|The Kintyre Way|
By Colin Walford
Date: Saturday September 1st 2007
Setting the scene ....
The alarm catapulted me out of bed at 04:00a.m. This was uncommonly early for me, but I reflected as I brushed my teeth and dug sleep nuggets out of my eyes, that I always found it remarkably easy to get up to the demands of an alarm clock when work wasn't involved. Had this been a call to do an early shift at one of the psychiatric wards I regularly ply my trade at, I would still be swathed in my quilt, eyes squeezed shut and well on the way to missing my bus. As it was, I awoke with that particular, squirming sensation of excitement inside me that I always get when about to embark upon a week of something foolish. The folly in mind was the completion of a new walk of the length of a peninsula in Scotland, known as . Open for business in this incarnation for less than a year, our attempt on it made us pioneers, of a sort. Different pieces of literature describe The Kintyre Way as being of various lengths. It is stated as being 90 miles long, 75 miles long and '80-something' miles long as it goes from Tarbert in the North to Dunaverty at its Southern end. It has come to be known in some quarters as 'The Long and Winding Way' and was seven years in the making, as its creator, The Forestry Commission (Scotland), negotiated with twenty-eight different landowners in order to secure access rights for walkers. The pioneers in question were myself - forty, balding, getting relaxed around the middle, but still eager to don a pair of creaky old boots and tramp around to see what our country has to offer by way of fabulous walks and capering wildlife. Then there was my brother, Mark. Apply the above description; just be sure to add seven years to the beginning bit. Bod (real name Tony, but this title had been redundant amongst us since about 1981) was a long-term friend; actually a long-term friend of my brother but I often got handed down my brother's friendships when I wore all mine out. Bod is Six foot three, blunt and taciturn at times and he epitomises the typical Yorkshire man. This is all very well but he is a Midlander, born and bred in Birmingham. He was the third of our party. The fourth (and final) member was Jo, a cousin and according to complete strangers, someone who looks more like me than I do. He would certainly be the one chosen as my brother if the three of them were lined up, rather than Mark - who is twice my size for a start. That made up our group; four none-too-young geezers who had been planning this trip for the best part of a year. Actually, Mark did the planning. We all nodded and agreed that it was a splendid idea and handed over lumps of cash.
The Kintyre Peninsula protrudes rather phallically from the west side of Scotland in the south-west of Argyll and Bute, by way of an Isthmus a little over one mile wide. It stretches out into the sea for 40 miles or so towards the north-east tip of Ireland, failing to tag the Emerald Isle by perhaps a dozen miles. The Peninsula is part of the fractured and cloven land mass that separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Irish Sea. It is long and narrow - at its broadest no more than 11 miles across - and rises to a ridge along its central length, a spine comprising largely of hilly moorland interspersed with forest. Its rich and fertile coasts mean that it has been coveted by man through the ages. Early visitors arrived from Ulster well over a millennium ago. The Vikings made a sudden appearance during the 11th century. They clearly liked what they saw and set about enthusiastically slaughtering the resident Pictish aristocracy, so that they could settle down themselves and sell the locals their fabulous Scandinavian ham platter.
Now it was our turn to conquer and I happily pottered about in the kitchen downstairs at my mom and dad's house in Birmingham, where I had been staying for a few days - making a flask of coffee, double-checking I had everything packed (last year I forgot my waterproof Berghaus coat, a bit of an oversight since Mark and I were about to tackle for a six day bash) and trying to decide whether to take a book with me or not. I had taken one last year and it had been pointless; I hadn't read a single page. After a day's slogging, Mark and I had no further ambitions than peeling off filthy clothes, showering, eating, getting a quick malt whiskey down our necks and crashing out in bed as if pole-axed.
I had just abandoned my book when Mark and Jo arrived at 04:40a.m. I was ready to be off, but Mark had forgotten a map printout he required to navigate us onto the Peninsula. He logged onto dad's computer and as if sensing that somebody was after his poker points, dad emerged, blinking and pyjama-clad. He stuck around long enough to exchange greetings and then wandered off again. The poor bloke had only just settled down when I was at pains to disturb him again. The printer had no paper and extra was kept, for some reason, in dad's room on top of the wardrobe. After some fumbling from Mark, when he somehow managed to thrust a piece of paper through the printer, so that it fell out of the back and waltzed lazily to the ground, we had our seven sheets of directions and could go. I eyed the paperwork warily, hoping that it wouldn't fall to me to be chief navigator. That is, unless they really did fancy a week's walking in Bootle.
The road to Muasdale ....
