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Escape London: to the West Highland Way

7 Oct

Escape London (EL) wants you to visit the wilds of Scotland and her beautiful scenery.  It’s an incredible place, allows infinite adventure and for the most part, smells nice.  Scotland shares the same land mass as England.  Some people find this hard to believe, but its true…Scotland is not THAT far away.  Yet, ashamedly EL has only been there twice.  Once on a jolly to Edinburgh and more recently to walk along the famous, glorious West Highland Way, Rob Roy’s old stomping ground.  Quite the adventure.

When EL says adventure, picture Lord of the Rings; now exchange Aragorn for Withnail, Gimli for Rab C. Nesbitt , Legolas for Begbie, Frodo for Wee Man, Gandalf for Uncle Monty and Gollum for…Gollum.  Now for every sword drawn in the film insert a pint consumed and you’ll get the idea.  Our group consisted of those who were unfit and those who were exeedingly unfit.  But between us we shared a great determination and a love of the outdoors, what more can you ask for?

Taken near the start of the journey...

We travelled from Euston to Glasgow and then on to Helensburgh by rail for £94 return (1st class on the way back worked out cheaper than standard for some reason).
From Helensburgh we got a lift to Loch Lomond and caught a ferry from Inverburg over the Loch to Rowardennon.
Once at Rowardennon you basically head North until time runs out on your trip.  The ideal would be to reach Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis.
All equipment was taken with us in backpacks; you’ll needs tents, sleeping bags, roll mats and warm clothing for the journey.  Sturdy footwear is essential.
The journey home is a rather special one, described here as one of the most stunning rail journeys on Earth…

The train journey to Scotland IS undeniably long, around 6hrs (8hr including delays) and of course, in order to fill the time we had a drink…an 8hr drink.  Escape London will not even attempt to explain the route from Glasgow to Helensburgh, there’s no point.  Suffice to say, our group blended nicely with the locals outside of Glasgow Station. Fortunately we had free accommodation secured for the first night; Neil, one of our intrepid crew, has a house near the start of the hike.  We were greeted after our mammoth drinking session by Neil’s Mum, complete with a hearty broth and rounds of whiskey (Escape London should point out that the Whiskey was at our request, Neil’s Mum is not an alcoholic, but she has no sense of smell…interesting fact).  We soon passed out.  Escape London ‘slept’ up-right in a chair next to a drafty window using a conveniently placed door mat for a blanket.  The perfect preface to 3 days of arduous walking.

Escape London would like to seize this moment to inform you that this blog is merely a vessel to give people ideas, to lend a few pointers for adventurous people to follow…loosely.  Embarking on a 14 hr drinking session, then sleeping for 2hr the night before departing on a 70mile hike is probably not best practise.  It was fun, but the following morning was not.  A 6am wake up call, a fresh cup of coffee and off we went on a short drive to Loch Lomond and the start of the hike.

Arriving at the Loch was strangely surreal.  A hazy mist hung low over the mirror-like water and as the early morning sun slowly burned through the haze everything appeared out of focus.  For us anyway.  We loaded our huge backpacks onto benches and sat with heads resting on arms, groaning from time to time.  We didn’t look good.  Here we waited for the Ferry which would make the journey South and across the Loch.  So far, so un-surreal, but the tranquil morning was about to be destroyed.  A coach load of oriental tourists arrived, followed by another.  Barely able to lift the weight of our shrivelled, dehydrated brains, we managed to twist our necks and squint in their direction.  At least 50, camera snapping, smiling Chinese students descended down to the side of the Loch.  The sound of hundreds of shutter lenses filled the morning air.  An innumerable amount of photos were taken of every single aspect of the car park, the Loch, the trees, the grass and us.  We even witnessed friends taking pictures of one another whilst in picture-taking position, snapped and saved in digital format for eternity.  It felt like a bad trip, like all of a sudden the bats from Fear and Loathing were descending upon our rotting corpses, intent on seizing every possible pixel of our anguish and posting it on-line for the world to see.  Perhaps Escape London sounds a little melodramatic here but this whole paragraph could have been summed up with ‘we were pretty hungover’, which would have been dull.  We ran for our ferry.

