The John Muir Way
STRATHBLANE TO BALLOCH
The penultimate leg. Strathblane to Balloch. This time the travel arrangements were problematic. We left the car in Strathblane, but the Sunday bus times weren’t working in our favour so we would need to get to Balloch, travel by bus to Glasgow, and then bus it back to Strathblane.
Neil has never let me forget that I forgot to bring tent pegs an a scout camp.
The timetables had been a bit unclear, but we knew that we would need to crack on to complete the 29 km of this section of the route. It is the longest section by a good bit: 29 km and 6-7 hours walking. In the event we did it in 6 ½ hours. As it turned out, the transport links did not work so that we arrived back at the car about 8 o’clock having used the train (not the Bus Cards) back from Balloch to Glasgow in a forlorn effort to catch a bus that left 3 minutes after we arrived in the wrong part of the city centre. So it goes. But we got home in the end.
This section underlined the need to review my footwear, with the walking shoes (outdoor trainers?) that I have been using on the walk so far. The shoes are light, and have suited the terrain on the walk which is generally on paths, often specially made paths. But on this longest section of the JMW the feel of loose stones was uncomfortable, with the soles of the outdoor shoes feeling worn. This section had a long stretch of walking along tarmac roads, the longest on the route. Tarmac is unforgiving, and I acquired blisters. Neil noticed pain.
We were doing things in reverse but normally the second and longest section of the JMW begins with a long chunk of tarmac, not the best way of starting the 212 km walk, especially if the intention is to do the walk in a oner (hah). The day started pleasantly, friendly folk like a dog walker and a cheerful but muddy trail biker who laughed over her shoulder about my comment about her muddiness. We did the start of the walk photos, at which point I discovered that the camera batteries were flat, and the day started. Useful things phone cameras.
Unusually for us, we had showers to start with. The day itself was marked by a mixture of drizzle, sunshine, rain and winds. We got wet and dried. It was fine. Neil said that the overall height climbed in the walk was 400 metres. We came to think otherwise, but the initial stretch did include a climb out of the strath which led us to views of Dumgoyne, a hill small in broad terms but with a prominent conical shape that we had once visited following rained off walks further north. Dumgoyne rates as one of those markers on the skyline albeit with less of the splendid isolation of the Law or Arthur’s seat, but a reference point none the less.
Just as Neil and I had rehashed the conversation about the lack of John Muir walkers we had met, we were caught by a father and son. We asked them if they were walking the John Muir? The answer was a “perhaps”. They were locals from Blanefield who had decided that it may be a interesting or challenging to walk the Strathblane to Balloch and Balloch to Helensburgh sections. There was a clear intent to walk the way, at least the local section. We commented on our experience of not having met JM walkers on the route apart from the 3 in Edinburgh. They moved on ahead, leaving only footprints to remind us that they were up ahead.
For a brief period the John Muir shares the pathway with the early stages of the West Highland Way, which on this day meant that we traded greetings with four guys wearing Para t-shirts force- marching their way north, pushing themselves as befits the t-shirt.
The pathway leads into Carbeth, a wooded area which is peopled by Hutters who spend weekends in the area. It is well known and has a long history. The huts themselves are many and various, well-kept and struggling, but clearly loved. There are now huts being built reminiscent of the versions that pop up from time to time in the Scandinavian dectective stories.
Carbeth is closely associated with the outdoors movement during the 1920’s and ‘30’s that mixed the lure of the countryside and the 'camping and trekking' phenomenon that took place nationwide in the 1920s and 1930s and the working class exploration of the hills with strong radical socialism which leads, via Muriel Gray to a tradition or traditions of hillwalking and hiking that exist today. This tradition was exemplified by people like Tom Weir, the walker, mountaineer, writer and broadcaster.
