They are the largely unsung heroes of long distance walking in the UK… the many thousands of owner-operators of B&Bs and guest houses. John Cleese, alias Basil Fawlty, has made them objects of mockery, but in my experience they don’t deserve it. As I write this in Invermoriston on the banks of Loch Ness I see the patient, cheery faces of half-a-dozen proprietors who, over the last two weeks, have brought each day of weary walking to a comfortable end. Fiona at the Seaview B&B in Mallaig buffeted us with an effusive welcome. Her mile-wide smile followed us up the stairs to our small but well-appointed room where she stoked us with advice on our plans to visit Skye (to be reported in a future post). Dora at the Myrtle Bank guest house in Fort William runs by far the best B&B we have stayed in so far… spacious, squeaky clean and fresh, with distractingly beautiful views over Loch Linnhe, plus a delicious calorie-loaded breakfast and a spectacular flower garden. Dennis at the Glen Albyn Lodge in Invergarry was so captivated by local history he told us the story of the nearby Well of Seven Heads twice, embellishing it with gory details of blood, stink and heads on spikes. Peter at the Distant Hills guest house in Spean Bridge responded quickly to my phone call for a pick-up from the railway station about a kilometre from his B&B (we didn’t want to pull our suitcases that far in misty rain), and the following morning his wife Lesley lavished a banquet-size breakfast of delicious Scottish pikelets and fresh fruit on me. And here we are now at the Bracarina B&B in Invermoriston where Sheila has put a foot soaking and massage machine in our room “in case you need it”.
But there is one crusty exclusion from this honour roll – Helen at the Dreamweavers B&B between Gairlochy and Spean Bridge. At least, initially I thought she should be excluded, but maybe I was too hasty. She certainly started off in Basil Fawlty style. But she softened, a softening that allowed her flinty opinions to break out and strike sparks in a memorable conversation over the breakfast table.
But before I tell you about that let me backtrack a little. On Thursday August 6th we strode down High Street – Fort William’s pedestrian shopping street – to the start-point of the Great Glen Way. Fingers crossed, this was to take us across Scotland to Inverness on the east coast. It took us well over an hour to shake off Fort William. We twisted and turned along a route that coiled through suburbs to Neptune’s Staircase on the outskirts of the city. Neptune’s Staircase is a series of seven locks that lift vessels (these days mostly pleasure craft – yachts, launches and the like) from the sea up into the freshwater Caledonian Canal. The Caledonian Canal is a remarkable engineering feat. It was built in the early 19th century to take barges across the highlands of Scotland by connecting three lakes – Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness – that lie end to end along an ancient fault line that has inflicted a deep diagonal incision on the mountainous interior of the country.
Our first day of walking on the Great Glen Way took us along a wide flat gravel path on the banks of the canal. At first the weather was warm and cloudy and the walking was easy, but as we left Neptune’s Staircase and walked into the farmland behind Fort William the sky turned sombre. We quickened our steps, trying to keep ahead of the intermittent spitting rain that blew up from the sea behind us and pattered against the hoods of our rain jackets. Around one o’clock we reached Gairlochy, a tiny hamlet built around a lock on the canal. Here we swerved away into the countryside towards our accommodation at Dreamweavers B&B about three kilometres off the Great Glen Way.
The sky was dark as we opened the gate in front of Dreamweavers at a quarter to two, but it was probably not as dark as the scowl on the face of the owner, Helen, as she emerged from the front door to investigate our arrival. She was a compact woman aged in her sixties with an attractive face and shortish blond hair.
“Did’ye not know, check-in time is four o’clock?”
“Yes, I did know that,” I answered, “but it is cold and threatening rain, and we have just walked more than twenty kilometres. There is nowhere else we can go so I was hoping we could check in early.”
“Well I canna let ye do that. Check in time is four o’clock.”
I tried to look old and pathetic. I pulled back the hood of my rain jacket to expose my grey hair. Emmy bent over her walking pole like a trembling old crone. We huddled against each other.
Helen was not moved.
“You can walk down to The Pines coffee shop and wait there until four o’clock.”
“How far is it?”
“How far exactly?”
“Och, about three miles.”
“We’re in our seventies, we’ve just walked twenty kilometres, it’s cold and starting to rain, and you want to send us on another hike?”
Helen considered this for a moment. She’s going to relent, I thought. But no.
“Alright, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll run you down to the coffee shop in my car. Then you can walk back after four o’clock.”
It was our best option. There was tense silence in the car as we headed along a narrow road to The Pines coffee shop at the front of an isolated resort hotel. Then, as we got out of the car, a breakthrough…
“If you give me a call around four o’clock I’ll come and pick you up.”
And that’s what we did. Feeling much improved after tea and scones I phoned Helen at four o’clock. Within minutes she was at the front door of The Pines and we were speeding back to Dreamweavers. In the front parlour she had set out tea and biscuits. Little by little the conversation delivered glimpses of another person. She had once been a successful teacher specialising in special-needs children. Her mother had developed Alzheimers and Helen abandoned her career to care for her. She injured her back in a fall in snow. She also suffered from inflammation of the digestive tract and could not eat solid food.