We drove off at 05:10a.m. - a little later than anticipated, but this was no hassle. Mark had thoughtfully provided us each with a bottle of water and I could hear Jo, who was seated in the back behind me, gurgling as he downed a few mouthfuls. There was silence for a minute or so and I turned around to ask him something. Jo's head had tipped forward so that his chin was nuzzling into his chest. His eyes were peaceably closed. Waves of steady breathing emanated from him. I was about to ask him to stop playing silly buggers when I realised that he actually had fallen asleep within 60 seconds. It was remarkable, really; as if he'd been entranced. I left him to it and he spent the next couple of hours in this position, head sunk and hands twitching in his lap.
It was an easy journey. Mark and I chatted and listened to music. Occasionally, we ate boiled sweets that he had piled carelessly onto the dashboard. We pointed out milestones from the journey last year.
"This is where I realised that I'd forgotten my coat," I smiled as we passed the neon-bright structure of the RAC building near Walsall.
There was a small hold-up of traffic just before we were due to meet Bod and his girlfriend, Denise, at a service station near Chorley. This was explained when we passed the scene of a motor accident. As we were forced to slow down, Mark peered ahead. He looked concerned.
"It's a bad one, Col."
It did, indeed, look horrific. A car lay on its roof with most of its front section having seemingly endured a sustained barrage from tank shells. I scanned the ground for lakes of blood and the odd rolling head, the features of which I was positive would contain a look of glassy-eyed terror, but there was merely a group of young guys standing sheepishly together on the sectioned off motorway. They looked as if they'd been caught in the act of scrumping apples, rather than having heroically wrecked their car. One of the lads did have blood running down his face from a gash on his head but, considering the state of the vehicle from which he had just extricated himself, he was lucky. I've given myself worse hanging curtains. He was grinning as if he'd just survived some ritual of manhood, like a Papuan warrior.
Before long, we'd pulled into the service station and met up with Bod and Denise. Greetings and small-talk were exchanged and engorged bladders emptied. We also raided the chocolate counter in the service station shop and then were on our way again, waving goodbye to Denise since this was a machismo expedition only. From here onwards, the scenery got progressively pleasing to the eye (that is, until we hit Glasgow). The Yorkshire dales began to appear to our right and in their midst were the Pennines, purple and distant. A little further on and this time to our left, the Lake District slipped by. Jo, Bod and I enjoyed the sweeps and curves of such giants as Scafell Pike. The impressive show was like a promise of things to come and I felt uplifted. Mark, as the driver, largely had the road ahead of him to enjoy
At some point soon after this, Jo lapsed back into a coma and slept all the way through the remainder of England. He woke as we reached Glasgow and was given to looking around him and nodding sagely.
"It's still the same old grey, dark Glasgow I remember," he sniffed.
He had travelled around Scotland in his early twenties for some weeks and, by all accounts, had had a great time. I agreed that Glasgow did look sullen and moody - it was very murky outside. Then I realised why.
"Do you think it could have something to do with the fact that we're looking through tinted rear windows?"
Jo began a laugh, which trailed away as he peered outwards. "You know - I'm embarrassed. I think that is the reason."
As we negotiated the length of old memories from last year's walk resurfaced and made me grin. We'd bloody suffered on the way down from Conic Hill! Blisters, sore feet, and aching muscles - we'd caught the works. I strained to see the accommodation we'd stayed at a year ago, enjoying thoughts of eccentric décor and a quaint breakfast being destroyed by crude, Scottish profanity but I was out of luck, so I sat back again.
We swept around onto the Kintyre Peninsula at last and Jo recognised places from his trip all those years ago.
The clouds had closed in a bit and visibility wasn't great. We could see the shins of various hills but the Glens were wearing long skirts today, like austere maids. As we progressed, we encountered hordes of people queuing for some sort of a gig. The rain was just getting into its stride and the crowd had a collectively glum expression. A field on the side of the road was wearing a much more cheery countenance and was colourful with hundreds of tents.
We came to a T-junction and took a left. I saw a strange place name on a road sign there.
"Was there ever any nuclear testing done here?" I enquired.
"No," Bod replied, frowning. "Why?"
"I just saw a road sign for a place called 'Half Life'."
After a few minutes, Bod went with the radioactivity theme and pointed to his road map.
"You mentioned a 'Half Life'. There's an island called 'Geiger' here," he said.
"Okay. I'll look out for a place named 'Isotope'."
We later learned that the island Gigha was pronounced 'Gear'. To be honest, I thought West Tarbert was something of a dog hole. It looked a bit beaten up and rough, squatting by the inlet from Dunskeig Bay in a surly manner. I hoped that it wasn't anywhere near here that we had our accommodation and sighed inwardly with relief when we left it behind. We drove purposefully forward and the scenery began to be pleasing. The road began to hug the coast at Dunskeig Bay and we had our first real look over the Sound of Gigha. The sea was welcoming us with an air of vitality, clashing against rocks so that foamy waves rolled along the coastline. It was marvellous.
