Thursday 18th August, 2011
I got a lift to the local train station and then had to walk between stations in Glasgow to get to Queen St to catch my train to Fort William. The 10 minute walk made me realise how heavy my pack is. I've cut everything down to the bare minimum - I only have one change of clothes, I've rationed out my food, I have no reading books, and so on - so the only way I'd get lighter is to buy more expensive gear. At least it should get lighter as the week goes on and I eat my food.
The train from route from Glasgow to Mallaig is said to be one of the most scenic in the world. I did the Fort William to Mallaig stretch a few years ago when I needed a day off walking to let my knees recover from the descent of Ben Nevis. I went on the steam train in true Harry Potter style over the Glenfinnan Viaduct and it was truly stunning. Now I was getting to do the first bit of that journey that I'd missed out on before. Once we cleared the suburbs of Glasgow the views got better and better and the last bit into Fort William was wonderful.
To get to the official start of the walk I had walk through Morrison's car park and cross a main road to get to a grassy area by Loch Linnhe. This grassy area covers the remains of a fort built in the 1600s. I sat and had lunch at a picnic table and then wandered over to the sign to take a photo. A group of young guys were sprawled beneath it enjoyed a case of lager. They'd just finished the walk and were celebrating. They said they'd spent 2 weeks doing it and had really enjoyed the leisurely pace and being able to camp wherever they found a nice spot. They also warned me that water isn't that easy to get and one of them gave me his platypus complete with 3 litres of water. It was difficult to stuff it into my backpack and meant I had just added another 3 kilos to my already heavy load, but I was grateful. I'd never bought myself a platypus or camelbak as I wasn't sure if I'd get on with them. But now I had the perfect opportunity to test drive one.
The walk begins by taking a path through a housing estate. As much as possible it was beside the River Nevis and in the trees, but there were times when I was just walking down residential streets. About a mile before Corpach and the sea lock the path doubles back on itself and then begins the journey east. I had to do a detour down to the sea lock though to buy a toilet key from the office there. I only rang about key a couple of days ago - if I'd been more organised and rang earlier they would have posted me one out. However, as I wanted to go to the sea lock anyway, it wasn't an issue. The key cost £6 and is a British Waterways Key rather than just a Caledonian Canal key which is what I was expecting it to be. What this means is that I can use it to access toilets and showers at canal locks all over the UK.
It was when I left Corpach that I felt like I was on the path proper. It was getting quite late in the day but as it's August in Scotland there was still plenty of daylight. I was hoping to make it as far as Gairlochy to camp; at the least I wanted to make it to Moy which is a couple of miles before Gairlochy, but knew I'd feel much better if I could complete what is the usual day one leg despite my late start and detour.
The path follows the south bank of the canal all the way to Gairlochy and Loch Lochy, the first of the three lochs I would follow as part of the path. The path is good and very, very flat. So much so, it felt quite monotonous and I could feel my legs seizing up from doing what was essentially the same step over and over. If it continues like this (which it probably will) I could well finish the walk with a case of RSI.
As I came close to Neptune's Staircase I started to see lots of people. Generally the path is very quiet until it reaches a lock or small town. Neptune's Staircase is quite a tourist attraction and many people were standing around photographing the boats passing through the series of eight locks. The following is what Wikipedia has to say about it:
Neptune's Staircase (grid reference NN113769) is a staircase lock comprising eight locks on the Caledonian Canal. It is the longest staircase lock in the United Kingdom, and lifts boats 64 feet (19.5 metres). The locks were originally hand-powered, but have been converted to hydraulic operation. The base plinths of the original capstans are still present, although the capstans themselves are now gone.
The current lock gates weigh 22 tons each, and require a team of three lock-keepers (at minimum) to run the staircase.
It is usual for them to operate on an "Efficiency Basis", that is the keepers try to either fill each cut with boats on the lift or drop, or to allow for passing, ie a dropping craft to pass a rising craft on the same fill/empty cycle.
It takes approx 1 hour 30 minutes for a boat to pass from one end of the staircase to the other, through the eight locks.
It is one of the biggest staircases in Britain, and is kept by British Waterways.
It is located at Banavie, near Fort William just north of Loch Linnhe.
The structure was designed by Thomas Telford.
By the time I got to Moy I was feeling pretty tired and my feet were starting to throb. I was tempted to stop and camp, but decided I could manage another few miles and so pushed on. I was glad I did as Gairlochy is a lovely place to camp. Light was fading and the midges were coming out in force so I threw my tent up in quite a hurry on the soft manicured grass at the side of one of the locks. It was only afterwards when I went looking for the toilet and shower that I realised the building I thought was the toilet block wasn't and the actual one was much further down. So I had a bit of trek each time I wanted to go to the loo, clean my teeth, wash my dishes, etc. I was beyond caring too much and after a shower and something to eat crawled into my sleeping bag really grateful to be able to give my feet a rest. I don't usually have a problem with throbbing feet so have put it down to the hard surface of the path and the repetitive way of walking on the flat.
Distance walked = about 12 miles (10 'official' miles, plus a couple on the detour to the sea lock)