No wonder she was a bit cranky.
“Would you like more tea?” said Helen, warming to us as we were warming to her.
“Oh yes please,” Emmy and I said in unison.
“Good. Now where did I put the teapot?”
She looked around the cosy front room, its walls decorated with portrait photos of her lively, red-headed grandchildren. Tables, sideboard, window sill, even armchairs were searched… no sign of the teapot.
“Ah, here it is!” she exclaimed, picking up the teapot from the floor beside the fireplace. “It’s a good thing I don’t possess a credit card or a mobile phone. How could I keep track of them if I can’t even remember where I put the teapot?”
The following morning we sat down to breakfast with an English couple from Shropshire. The conversation turned to politics.
“How did you vote in the independence referendum?” I asked Helen.
“For independence, of course.”
She glanced at the couple from Shropshire.
“And I supported the Scottish National Party in the general election. We Scots are fed up with Westminster. Do you know how many parliamentarians are sucking at the public teat down there in London? Put the Commons and the House of Lords together and it’s well over two thousand.[an exaggeration… the real number is around 1400]. Even the Americans can’t match that. Their country is much bigger than ours but the US Congress has only about five hundred members.”
I decided to try a mildly provocative follow-up question.
“So if the Scots are fed up with Westminster, how come they chose so decisively to stay part of the United Kingdom?”
Helen’s answer was steaming with indignation.
“Do you know what those miserable Tories did? They phoned all the pensioners in Scotland and told them that if they voted for independence they would lose their pensions.”
The couple from Shropshire were sitting bolt upright in their chairs, their heads thrown back a little as if a strong wind was battering them. I could see they were Tory voters.
The conversation zig-zagged down the ravines and canyons of politics. When the subject of social welfare turned up the lady from Shropshire saw her chance to redress the lefty bias that had dominated the discussion.
“When I was young,” she announced, “my family lived in great hardship but we never received any financial help from the public purse. Nothing. And it didn’t do us any harm, in fact it was good for us. These days young people think they don’t need to get a job. They can live the high life at the taxpayer’s expense. Teenage girls are deliberately getting pregnant so they can live off social security benefits. It’s not right. They shouldn’t get a single penny.”
Helen and I exchanged a split-second glance. We were allies. Helen pounced first.
“Statistics show loud and clear that social security payments to unmarried teenage mothers are a tiny, tiny proportion of total outlays. But they have a big, very positive effect on the lives of the children involved. Why punish children by withholding support for them? And anyway, how can you know what the motivations of teenage mothers are? How can you know that an unemployed girl from the backstreets of Liverpool deliberately got pregnant to pinch money from taxpayers? Eh? How can you know that?”
The lady from Shropshire looked shocked. Clearly, in her circles these counter-views were never heard.
I was waiting my turn. I was thinking of Prince George and Princess Charlotte, the infant children of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. They would never know the character-building benefits of poverty. They would live lives of unimaginable privilege and luxury all at the expense of the British taxpayer. I smiled to myself and drew a deep breath.
But Emmy sensed I was about to open my big mouth and embarrass everybody. So she stood up abruptly.
“It’s time to get moving. We’ve got a long day of walking ahead of us.”
It was a struggle to get out of the dining room as Helen held forth in the doorway. Later as we sat at the front door putting on our boots Helen had kindly and useful advice on the conditions that awaited us.
Helen, we love you. You are by far the most intelligent and interesting host we have encountered on our travels. I think I’ll add you to the honour roll. Please, please, don’t change.
Like the yachts on the Caledonian Canal, we sailed smoothly up the gravel road on the canal’s bank. Thick conifer forests closed around us as we walked the north side of Loch Lochy. At the east end of the loch we crossed the canal on one of the lock gates at Laggan Locks. The next day the easy walking continued. We crunched along on the fine gravel of a beautifully renovated walking track that was once a railway line. It took us along the steep southern bank of Loch Oich. The weather was cool and overcast. Perfect for walking really. But as we circled the east end of Loch Oich a rain squall came sizzling up the lake from the west. We struggled into our wet weather gear, fighting hard against a fierce wind that tried to tear it from our hands. The fury didn’t last long. After just half an hour the rain was spent but a cold wind stayed pressed against our backs, pushing us towards Fort Augustus at the west end of Loch Ness.
We found the town jammed with hundreds of day-trippers. Many were lining the canal locks in the centre of town watching the spectacle of gates opening and closing, with small vessels rising and falling and water spilling and seething in the lock ponds. We headed straight for our accommodation at the Bank House B&B. It was around 2.00 pm, two hours ahead of the “official” check-in time of 4.00 pm. Given our experience at Dreamweavers I was worried our early arrival might be unwelcome. But our host Ian greeted us very warmly and immediately settled us into our comfortable room erasing in an instant the discomfort of the day’s walk.
The wind disappeared and as twilight slowly dimmed the sky we walked down the main street past the locks to the edge of Loch Ness. The lake lay glimmering quietly in the cold air. In the distance sunshine brightened a slash of high hills. A friendly calm wrapped itself around us. After half an hour of silence reluctantly we turned away and returned to our lodgings for a long night’s sleep.