Sitting together on the ferry, gliding across the beautiful water we all suddenly felt alive.  Hangovers were forgotten.  We were suddenly in the middle of some truly staggering natural beauty and for the first time the group felt genuine excitement about what we were doing.  The scale of the task also began to sink in.  The ferry trip alone was around 20min in duration, going rather inconveniently in the opposite direction to our route.  Glancing at the shoreline it was difficult to discern an actual path, however it was obvious that the terrain was far from flat.  The Loch itself stretched away into the North, further into the distance than our bleary eyes could fathom.  We soon arrived at the most Southerly tip and start of our hike, each of us laden to the point of collapse with largely useless camping provisions.  Only Sarg was able to stand comfortably.  He had packed according to the Internationally recognised code of the part-Irish, pale-faced fool.  He had a sleeping bag, a couple of packs of fags and a strong desire to drink whiskey.  He did manage to get his hands on a waterproof, which thankfully was surplus to requirements anyway.  We took solace in the fact that we’d hidden a rock in his backpack to make life slightly more uncomfortable.

Smiling, hungover faces before the walk begins...

Rhythm is a word rarely used when describing anyone in our group.  It simply doesn’t quite work, yet for these 3 days of physical exertion we each found our own natural walking rhythm and technique.  And they all worked pretty damn well.  The funniest, by some margin, came in the form of Ian, our very own Captain Escargot.  As the time passed and the miles began to thread slowly by underfoot, it became clear (to Ian at least) that his only chance of finishing the walk was if he employed the ‘perpetual motion’ method.  Escape London is using the term ‘motion’ loosely; there were times, when ascending a few particularly steep sections of the route that looking back at Ian was similar to gazing at a perfectly still image of the Scottish landscape. But it worked, we would all set off at our various paces, a few of us (Jack, Sarg and Escape London) truly believing we were achieving SAS levels of performance.  Neil and Nick seemed nicely in synch as well, walking at a leisurely yet determined gait throughout.  (Perhaps we have discovered our own natural phenomena, as when women spend too much time together and their feminine cycles fall into synch, so as we progressed our footsteps fell naturally in time with one another.  I may conduct a proper experiment and try and get it published.  In fact that’s a shit idea, I won’t.)  And then came Ian.  Ian, just shuffled his way, unceasingly towards the final resting point of each day.  We worked out that on the second day’s exertions Ian ‘walked’ at his snail’s pace for a full 14miles without a single break.  Water and food was consumed on the move, he even overtook the rest of us a couple of times as we lay and recuperated in the sun.

The West Highland Way really does need to be experienced first-hand to really appreciate its beauty and the allure of the challenging path.  At one point we discovered a wondrous wood that quite possibly only exists in our minds.  It was literally teaming with nature.  Waterfalls sparkled in golden sunshine, little squirrely creatures sat on mushrooms playing cards and smoking cigars and streams laced their way lazily through the trees.  Bears lay in the deep pine-needle carpet casually receiving massages from Caramel Bunnies.  They didn’t even look up as the 3 of us came staggering along the path.  We ran down the hills, not due to our enormous levels of energy but because it was easier than fighting against gravity.  The bouncy platform also made our strides huge, we positively bounded through the forest like mountain stags, pausing only to bathe ourselves in the  streams that followed our route downwards.  This all sounds a little fantastical…because of course, it is; anyone who actually saw us would have witnessed a vastly different spectacle…6 dirty, smelly, foul-mouthed homeless looking men stooping to drink out of puddles on the forest floor.

