Thursday, 17 June 2010

Chaos in The Glens

DAY 26:

For the first time on the whole trip, things started to go badly wrong and they just kept getting worse. To be honest, I was wondering when I was going to get a day like this!

To begin with, I had to drive my kind and gentle hosts at The Crags Hotel in Callendar from their beds a little earlier than usual to cook my breakfast so I could make an early bus. This they did with not the least complaint and with no little culinary skill, for which I regret I didn't have time to properly thank them as I was rushing out to catch that early bus (top people, though, and I'd recommend their hotel unreservedly).

That bus was the C60 service run by Kinghouse Coaches from Callendar to Killin, which I caught at the bus stand near the Dreadnought Hotel. It took me on a spectacular journey along the shores of Loch Lubnaig and up over the tops to Lochearnhead which sits at the head of Loch Earn (obviously), at which point the views just got better.

More climbing, this time up the appropriately-named Glen Ogle (I couldn't keep my eyes off it) and more descents through pine forests, then we were turning off the main road and down to Killin, a rather pretty village more or less at the head of Loch Tay. The Falls of Dochart tumble picturesquely under the village's stone bridge making this a great place to get out and have a cup of tea (judging by the number of tea shops and cafes thereabouts).

Now, the only real reason I decided to visit Killin was so that I could travel on a form of public transport I hadn't yet encountered, namely the Post Bus. These are glorified post office vans but with a few seats for passengers and are restricted to intensely rural areas (so Killin clearly qualifies). I was intending to catch the Post Bus to Crianlarich and pick up the onward bus to Fort William from there, so I popped into the post office at Killin to double-check the time (it was at 12.30, I knew, but it's always worth checking).

What the postmaster told me was that there was no Post Bus, that it had been discontinued a month or two ago, and would I like to buy a post card?

This came as something of a blow. I was effectively stranded in Killin, though frankly I can think of worse places to be stranded in – Telford, for example. Still, I had a room booked in my name in Fort William and I simply had to get there - not least because I'd already bleedin' paid for it!

The post master, after selling me a postcard, a book of stamps and a dog license, told me about a taxi firm which runs taxis at certain times of the day for the same price as a bus ticket, so I thanked him, wrote down the number and left the post office (clutching the tartan kilt-shaped air freshener he'd also managed to sell me). But before I phoned and put Plan B into immediate effect, I checked the bus stop outside and discovered that the City Link bus to Oban was due in half an hour and that would also take me to Crianlarich. Right, then.

The Oban bus was late, and the elderly Dutch couple who were also waiting for it and I assumed it was simply not coming. Much fretting ensued. However, it eventually arrived some 20 minutes late and on we clambered.

The driver, it seemed, had not been trained to use the particular type of ticket machine he'd been issued with at the depot, so some delay was incurred whilst he tried to issue return tickets to Oban from my new Dutch friends. However, whilst he was trying to make sense from his single page ticket machine instruction manual, a coach driver popped his head round the door and one of those "have you heard the Police have closed the Crianlarich road for 4 hours" conversations ensued.

It was clear we were going nowhere.

The bus did eventually leave some 45 minutes late, but without me – it had decided to take a different route to Oban and I had decided to cut my losses and instead wait for the Fort William bus which was due in about 15 minutes (it actually arrived 35 minutes later). I might still get stuck at Crianlarich but at least I'd have a comfy seat.

In the event, the Police were just on the point of re-opening the road as we arrived in Crianlarich so we were soon on our way through some the most spectacular mountain scenery on the British mainland. The road to Tyndrum is crowded by big, muscular hillsides but it's when you get beyond Bridge of Orchy that the landscape becomes truly impressive.

The long climb up to Rannoch Moor, and the view back down the road to Bridge of Orchy, is good by most people's standard but when you get to the top and the moor just opens out in front of you... well, I ran out of superlatives almost immediately.

It's an extravagant view of huge rocky mountains, mist-filled glens, hanging valleys and bright reflecting water, with the lily-dotted lochans and the wiry heather disappearing off into a distance contained by sheer walls of mountain. We are soon across the moor and beginning our descent of Glen Coe, surely one of the most beautiful and picturesque glens in Scotland, and the most tragic, with its powerful, leering mountain tops seeming to crowd in and threaten the traffic on the road below.

Then we were down to the sea again at the village of Glencoe and along the shore to Ballachulish and the coast road to Fort William, my home for tonight.

Fort William, home to Britain's highest mountain, is a busy not-so-little town, but it looks much better since they pedestrianised and cobbled the High Street. It's still a clumsy mix of Scottish vernacular and 60's concrete blandness (from the time when Fort William really began to hit its stride) but it seems to have a little more time for people now.

Its seafront is effectively a dual carriageway, which is a shame. I brazened it out amongst the lorries and the caravans whilst I ate my sandwich, but it wasn't much fun (though the view was pretty good).

Speaking of which, the view from my guest house is even better - so I'm thinking about not going out tonight and just watching the sun sink behind the mountains whilst the gulls flap lazily down the loch. And not visit one of the three Indian restaurants I discovered in Fort William (yes, I counted them).

On the other hand, I am quite peckish now....

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