That notion of exploring the hills to the north was the same kind of inspiration that led, individually, Neil and I to the hills and subsequently getting into walking together through scouting. Both of us were lured by the hills. If the youtube of Tom Weir is viewed, you’ll get get Magnus Magnussun asking Tom why he went to the hills and getting the reply “I don’t know”. There’s a John Muir quote: “The Hills Are Calling and I must Go”. Well, not too hilly on the JM, but those hills to the North do call. Achingly.
It was apparent from the map and from the walk that this section is often less than direct, not just in Carbeth but at other places along the route. There is a feeling that the negotiating of the route of the John Muir Way by the JM Trust reflects difficulties, just as the stretch of road walking later in the last part of the section suggests an unwillingness to allow access to land. Leading the path round the east side of Burncrook Reservoir was something we thought was odd. When we got there we had the feeling that someone had thought it a good idea to create the pedestrian equivalent of a roller coaster.
The way continues to the A809 where the pub shown on the map no longer exists. It had been a substantial building, presumably a place where the Hutters could meet and talk about huts and the general enjoyment of the outdoor (sort of life). The end of the pub suggested to me that the community might have changed and the huts had become retreats rather than part of a community.
I have a theory that people are friendlier by necessity where the land is harsh because there is always the threat of having to rely on neighbours. The land has been tamed and in the tamed lands we have the luxury of withdrawing into our own worlds, should we wish to.
We cross the road and follow the footpath up to Auchineden Farm where we are diverted into the car park of what was, apparently, a play barn and farm shop, Edenmill Farm Shop which is for rent. The place is neat, well-set up, and empty. The Edenmill Farm Shop website talks about the transfer of ownership and the last update looks like Christmas last year. It seems that even in the virtual world ruins of the past exist, hinting at past glories. Slight frisson of schadenfreude there….
Exiting the gate we are faced with a crossroads and go the wrong way, up to the farmhouse and hitting a dead end. Embarassing. I usually carry a compass, but for some reason had taken it out. Neil and I read the map and are confused: no apparent JM patches. We recover and head north and then south south west to walk round a development and return to the gate 20 metres from where we dead ended. Frustrating, The simple route would have been through the farm garden which would be understandably unacceptable. On the map, there is a potential other route further back. Hmm. Auchineden Farmhouse is Canmore listed and has the look of being old and venerable, but Canmore says little.
We walk on, past sumptuous out buildings and follow the path towards the “Wks” identified on the map. The works are large and well-defended: Neil thought that the significant fencing topped by razor wire indicated the proximity of Glasgow and the dangers of reiving weegies, intent on nicking water (or “watter” as Neil would have it).
The works are connected to the Burncrooks Reservoir. The Burncrooks Walk appears beloved by ramblers e.g.
As mentioned previously, our take on it was that whoever designed the route round Burncrook had a fixation with roller coasters. Simply, Burncrook is a man-made reservoir with the eastern side planted with the usual conifers; the path takes switchbacks which ease the climb but significantly increase the length. The reservoir and dam are on view all the time. Each to his or her own…. (nice coup;e
It was at this point that we encountered the second of the two probables for the JMW. Given that it was blowing a hoolie, and the couple (nice couple) were either Spanish or Italian speaking, conversation was a smidge incoherent, but it certainly seemed that they were intending doing the full monty of the JMW. Which meant (plot spoiler) that in the total length of the JMW, we had seen two groups totalling 5 people doing the way. As we were walking against the tide, this was a tad worrisome.
The weather at this point was showing clear signs of cutting up rough. There were smirs and showers which were varying in depth (surely water on the wind has depth?) but were driven at times by a fierce wind but which were replaced at times by sun and blue skies.
Somewhat miraculously, at this point the wind drove the rainclouds away aand we sat down to eat in sunshine on tree stumps on the edge of the forestry. Pretty soon a group arrived having a good day, chatting and joshing with us: “that’s my seat!” “yeah right!” Glesga Banter. Funnily enough, Iona the Whippet refers to us as Jack and Victor but we can’t work out who’s who, and anyhow, we’re English, sort of….