The only other aspect that remains unmentioned is of course the free camping.  Scottish law allows free camping all along the West Highland Way, you can literally find an area you like the look of and set up camp.  Perfect.  It is absolutely vital that you hold respect for the environment around you and leave no trace in your wake as you leave your site.  For those of you who like your amenities, there are campsites along the way, but that’s cheating (admittedly we cheated on the first night).  The feeling of camping alone in the wild is all too rare these days and was an experience that will last long in the memory.  Plus you can build a PROPER campfire.  Our group has a certain, bordering on obsessive, affinity towards fire.  So entranced with the dancing flames were we, that at some point around 4am, Escape London recalls slapping Nick on the back, only to discover a layer of frost covering the back of his coat.  Looking behind for the first time in hours was like looking at a scene from a Christmas card, everywhere shone white in the moonlight, ice covered everything.  We’d sat, facing the fire for so long that each of our backs were frozen without us realising.  That’s fire love.

In short, get yourselves to Scotland.  And explore.

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Escape London: The Snowdon Effect

24 Aug

This is a post delivered in the least conventional of forms, describing adventures in the least conventional of ways and depicting an ascent of Snowdon by the least conventional of groups.

Firstly, I’ll give you the bare essentials:

  • Drive time from London to Snowdonia (Llanberis) takes around 4hr 30min on a good day.
  • Accomodation is varied in Llanberis, we stayed in the famous Pete’s Eats Bunkhouse http://www.petes-eats.co.uk/ It’s uber basic but uber welcoming and offers the biggest mugs of tea with a great breakfast in the morning.
  • Due to weather conditions we were forced to take the Pyg Track to the summit of Snowdon.  This route is fairly achievable for all fitness level with very few hairy moments to speak of.
  • The alternative route (which I completed a few years ago) is the Crib Goch Ridge, this should not be attempted unless you have a good head for heights, a decent level of fitness and are walking with somebody experienced.  Don’t just take my word for it though read http://www.rockclimbingcompany.co.uk/Snowdon_Crib_Goch_Scramble.html for further info.
  • We were up and down the mountain in about 5hr, despite taking a huge detour and climbing in gale force winds.  On a Summer’s day you should be able to knock at least an hour off this time.

Right, back to the story, when I say group, there were 3 of us:

Firstly myself, Dan Layton.  I love the outdoors and always have done.  Give me a chance to escape the city into the hills, down to the coast or up a mountain and I’ll race you along every path until we get there.  I’d take a tent over a Travelodge every time.  A steaming early morning brew, heated over an open fire beneath the stars vs a Mocha Chocca Whatta from Starbucks?  There’s no contest.  So I arrange hiking expeditions as often as life permits.  On this occasion there were a number of reasons behind the trip.  I work in recruitment; it’s intense, fast-paced and at times demoralizing.  I work hard, throwing myself into each and every day and I need these breaks.  I yearned for a release and the chance to feel enriched by good people and wild surrounds.  Another trail steering me towardsSnowdoncame in the unlikely form of a pitiful moustache slowly taking root on my upper lip.  The whiskers clung there perilously, as if not sure they were in the right place.  They gave the impression that the slightest gust of wind would cause a hairy avalanche of pathetic proportions.  The pre-pubescent-like growth was in the name of charity and this trip toNorth Waleswould see me almost double my thus far meager sponsorship.  Part of the deal was that I had to dress in attire ‘befitting a man with a moustache’.  I went with a 1920’s explorer theme.

Then there was William aka ‘Sarg’.

He had deemed walking boots surplus to requirements, instead opting for the slightly less conventional approach of carrier bags, worn over his socks with a pair of trainers.  His blood has a high Irish content, that’s the only way in can possibly justify his thought process.  An amateur racing driver and a massive advocator of whiskey, Sarg was primarily excited by the drinking and driving (not at the same time) elements of the trip.

Last but not least; Jack, who when fully kitted up resembled a Polish train driver (I’d never seen one before either, yet the description fits perfectly).  He had brought a set of Nordic walking poles, a hip flask and very little else.  Suffice to say, his motivations also centered largely around finding places to drink.  Jack was to be sadly disappointed upon discovering that the ‘Pub at the top’ was entirely fictitious. 