We pulled into and prepared to part with some more money. We had arranged to be taxied to the end and beginning points of our walks each day, in order to be able to do the day's walking and then hop into Mark's car to get us back to our apartment. We got out, stretching limbs that were settling into the first stages of rigor mortis. Walking around, I spied a huge plant residing speculatively in a shady part of someone's garden. I mean, it was a monster. It had stems thicker than my legs and was like something from the prehistoric age; a carnivorous tree-fern from the Devonian Period. I wouldn't get too close to it in case it belied its inert appearance and whisked me, flailing, into its maw on the end of a sticky frond. I edged away and mooched in the local shop instead, wandering around, looking vaguely at food and feeling two pairs of eyes watching me distrustfully as the shop owners marked my progress. Before long, we had paid up and then went in search of our apartment. We did a dry run and drove past the place, but it wasn't long before we had crunched onto the gravel drive. We had arrived at Muasdale and our apartment, Jura.
Settling in ....
A Kintyre Way website stated that the Jura apartment was a 'spacious first floor apartment which sleeps 5 in three bedrooms, one with a double bed, and one with two single beds and the third with a single bed'. It says nothing about being cold and smelling damp and musty on arrival. But I'm being churlish, because our home for the week was large and fine for all that and, besides, once the heating had been on for a while the odour and dank atmosphere left us, like a departing tramp. I liked the place immediately and we spent a happy six days there (so much so that I periodically visit the place via website to look at photographs of the apartment and remember 'good larks' and not being at work).
Our main living area gave us a good sea view over the Sound of Gigha and I noticed rock shelves here and there. Perfect for grey or common seals! I was looking forward to seeing some, as well as dolphins and, if astronomically lucky, whales. Optimism is a wonky looking-glass at times.
We spent a while settling in, heaving luggage about, scraping shins on solid furniture and choosing rooms. Mark and I shared a room with two single beds. After all - we had done this last year and managed to get plenty of sleep and not come to blows, so why not?
Mark, who had been the sole driver for the whole journey (over 400 miles), was bushed and said that he was going to grab a couple of hours sleep. Bod and I decided to explore, so went out. Jo, I suspect worn out by all that sitting, also had a bit of a kip once we were out of the way. We walked along the beach which formed a backdrop to the Muasdale holiday park in front of our lounge window. We headed back towards Tayinloan and just chatted and caught up with stuff, having not seen much of each other over the past three years. We came across a stretch of beach that was swamped with water as a beck discharged into the sea. It was knee deep in places so I used small, flat stepping stones to make my way quickly across. Bod, who is considerably heavier and less nimble on his feet than I, looked less sure and started out with great hesitancy. I could sense his unease and sat back. I was going to enjoy this. It'd be great if he fell in. He kind of stumbled halfway across and I was up on my feet, a cheer ready to erupt from my lips as he tottered for an instant. Damn it! He regained his balance and his composure and completed the second half of the crossing with more surety. Oh well, it'd nearly been a hoot.
As we walked, we began to throw stones at things. This is something that boys of all ages inevitably end up doing if they stroll along a pebbly beach. We made targets of other rocks, an old tire, each other, and all the while we just shot the breeze about life in general. We threw until my shoulder began to ache and then made our way back. I noticed that Bod, with a convincing stab at casualness, chose to walk back along the road rather than try another crossing of the beck. We found the local store on the way back to Jura. "Time for a beer run soon, then," he said, a feral light in his eyes.
Jo was up and about when we got back and asked us how the walk had been. We agreed that it had been very enjoyable. "We threw little stones at bigger stones," declared Bod.
"We know how to have fun," I added.
Bod found the visitor's book on the sideboard in the lounge. This was meant, no doubt, to enable guests to wax lyrical about what a great time they'd had here. It was full of flowery compliments, such as, 'Idyllic views and wonderful sunsets - we wish we could stay another week!' or, 'We took long beach walks and just breathed in the beautifully clean air. John fell in the beck,' and 'It's our third year here and it was still a pleasure to be fleeced by that bloke who runs the hotel. We'll be back next year!'
"They're taking a risk leaving that there," said Bod. "We'll be writing all sorts in that after a few beers. We'll end up ripping out whole pages when we read it in the mornings."
Jo grimaced. "I wish you hadn't put that idea in my head."
