Day minus #1 & #2
Text contributed by Simon
Friday – Castles, curry and Donald Trump
Scotland is far, far away from Ipswich. We were going to Torridon in the north-west Highlands, described by Bob as ’50 miles past the arse-end of nowhere’. Many of us chose to do the long drive over two days. I was part of a group who stayed in Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria on the way up and again on the way back. Sarah, Paula and Bob in one car, and Karen and me in the other. Karen was to be my driver for the week. She was surprisingly patient and didn’t seem to mind whenever I instinctively slammed on my non-existent brake pedal.
Kirkby Stephen Hostel used to be a YHA hostel but is now run independently. It is a former chapel and still retains the old church pews as seating in the lounge and dining area. Like many hostels, it has a selection of board games. Unlike many hostels it also has a massive selection of Duplo building blocks. I found myself on my own in the lounge for a while waiting for the others to get ready. Time to build a castle. When the rest of the group saw me building a castle they found it surprisingly funny. But it was not long before they all joined in. Many of them keen to make their own ‘improvements’. I am not convinced that what we built would conform to current building regs.
Our plan had been to eat out somewhere that night. But Kirkby Stephen was either full or shut. So takeaway curry was our first meal of the holiday, and very tasty it was too. Then it was time to raid the games cupboard. We found Trivial Pursuit, Genus edition from 1984. A fellow guest, a charming American guy with his two daughters, joined the game. We soon discovered that playing individually was no fun at all, so Group Trivial Pursuit was born. Exactly the same game but everybody helps everybody else with the answers. It also had that extra level of complexity because for some of the questions we had to work out what the answer would have been in 1984. Our new American friend kept answering all the questions about America while constantly apologising about Donald Trump.
Saturday – Don’t mention the A9
Time to leave Kirkby Stephen and head to Torridon. Google Maps was our sat-nav for the trip and it announced that there was a hold-up on the A9. While filling up with petrol at Stirling Services, Google Maps suddenly declared the A9 was now clear. But Karen had made up her mind that we would be taking the scenic route. So we ignored Google, waved goodbye to summer and drove north into the drizzle.
We drove along tiny, twisting roads through the villages and countryside. Here we discovered that, in Scotland, once you get off the main roads the terms ‘A-road’ and ‘B-road’ don’t always give you any sort of clue as to the road’s quality or width. A tight corner next to a steep drop caught us slightly by surprise, but Karen managed to very impressively slide the car around it. On the way past I glanced down over the edge and noticed a sign that someone had previously hit. It now stuck out at a jaunty angle and offered the advice ‘Danger of Death’. It was nice to think that any driver who mis-judged that corner would have something to read as they hurtled over the edge.
We carried on through the beautiful, mountainous countryside. Every turn offered yet another stunning view. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were not yet at the ‘good bit’. Could Torridon really be better than this?
We were communicating by text with the other car in our party. Google was mistaken and the A9 was definitely not clear. Our fellow travellers were having the journey from hell and were stuck in a traffic-jam due to what sounded like a particularly nasty car crash. Unaffected by the road snarl-up we continued along our little back-roads and joined the A9 way beyond the point of the hold-up. We commented at the time that there was not much traffic about.
It was late afternoon when we took the turn into the valley that lead to Torridon. The sky was clear, the rain had stopped and the sun was casting long shadows. Everything we saw looked like it should be on the lid of a box of Scottish Shortbread. The only thing missing was the sound of bagpipes, instead our soundtrack consisted of S-Club 7 and the Spice Girls. ‘Tell me what you want, what you really, really, really want’. Well at that moment I had all I really wanted; Torridon is truly beautiful.
We arrived at Torridon Youth Hostel. A pack of particularly aggressive midges had been lying in wait and they decided to feast on me. We hastily unloaded the car. The rest of our group arrived throughout the evening, all of them sharing their frustration about the A9 traffic jam. I have already mentioned Scottish A-roads and B-roads. I got the distinct impression that many of our group wanted the A9 re-classified as an ‘F-road’.