We arrived late on the Friday evening having driven through some of the heaviest rain fall we had ever experienced.  Snowdonia no longer had roads, only brown, curdling rivers along which we slowly negotiated our way through the dark.  By the end of our first night in Llanberis the 3 of us had been warned away from the mountain by just about every local in every pub we came across.  Contemplating an attempt at the summit was apparently, ‘ridiculous’.  There were severe weather warnings issued across the region and wide spread flooding was rife, yet we felt it our duty to at least try.  It’s not as if we were attempting Everest, was it?  Friendly landlords looked at us despairingly, as if this were the last time anyone would set eyes on us alive.  They even offered us free bottles of water, trinkets to take with us to the grave, on our departure.  People seem to care more in these parts.  They appear to have a genuine concern for outsiders and share their local knowledge and wisdom openly.  I guess this is an attempt to assist us with avoiding death.  A couple of hours later, around 1am and whilst dancing drunkenly to ‘Firestarter’ on the jukebox of a deserted pub, this made me feel warm inside.

Stood in the car park at the foot of Snowdon the following morning, we groggily cast a vote on whether or not to tackle the Crib Goch Ridge.  Based on the advice from our new friends in the pub, the gale-forced gusts attempting to force rain through our very flesh, and the fact Sarg felt perhaps his trainer/carrier bag combo may not be as sturdy as first thought, the vote was unanimous:  Pyg Trail to the top.  Easy.  It took just over 10min before Sarg and the Polish Train driver had been forced into a concentrated silence by the treacherously slippery conditions and physical exertions that ensued from taking a ‘short cut’ around the first lake we came to.

The lull in conversation was interrupted by a tirade of expletives from Sarg.  The ‘short-cut’ was proving to be a ridiculous idea.  Each of us continuously found our boots wedged in the sodden, muddy grass and the wind was doing its utmost to bludgeon us to the ground in submission.  What should have been a 20min journey around the picturesque lake, turned into a 2hr struggle of epic proportions.  Sarg and his carrier-boots weren’t faring particularly well.  He kept stumbling over the surplus bagging and ended up crawling for long stretches at a time.  Jack was holding himself together marginally better yet sweat poured from his forehead in torrents rivalling the surging river cascading down the mountain.  Yet he could only muster an occasional sigh to reveal is discomfort, words were beyond him, the profanities that Sarg so readily threw into the mountain air were simply out of Jack’s reach.  And it pained him enormously.

We finally made it to the main trail and collapsed for a while to recuperate.  We encountered other walkers for the first time that day.  I’d become used to Sarg and Jack’s eccentric appearance yet they seemed to be creating pure fear in the hikers.  Sarg looked like a rabid homeless man who had been dragged to this spot, on his knees the whole way fromLondon.  Jack wasn’t even able to make eye contact with the poor people, he was still doubled over, either dry-heaving or gasping for breath, it was difficult to tell the difference.  I attempted to deflect attention from the two of them by striking up a conversation.  30seconds later they were making their excuses and beating a hasty retreat.  This was confusing.  I’m usually pretty good at striking up a rapport with new people, it’s a strength of mine. I put it down to my disgraceful friends, until I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the puddle below me, suddenly it all made sense.  It was probably best to get this hike over with as fast as possible before we were arrested or taken into care.

The remainder of the ascent went in much the same fashion, a slow yet deliberate journey interspersed with stunning views and bouts of nature’s fury.  The Polish Train Driver and I even managed to race the final 100m of the ascent.  Sarg joined us there, amongst the mist about 10min later.  There was no happiness in his expression, not even a trace of relief, he wanted off and after slapping the summit stone, he promptly turned 180 degrees and began shuffling his shredded carrier bags back down the path.

After Jack had overcome the shock of there being nowhere to obtain a beer we sat and enjoyed a well earned Rich Tea biscuit.  The cloud broke, allowing us a beautiful, uninterrupted view over Snowdon’s Horseshoe and the surrounding valleys.  This is what we had travelled here for, we both sat in silence, a Polish Train Driver and 1920’s gentleman, united by the tranquil beauty that stretched into the distance before us.  This really would be my dream job.

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