Turns out the cheery walkers were practicing for a shot at the Great Glen Way: we wished them well. Neil and I have both looked at the Great Glen Way and pretty much blanked it: our prejudice is the lack of variation and the notion of a straight line up the Glen. Unfair really. Our recent assault on the North Mullardoch meant a stay at the bunkhouse in Drumnadrochit
Anyhow, returning to the John Muir: Neil’s OS map and my JM offprint differed throughout the day, with paths shown on the JM map that did not exist on Neil’s. In addition, the harvesting of forestry meant that blocks of forestry had been flattened.
The showers and the sun continued to rotate, and we were both soaked by rain and dried by the sun. The JM Way passes close to chambered cairns but not to close to allow a diversion. As it passes out of the forestry on the low hills, emerging by Wester Cameron and then Merkins the track becomes a road. With the almost inevitable punishment of feet. The walking on tarmac continues from there to the Tourist Information in Balloch. Harsh walking.
The section from here to Balloch is Lowland Scotland and Lomond visitation. It is very much the remains of Victorian trippers taking a advantage of the railway to visit Lomond, the Clyde Coast and Aberfoyle. It reflects the legacy of Scott and his novels, and gave folk from Glasgow easy access to the wild Highlands. It was also one of the ways that the stravaigers like Tom Weir accessed the hills to the north. Balloch was a station that could access the way north to Aberfoyle and the Trossachs connecting with the railway that ran through Strathblane, our starting point for this section.
So we exited woodland, and hit roads. The positive that by this point the weather had cleared and we were offered a view of Ben Lomond in the distance, an echo of the initial impetus for walking the paths and ways of Scotland, of reasons for returning home.
We passed the converted station and followed the road onwards. The road ahead became very obvious: “Don’t look,” said Neil, so of course I did. Seeing the length of a straight road ahead and knowing the slowness with which we would move on it is a recurring theme on our walks. There was little to excite the eye, and we plodded on. We talked about the route and the 5 k of road walking that we were enduring. Experience of the Way has been that strips of land have been given to enable the Way to progress safely and with interest: the section by the 1746 Falkirk monument and the set aside path running out of Aberlady to Gosford Sands are good examples. This section was a poor reflection of efforts made elsewhere. Presumably the draw of Balloch and Loch Lomond means that local landowners can choose to keep walkers on the roads with no concerns.
Balloch Country Park is pleasant, and well used. It brought back memories of a Runrig by the Bonnie Bonnie Banks in 1991. I didn’t bother Neil with this: Runrig is not on his playlist, and 1991 was another time and another history. Oh, but it was good to be part of this
We had been aware during the walk that the transport was an issue. We knew that buses went from Balloch (and also trains) but that the timetables on a Sunday mean that connecting with the bus to the start point at Strathblane. Last bus syndrome. A consultation with the nice lassie at Balloch ti made clear that the bus from Balloch took over an hour and the train was quicker. And frankly at that time of the day, more attractive. So we caught the train and headed to Glasgow. The train hits Glasgow Central (lower), which means a wee walk up to Buchanan Street Station. It was pretty damn clear that the 2 minutes left to get to Buchanan Street was unlikely (snorts) to be sufficient. We let the wives know we would be “later than expected” and settled down to a decent feed at Spoonies in George Square: The Counting House. This, as Neil noted, is an impressive and well-preserved building with the usual attention to history that is so “pure dead brilliant” to the history nut. Probably a bit busy to be appreciated fully…. But the wall presentations are faithfully reproduced on the website. Wow.
So, having been fed, we returned to the bus station and waited paiently for the bus to Strathblane. It was raining quite fiercely and the bus roof was leaking, but the sun filtered under the cloud.
The journey was enlivened by a group discussion at Milngavie where passengers and drivers tried to sort out the best stop for someone getting off, and the best route from the bus stop to his destination. Friendly place, Glasgow…. They talk to you the Weegies… And so to Strathblane, the car and home.
Clockwise: “I see Lomond”; River Leven, Balloch; Glasgow - evening rain from the bus; Balloch Castle