We were soon all together, the last to arrive being Colin and Louise at 10.20pm. I wanted to share my first impressions of the drive through the valley into Torridon, but many of us had arrived in darkness and had no idea what I was talking about.
Day #1 – from Torridon YHA to Inveralligin and Alligan Shuas
Text and contributed by Pete; pics by Pete and Simon.
On Saturday 25 Aug, a bunch of intrepid adventurers finished their challenging two-day trek across Britain and began to arrive in dribs and drabs at Torridon. Many tales could be told of their various epic battles, uphill and down dale – Simon had a particularly thorny engagement with a pile of Duplo bricks in Kirkby Stephen – but the final congregation in Torridon Youth Hostel was the start of what is hoped to be a phenomenal Scotland trip, courtesy of Sarah Sheppard.
Many of us woke up, still nursing the scars and memories of bitter feuds caused by being stuck in a metal box for two days straight with our closest friends. After a cautious start to the day, we all came to the conclusion that with the weather looking a little dicey and everyone still feeling somewhat exhausted, that day #1 should probably not involve going too far into the wilderness.
Sarah and Alan led us down the main road, before eventually joining a footpath along the shores of Upper Loch Torridon, which shares the name of the local village and our youth hostel for the first part of the week. After passing a few jetties and watching a speed boat motor up and down the loch, we were starting to wind down from the epic car journey.
Our initial goal was to head over to Inveralligin, a small village further along the loch. It wasn’t long before we were quickly overwhelmed by what we suspect will become a regular feature of our week away – the infamous Scottish midges. Our discussions of various strategies began in earnest, from Avon creams used by the army (allegedly) to the Smidge sprays available in the hostel, all the way up to the full netting headgear. Simon demonstrated this, and ended up looking either like a bank robber or a ninja, depending on how you squint your eyes.
We pushed on towards Alligan Shuas, a small rise, before doubling back on ourselves and climbing back up to the road and heading back to Torridon. We quickly came to the conclusion that looking out for speeding cars was far preferable to swiping constantly to disrupt the swarms of midges. We eventually trudged back to the hostel, bringing the total distance over 12 miles. Considering we were mostly on the flat, this may not sound a huge goal, but lots were learned. By day #2, we were ready to tackle the local wildlife – whatever it threw at us!
Text contributed by Ruth [with inserts by Simon]; pics by Pete, Ruth, Paula and Simon.
Day two and some were ready to walk up a proper ‘lump’ as Alan refers to them. The starter walk along Loch Torridon yesterday had been a taster, but we wanted to get higher.
[The plan was to climb Beinn Damh, apparently pronounced something like ‘Ben Dare’. It is classed as a ‘Corbett’, reaching a height of 903 metres (2,962 feet). The weather forecast claimed that the cloud would lift around the time we aimed to get to the top. – Simon]
Eight of us started at the car park of the luxury Torridon Hotel (resisting the urge to stay put and enjoy a cream tea, we headed up through Ben Damph Forest). The weather was foul to start with and once we left the cover of the trees all our waterproofs were required. It was at this point I suspect some of us were having to remind ourselves we were on holiday!
The route became steeper and underfoot less stable. Soon we were using poles and hands to scramble our way further upwards. Lunch was supposed to have provided a vista across two valleys, but was currently shrouded in mist. Then as we broke out the tupperware, the cloud also began to break. As we continued munching, the views towards the youth hostel and Torridon and over to Skye revealed themselves to be pretty spectacular. Revived by this turn in the weather and some food we continued up the ‘lump’.
The poles and scrambling continued as the path began to disappear and we were grateful for Alan’s expert navigation to steer us forward. After about an hour the author decided to ‘rest’ on a rock and enjoy the scenery leaving the others to make it along the final ridge and up to the peak of Beinn Damh.
[Beinn Damh translates as ‘Hill of the Stag’. We didn’t see a stag but we did find a rather beautiful frog on the way up.
