West Highland Way: Drymen to Rowardennan
As much as I like my own company when I’m hiking, I was looking forward to my brothers joining me for day 2 of the West Highland Way (WHW). I’d had a restful sleep at the Kip in the Kirk, and had a good chat with my American roommates over breakfast in the kitchen. With my brothers driving separately from Glasgow then meeting up to strategically place their cars to get themselves home, I had a bit of time to kill whilst waiting for them. I hung around in the town square of Drymen watching the world go by until finally they appeared rather later than anticipated. But under the grey sky, once everyone was kitted up for the hike, we set off on route to Rowardennan, 15miles (24km) away on the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, Scotland’s largest inland body of water.
There are two routes out of Drymen to rejoin the West Highland Way: the more direct Rob Roy Way which is a short cut, or to retrace my steps from the evening before back to the A811 which is what we did. There was only a short distance along this road till the path took a 90 degree turn towards the woods of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. It was an easy meander with good company as we caught up with each others’ lives. As much as I love living in New Zealand, the distance from my family back in Scotland and the sense of feeling like I’m missing out on family gatherings is a hard sacrifice that I can accept sometimes better than others. It had been 3.5 years since I’d last seen my family, and time was running out before I was to head back to the Southern Hemisphere.
This section of the walk may be changeable depending on how the tree growth is going, but we were able to see down to Loch Lomond which grew larger and larger as we approached it. Nearing the end of the wooded section the path splits in two: a woodland track that cuts down to the B837 with the road then being followed into Balmaha; or the more scenic track that summits Conic Hill. This latter track is closed during lambing season, but in July we were good to go, and there was no way I was skipping this section of the track. Considering how few WHW walkers I’d come across the day before, there were plenty of people trudging up Conic Hill that day, and for the first time on the hike, I was reminded how much over-indulging I had done on my holiday, as I lagged a little behind my brothers as we trudged our way up the 361m (1184ft) hill.
We got a cracking view of Loch Lomond from the summit which is just a slight side trip from the WHW itself, but it was very windy, and the clouds were quick to close in on us. We could see a sheet of rain moving in from further up the loch and as we started our descent to try and beat it, our luck ran out and we got wet. Stubborn to the last minute, I was left trying to put my waterproofs on with the wind whipping them around me, in a repeat of what had happened on our ascent to Ben Lomond a couple of weeks prior. Picking our way down the track, then some steps, we found ourselves back in another section of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park before emerging out in Balmaha, a small settlement on the shore of Loch Lomond, and a popular spot for day trippers from the city. We headed to the Oak Tree Inn, a beautiful and popular inn filled with locals, walkers and visitors. We were lucky to get a table with the crowds there, and enjoyed a tasty meal as we dried off a little.
Unfortunately, my eldest brother had received a call that meant he had to leave us there, so after he caught the local bus to get back to Drymen where he’d left his car, my other brother and I continued on the WHW. Passing a statue of Tom Weir, nicknamed the Mountain Man, the track skirted the shoreline, passing boats moored at a little marina and round to a jetty where some local ferry services ran from. Heading up the hill to Craigie Fort, the sun was starting to push through the clouds and from the lookout we could see along the length of Loch Lomond and the mountains that flanked its sides. Soon joining the bank of the loch itself, we chatted away, taking photos often as the view of the loch changed constantly as we followed its shore.
In sections, the path skirts the road before separating from it, dipping back into the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park briefly before returning to the roadside again. Being a Saturday, there was a regular stream of cars driving along. Whilst the road on this side of the loch is a dead end, there are plenty of camp sites, holiday homes, and a few eateries to tempt visitors to travel along it. Although the path was separate to the tarmac, the noise was a little distracting having come on this hike to get away from it all. Even on the loch itself, there was boat activity ploughing along the water too, and there were plenty of people at various spots along the track. Frustratingly, this popularity led to a major problem with littering. In the past, the local council banned freedom camping in this area, limiting it to designated campsites in an effort to reduce the desecration that has taken place, but with every little beach or inlet we came across, we found garbage stuffed amongst tree branches and dumped on the grass. Such a beautiful part of the country has fallen foul to the ingrates who come to play there.
A longer hike than day 1, I was getting tired as we continued the long walk along the loch, but there were so many little beaches to look at. On one such beach I stumbled across a rather rusty set of 9 keys with what looked like a mixture of car, boat and household keys. Clearly it had been there for a while, but somebody somewhere would have spent a lot of money replacing a lot of locks! I carried them with me anyway, and handed them in when finally we reached Rowardennan. Despite booking my accommodation 6 months ahead, I had been unable to secure a bed at the local youth hostel and was forced to splash out for a room at the Rowardennan Hotel. Whilst I could have done without the expense, I was grateful for the large luxurious bed and posh bathroom, as well as the welcoming snacks and tv that came with my room. My brother continued the short distance along the road to the public car park where he had left his car, and from there he headed home to Glasgow.
At the far end of the Rowardennan Hotel was the pub where I was lucky to get the last table, squished right in the middle of the very packed bar. Saturday nights anywhere in Scotland are busy, but it was peak holiday season, the schools were finished for the year, and both locals and tourists filled every square inch of the place. One of the down sides of dining alone meant that I had to leave the table to order my meal at the bar, and this led to a rather heated exchange when I returned to find a couple had sat themselves at my table. Tired and hungry I wasn’t giving in, and despite them being evidently annoyed, they relinquished it begrudgingly and I settled in to wait for my food whilst indulging in a well earned cider.
A commotion drew my attention to an alcove across the bar where a familiar face sat amongst a group of friends watching the football. Kevin Bridges, one of Scotland’s best comedians was enjoying a few drinks, and I wasn’t the only one who had spotted the celebrity. I was highly amused eavesdropping on a neighbouring table who kept whispering about him, and were evidently trying to find an excuse to go and talk to him. I was neither presentable, nor extroverted enough to consider going anywhere near him, and respected his down time also. After filling my stomach with a tasty meal, I retreated to my cosy room to vegetate on my bed watching tv before another thoroughly good sleep in preparation for the longest day of the whole hike.