morning, later than planned after talking together for two and a half hours at breakfast, I found I had disclosed more to this lady I had known for all of an evening than I had to some friends and family over the course of years.

These instances of social connection became a feature of my walk and the walks I’ve done since. There were parts of my journey when I didn’t see a soul for several hours. Yet, I was struck by the contrast between, on the one hand, the solitude of solo walking and on the other hand, the depth and intensity of conversations with people I met. There is an irony in travelling alone that you tend to be more open and inviting to opportunities to engage with strangers. A large backpack is always a good conversation starter. People are intrigued to hear what you’re doing, where you’re going, why a young girl like me is wandering about on her own in the woods… (I’m in my late thirties and a mother, but will take this as a compliment.) You tell your own stories and listen to the, more often than not, fascinating stories of others. I think sometimes it’s easier to open up to strangers, there’s no history between you and you’ll probably never meet again in the future, so the conversation exists in and for the present moment.

My first meaningful encounter occurred not more than 6 miles from where I started. I’d stopped for lunch at a picturesque spot and taken the last picnic table, which a couple in their late fifties on bikes were also making for. They asked to sit with me and we struck up conversation, that was still in full swing an hour later. We discussed ‘island hopping’ in Scotland, writing children’s books, post-natal depression and their second marriage. It was refreshing, the in-depth and sensitive conversation it was possible to have a couple who, an hour earlier, were complete strangers. I never fail to come away from encounters such as these feeling uplifted. After a conversation, those ‘strangers’ (or possible ‘nutters’?) became individuals, no longer belonging to something ‘unknown’. I think of all the conflicts that could be resolved if we only took time to listen to the human-scale stories of our ‘enemies’ and if they listened to ours.

I also met people who inspired me, the young woman from Toronto who had been travelling and hiking for the past year with nothing more than her 40 litre rucksack, the family; mum, dad, a girl of about 13, her younger brother and two dogs, all walking the Way shouldering huge packs, the retired couple who were trail walking veterans and the solo male, new to long distance walking, who had 9 years ago sold up and moved with his young family to Eastern Europe where they stayed for 5 years.

Walking inspires a sense of connection. There’s the connection with others and ourselves, but also a sense of connection and continuity with nature, landscape, culture and history. Parts of the walk followed old drove roads, used to herd livestock from the Highlands and Islands to markets in the south. Long distance walks often follow historical monuments or an historical idea or figure and as you retrace an ancient byway your mind starts wandering back in time. What did the landscape look like, who were the people who populated this terrain? What happened? Why did they disappear? The Great Glen Way passes canals, old canal side houses, locks and bridges, dismantled railways, military roads, castles, burial sites, whisky stills and abandoned croft houses.

The final day was the most tiring of the trip, and the longest distance. I had read that about half way through the day I would come across a café, and after a few hours of walking I crossed a narrow road and came to a sign ‘Café 1 mile’. I followed it up a narrow, winding, single track path through a new woodland plantation and at steady intervals, haphazardly painted on long slivers of wood were signs reading ‘ bovril’, ‘ovaltine’, ‘real teas’, ‘coffee’. I’d certainly worked up an appetite, (though not for bovril), by the time I reached a clearing and the small jumble of hand-built buildings. Rustic, eccentric, off-grid and guarded by four husky-crosses, a brood of chickens and an overly friendly free range pig. There were a few tables joined in a row under a makeshift roof, attached to the house the owners built themselves around the windows which had been given to them. It was certainly a great spot for meeting other walkers, after all, you would have had to have been walking to even stumble across the place, and here I met a lady from Orkney, a couple from Copenhagen and two young men from the Netherlands, the latter who had just completed a traverse of the West Highland Way, a longer and more challenging hike, and had decided to just keep walking.

It was on the final few miles that the pain and exhaustion really started to kick in, just as the end was in sight. The final descent into Inverness seemed to take forever and I hobbled along in a trance. I have to admit, the moment I reached the castle and the official end to the walk, it felt a bit of an anti-climax, no fanfare, no one waiting to congratulate me, but then this wasn’t about pomp and ceremony, it was something altogether deeper, and anyway I was hooked on this trail walking lark and couldn’t wait to plan my next long(ish) solitary walk.

So what attracts me to solo walking? The serendipitous experiences, facing the unknown, the new perspective, the self-reliance, the freedom, the chance to air your thoughts as well as exercise your body, the almost meditative state of being when you find your stride. During and after the walk, I felt contentment, satisfaction, a sense of personal achievement and an overall feeling of gratitude. It was sacred thinking time and a pause for contemplation and reflection. As Robyn Davidson, who trekked 1,700 mile track across desert the Australian desert, put it, ‘I had dredged up things that I had no idea existed. People, faces, names, places, feelings, bits of knowledge, all waiting for inspection. It was a giant cleansing of all the garbage and muck that had accumulated in my brain, a gentle catharsis. And because of that, I suppose, I could now see much more clearly into my present relationships with people and with myself. And I was happy, there is simply no other word for it‘. Yes, I was happy too.

And so I’ve just returned from a short stroll down by the river near where I stay. The air was fresh, the snow lingering and not a soul was about, just the sounds of the gurgling river, the calls of the birds, the crunch of snow under my boots and the faint sound of a car motor. I’d been sat at my desk and needed to clear my head, to see the wider picture. I didn’t need to walk 80 miles to find that quiet peaceful state. I would welcome the opportunity for longer solitary walks but with a wee person at home, they will be few and far between. Yet, a day walk or the short snatches of time where I’m able to head off for a walk alone are treasured as opportunities to clear my mind of the constant chatter inside my head and the constant chatter of a little one and I let my thoughts wander unhindered.

References

Solnit, Rebeccah (2014) Wanderlust: A History of Walking

A version of this article was originally published in Starflower Living Magazine Issue12/May 18, 2015

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