The view from the peak was amazing. Totally clear and we could see for miles. Yet again I was struck by the sheer beauty of Torridon. We basked in the sunshine and optimistically removed waterproof trousers. Reluctantly we re-traced our steps and went back down the way we had come up. The better weather had brought the midges out and as we got further down the hill towards the trees it was time to wear the midge net. – Simon]
After they reached the summit, the IOG Chair then took it upon himself to come looking for the author (i.e. his big sis) and encourage her to at least make it to the next peak to see the views and more importantly not dishonour the Edwards family reputation by quitting too soon 🙂
It was amazing and am thankful he did. Yes, we were tired on the return leg, and probably should have started earlier given half the kitchen crew were in the group, but what an amazing day and a fabulous bunch of people to spend it with. Another successful IOG walk (8 up and 8 down).
[Back at the hostel it was time for the second of our communal meals. Karen and her team served up some tasty fajitas. – Simon]
Day #3 – Tuesday: ‘We almost died!’
Story and pics contributed by Simon
Again the weather forecast was not great. A bit of drizzle, a bit windy and low cloud, or as Alan put it ‘normal for Scotland’. Many of the group decided this would be a good day to do a car safari in search of interesting shops and cafes. The rest chose to do an ‘easy walk’ featured in a leaflet Mike had found – the Beinn Eighe Mountain Trail from the car-park at Loch Maree.
The path headed up steeply through woodland and gained height very quickly. In theory, all we then had to do was walk from cairn to cairn to the top, but it was very rocky and it was easy to miss a cairn in the rain. At one point we all thought we were probably not on the path, and it was only when we had passed the cairn that I noticed it. But we were having fun making our own route at this point, so we carried on scrambling up the rocks instead of heading over to the proper path. I am pleased we went the way we did because it made Mike utter a phrase that became a standing joke for the rest of the trip.
Our route narrowed. We got to a short section with steep rock on one side and a shallow drop on the other down to the water below. We all made it okay and no one was in any real danger, but Mike did keep reminding us that this was nothing like walking in Suffolk and that ‘we almost died!’
We rejoined the path and headed up to Conservation Cairn at 560 metres (1837 feet). This is marked on the map as a viewpoint and on a clear day you can see 31 Munros. It wasn’t a clear day, so we didn’t. We might not have been very high but it had been a great scramble in places.
The rain was now heavier and it was getting very windy. We yomped along the top to where the path turned back down towards the tree-line. We had our lunch at the most sheltered spot we could find. We ate our sandwiches and snacks and the midges ate us. I donned my midge net again, which made eating a bit tricky. We were soon back down at our cars, soaked-through, wind-blown and grateful that Torridon Hostel had a wonderful drying-room.
That evening we told people about our day over a few beers. With each telling the cliff grew steadily larger, the ledge grew narrower and the drop more life-threatening. The only constant in the story was the phrase ‘we almost died!’ Mike spent five minutes having a conversation with a Scottish guest in the hostel lounge, only to return to us and declare that he couldn’t understand a single word that the guy had said.
We all had a meal at the Torridon Hotel that evening.
Day #4 – Wednesday: Over the sea to Skye
Story and pics contributed by Simon
It was time to leave Torridon and head down to the hostel at Ben Nevis. Many of our party took the opportunity to drive over to the Isle of Skye. Our only Scotsman, Ian, suggested Sligachan as a place to meet-up for lunch. Legend has it that if you dip your face for seven seconds in the river water by the Sligachan Bridge, you will be granted eternal beauty. Karen was the only one of our party to do it. My comment of ‘Don’t worry, maybe it takes a while to work’ didn’t go down very well.
Our journey down to our next hostel was again beautiful. We drove past mountains, lochs and waterfalls. We stopped to take pictures of Eilean Donan castle. Later that afternoon we arrived at the hostel at Fort William. It had only recently been renovated and everything was shiny and new. There was talk that evening about the weather forecast. We seemed to do a lot of that on this trip. The next day looked okay but if the Met Office was to be believed, Friday would be wonderful. We decided to tackle Ben Nevis on Friday.