Then we'll be watering the house plant," continued Bod with relish, gesturing at a fern which filled one corner of the room. It was housed in a large, bowl-shaped pot set at perfect peeing height.
Jo shook his head. "I really wish you hadn't said that."
Mark got up and Bod, Mark and I wandered downstairs and explored the courtyard behind the apartment. There was a games room that seemed to have once been a stable and contained table tennis and a pool table. Now - I've played a bit of pool, so gladly took up Bods invitation of a game. I was confident that I could pull off a win despite the eccentricities of the table, which seemed to possess several conflicting slopes and a whole area dedicated to sending your balls (as it were) nestling against the cushion, irrespective of what shot you actually played. I was, therefore, a little nettled when he beat me. Determined to get back some respect, I suggested that we play table tennis. This time he didn't just beat me, he thrashed me unmercifully. It was like playing against The Borg; resistance was futile.
Bavarian hospitality ....
At 5:50p.m we chaps felt hungry enough to venture out for somewhere to eat. We drove southwards along the coast road and came across a hotel at a place called The Hunting Lodge Hotel [Ed: this has now changed ownership and has reverted to its original name of the Putechan Hotel - which I can't find a website for]. Mark swung the car onto a narrow strip of tarmac in front of the white-walled building. We walked into the dining area and I was instantly aware of the smell of a coal fire. It took me back to winter nights living in Manchester and is an aroma I've always enjoyed. A group of folk were lounging comfortably on settees in front of a large hearth; coal and log fire blazing heartily. We entered the bar for a drink and passed a glass case containing a heavily dressed goat's head. There was something distinctly Satanic about it.
"Where's the pentagon?" muttered Jo.
Here's a thing; why are the employed staff in pubs and hotels in Scotland always German? It's true - Mark and I were first presented with this phenomenon on last year's walk and here we were again.
"Yes pliss, vot are you vanting to drink?"
Two German lads (one of whom may have developed a gentle crush on Mark) and a pretty German girl served us to beers and a meal. The Hunting Lodge was once just that; the former hunting lodge of the Duke of Argyll. It is family owned and run, the main proprietor being a stout, bearded Scot in a pleated kilt who sells about three hundred types of single malt whiskey. Mark and I were instantly enraptured. Our host asked us the nature of our holiday and on discovering that we were walking The Kintyre Way, a glint came into his eye and he announced to us that he was on the board of people who were responsible for its existence. I looked at his portly frame thoughtfully for a second and decided that he probably hadn't sampled a lot of The Way himself.
I was hungry and did my best to hide severe disappointment when my food arrived. It was rather of the art nouveau style and was very pretty to look at, but decidedly meagre on the substance front. For all that, the sea food was delicious - I just wish there had been (quite) a bit more of it. After we'd eaten, we thanked everyone and returned 'home'.
Mark and I had bought ourselves a cigar each. I'm a non-smoker, but once in a decade or so I'll indulge in a cigar. I watched TV for a while and then went outside to smoke, standing by the sea's edge and watching the churning waves as I lit up. I was lost in thought and it took me a while to realise that I wasn't at all enjoying the cigar. In fact, it was foul and I struggled on until my head began to swim unpleasantly and then I pitched it into the sea. Once indoors, we all drifted off to bed one-by-one. I stayed up to attempt to watch a 'World at War' video, but it soon became evident to me that I wasn't feeling at all well. I was dizzy and nauseous and had broken out in a clammy sheen. Fearing that my scant meal was about to make a sudden and violent reappearance, I weaved unsteadily to the WC and assumed the position, with my head bowed contritely into the toilet bowl. That bloody cigar! I had been fine before tackling the vicious thing. I wasn't sick, but felt so ill at one point that I lay myself on the bathroom floor and hugged the cool lino in misery. It must have been a pathetic sight and I was forced to remain there for about ten minutes before feeling composed enough to lurch into the bedroom.
Getting undressed felt like a real effort, but at last I slumped beneath the sheets and prepared to let sleep remove me from my suffering. I was drifting off and getting some relief when, like the villain of the piece, Mark's snoring entered stage left and buzzed sonorously through the room. "Oh please no" I thought. I tried to ignore it for a while but it was like trying to ignore a dripping tap. Sighing, I gathered my quilt and pillow and prepared to retreat. I had listened long enough to be almost amused by the form of my brother's nightly exhalations. Breathing in, his snore was a pretty standard and drawn out snort. It was the release that was quirky - like somebody pushing down on a deflating dinghy and causing it to whoosh in a startled manner. I retired to the lounge and prepared to sleep on the floor but, on closer inspection, realised that one of the couches was also a pull-out bed. Joy! It was comfy too and I was soon away.