THE JOHN MUIR WAY
BALLOCH TO HELENSBURGH
4th November 2018.
One word: dreich.
This was a unique day in that I was more up for the walk than Neil was. It had been nearly two months since the last JM walk although we had ticked off Ben More (Mull) in the interim, pushing Neil one step further to completing the Munro’s. That day (or weekend) had been gruelling and the weather disgusting. Neil is lined up for 5 weeks with Mo in the Land of the Long White Cloud and I wanted John Muir out of the way. Neil was less bothered, and the weather forecast was not grim. So Neil was really not looking forward to it; I was up for it. Get it out of the way. I’m working on the Fife Coastal Path with plans to do the new Fife Pilgrims’ Way from Culross to St Andrews when he gets back from NZ. So my head was in a better place than Neil’s.
As it happened, though the weather was dreich, we were not drenched.
We started from where we’d finished: Tourist Information, Balloch. We drove over: three buses from Helensburgh to Balloch on a Saturday, but a standby train line with considerably more regularity than the buses. But this was the shortest leg, and we were confident that we could do the business in time to catch the last bus (15:30) from Helensburgh.`
Balloch - propping up the tourist industry
The walk starts by following the water’s edge, following the pathway up and through the park, past the aquarium and into the shopping precinct. We noted the absolute need for more coffee shops but ignored temptation and headed out past the high ropes and the car-park and onto the road south. Our internal compasses screamed: the start of this leg means walking three sides of a square to realise that the road was the one that runs directly from the Information Centre. We looked for the right turn which would take us over the main road from Alexandria to Loch Lomondside and all points north.
We met with a dog-walker with coat and woolly hat.
“Walking the John Muir Way boys?”
“Oh yes, “
“Where’ve you come from?”
“Falkirk today, Dunbar February: we’re slow walkers!”
“Good match yesterday,” I commented. I pointed at the Glasgow Warriors woolly hat.
“What? Oh, yes!”
“You see it?”
“No, couldn’t get to the match. I’m a season ticket holder.”
“I caught it on tele. I’ve got the package.”
“I was trying to get it all over the internet.”
“You need to invest!”
“But good result. And it was a second string side. Brilliant.”
“Definitely: great strength in depth.”
Neil’s conversion to rugby is a work in progress: he hangs on to his allegiance to NUFC, the Toon, but now watches the internationals. Neil brought up the football team thingy: we have a £2 bet every week on 2 teams each, and hope to make our fortunes. It doesn’t seem likely. We pooled team names: Neil had already established the whereabouts of the bookies in Helensburgh.
We hit the pathway and incidentally the climb to the head of the pass (about 210 metres. We were a trifle concern about the gunfire, although on balance we thought it may just be some kind of shooting range rather than the revolution having broken out. We were somewhat reassured to see the Shooting School sign
Some half an hour into the walk and we were beginning to feel that the monsoon scenario we had dreaded was more of a mon(not so very)soon scenario. The wooded path leads to open moorland and we’d just completed about 160 metres of ascent which on this walk was a reasonable climb. The wind was a bit more noticeable, and the claggy skies still persisted, but we were comfortable although Neil seemed to be walking a little less easier than he normally does. I avoided commenting. Bit worrying. We walked towards the ridge running off WNW from the 300 m bump to the west. The area of forestry had been cleared, although there was a certain raggedness to the clearing, with one or two, maybe three trees doing spikes suggested a spider man scenario: I trust my barber.
On a good day, this part of the walk would be very pleasant and, as walks went, it was better than expected. But the amble through the trees on forestry commission paths was frankly a little tedious pretty much as tedious as those kind of walks can be. Not very, but definitely slightly tedious. There is no history in them thar trees.
We hit a junction and turned right, following seeming random turns but basically heading towards Ben Bowie, 313 m.
“Is that a Munro, Neil?”
“No Russ. That’s not a Munro.”
It passes the time.
Interestingly we had a problem. Neil had downloaded the JMW map some time ago, and talked about Goukhill as a significant point. It is likely to be the hill that local folks stand on to admire the view: I’m sure it would be worth viewing the view. One problem: not a good view today, and off the track. Two problems. No view today, and off the beaten track, and no Gouk Hill on my map. Three problems…… which reminds me
The junction signpost is clear. It also gives miles and km. Like Neil, I have a problem with miles. Like most UK walkers, I walk in kilometres and drive in miles. I can judge reasonably well how far 200 metres is, maybe 500 metres. Don’t ask me to judge 440 yards. We still see miles indicated as standard on signposts. It actively irritates both of us, but I guess the world will not end any sooner because of that. But it remains wrong. A little thing.
Get the small things, right. Ever tried building a brick wall? Start from the bottom and secure the foundation.
There are warnings about forestry operations on Bannachra Moor; we were heading that way but there again the forestry guys tend not to work at weekends. Pushing up to the Ben Bowie shoulder, it was quite apparent that recent winds had been doing a fair bit of forestry operations on its own account. A lot of trees down, and on the day a reasonably strong wind but certainly less than we feared. But irritating. And the fallen trees spoke volubly of the Autumn blows. The climb over the shoulder was in darkness. On a drear day the black tunnel through the trees was oppressive, with difficulty in seeing the clearly defined path and steps. We passed out of the trees and looked for a McDonalds. Nah. We carry our piece in our bags.
They’re building lochans up there. And good stones to rest on.
They were right about Bannachra Muir. We surprised a couple of deer, foraging in the wind and drizzle, giving themselves away by flashing white bottoms which for all the world looked like paper being blown in the wind. The walk off the hill gave good but rather uninteresting over to the road to Helensburgh. The finish was getting closer. The track leads to the road, and the Way carries on alongside the road, screened to a degree by a beech hedge. The roadside was littered as usual, with plastic bottles and coffee cups and any other crap that people deem ok to throw out of their car. You see it when you’re walking, and it never fails to depress.
We were reaching the outskirts of Helensburgh with the reservoir apparent on the right. Crossing the road we looked at the gap in the wall. Didn’t seem right, and it wasn’t, so we followed the road further and fouind the wooded way through to Rennie MacIntosh’s Hill House. I’d been to the car park at the Hill House, and the path was looking very much like this was the one there. Not that that was in doubt, but just like MacIntosh’s creations it looked right.
The map shows that the road goes straight down from the Hill House to the Pier. It doesn’t. Some idiot built a railway in the way. Tut. It’s all very looked after in the streets on the hill. The path does continue after the railway diversion down Colquhoun Street, and brings you into Colquhoun Square which is quite pleasant and has the convenient bus stop where you can catch the 15:30 which, jumping ahead an hour, we did. You can see the pier. So 212 kilometres on, we had reached the end.
If we could find it. No banners. No screaming crowds. No photographers waiting for us. We ended up walking down the street that runs along the shoreside only to return to the derelict shack with a mural. It ahd to be it. Well it was. There was a bench with writing on it. There was also a circular plinth with undecipherable writing on it. Nah. Surely that wasn’t it. But it was. So we took photo’s, had a cup of coffee and took the bus back to Balloch.
We had met three definite JM Walkers and maybe two possible in the whole 212k.