That evening it was time for another game of Trivial Pursuit (again from 1984). As we had found earlier the game is much better when everyone tries to help everyone else. When we were stumped for an answer a quick dash around the seating area would get our fellow hostel guests involved. Some of them were a bit surprised to be asked seemingly random questions about World War 2 poetry.
Day 5# – Glen Nevis
Story contributed by Simon; pics contributed by Paula and Simon
The group split up a bit. Some wanted to do a short walk to conserve energy for Ben Nevis, others wanted to visit distilleries or take cable-car rides. I joined a small group for a walk led by Alan. We headed away from Ben Nevis and looped around a hill called Bidean Bad na h-lolaire before joining the West Highland Way back to the hostel. The forecast had said cloud would drop a bit in the early afternoon, which would mean the summit of Ben Nevis would not be clear. I kept looking over at the mountain during the day to see if that was correct. It was. We walked in great conditions, but our ascent of Ben Nevis the following day promised to be even better.
Alan had warned us that The West Highland Way would be busy. And of course he was right. We stopped to have lunch overlooking a small loch (Lochan Lunn Da Bhra) and watched as a steady stream of Highland Way walkers plodded past. It looked there was a group every 200 metres. After lunch we joined the path, like traffic filtering onto a busy road. The map showed that we should be walking through forest initially, but much of it had been felled. We walked through a landscape of tree stumps and broken branches before heading into the remaining forest.
Back at the hostel I decided to make a meal using only free food that other hostellers had abandoned. ‘Pasta Surprise’ seemed to be a success.
Day #6 – Big Ben Nevis
Text contributed by Simon; pics contributed by Paula, Simon and Colin.
We started the day with a hearty breakfast cooked by Bob and his team of helpers. At nine o’clock we were all ready to go. Ben Nevis stands at 1,345 metres (4,411 feet). It could not be described as a pretty mountain, more like a colossal, ominous slab of rock.
Our ascent began in bright sunshine and under clear blue skies. Conditions were perfect. We could clearly see the lines of walkers already on the path, looking like ants against the massive mountain. Walkers of all shapes and sizes were on the crowded path, including a few dogs. We even saw a Chihuahua being carried to the top in a rucksack.
Navigation was easy; the route is glaringly obvious. The path keeps a fairly constant gradient all the way, with no scrambling at any point. The views were amazing. There is a loch halfway up (Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe), and the water was azure blue and sparkled in the sunshine. The top is not a peak, more a large rock-strewn plateau. There were a lot of people up there, many of them queuing for the obligatory photo round the trig point.
Chairman Peter had carried a bottle of wine and plastic glasses to the top so we could have a celebratory drink at the summit. He also presented Sarah, our trip organiser, with an ‘I climbed Ben Nevis’ medal and t-shirt. It was windy and cold , however, and after a brief lunch stop it was time to start heading back down. The group soon became stretched out. Some wanted to get down quickly, others chose to take their time. But we all enjoyed the amazing weather; it is hard to imagine better conditions. We were so lucky. Everyone was glad that we were doing Ben Nevis at this end of the holiday. If we had the weather that had greeted us in Torridon, the day would not have gone so well. Everyone who attempted the walk to the top finished it.
After a few celebratory drinks and dinner back down at the hostel it was time for our final game of (Group) Trivial Pursuit.
Day #7 – Saturday: By bye Scotland
Story contributed by Simon
The sky was grey. There was drizzle, again. It was time to leave Scotland and go back to Kirkby Stephen. We had been so lucky with the weather the previous day. When we crossed the border back into England it was like someone had turned off the tap and flicked on a light switch. The rain stopped and we were suddenly in bright sunshine. The terrain gradually changed as we headed south, becoming softer and more forgiving the further we got from Scotland. Karen and I had time to visit Brough Castle near Kirkby Stephen before meeting up with the rest of our group back at the hostel.
The lady who runs the hostel enthusiastically greeted us and we shared tales of our trip. Then it was time for a very good meal at the Black Bull Hotel. We got back to the hostel at 11pm but we didn’t want the holiday to end so it was time for another game. Not Trivial Pursuit this time, we chose Junior Monopoly. The following day we would head back home. It had been a great trip, with some great people.