From Canterbury to Dover: a leisurely last course in our walking banquet

I take a selfie on the road to Dover

I take a selfie on the road to Dover. The mirror helps cars, and walkers, negotiate the narrow roads.

An army marches on its stomach. Walkers do too. We found that breakfast was a key element in our daily routine. The morning of Thursday September 3rd began with breakfast at Augustines B&B in Canterbury. Over the preceding month Emmy and I had experimented with breakfast. We tried small continental breakfasts – a croissant with butter and jam, some yoghurt, and a cup of coffee or tea. We also tried the mountainous full Scottish or full English breakfast – fried eggs, fried bacon, fried mushrooms, fried potatoes, fried tomatoes, fried sausages, baked beans, buttered toast and the piece de resistence, black pudding (fried, by the way). The continental breakfast did not give us enough ballast to hold course for more than an hour or so before we had to drop anchor and eat. The full English/Scottish, on the other hand, sent us straight to the bottom of the harbour. It’s difficult to set sail from down there. So we hit on a compromise: muesli (or cornflakes) and fruit with scrambled eggs and button mushrooms. This was the tasty combination that Louise – our very attentive hostess at Augustines – served, garnished with chatter that lifted our spirits in readiness for the day ahead.

The dreaded full English breakfast. Top left: black pudding. Bottom right (under the tomato): fried spud

The dreaded full English breakfast. It’s got everything. Clockwise from top left: black pudding, bacon, egg, mushrooms, tomato, potato (under the tomato) sausage, baked beans.

The more digestible option: scrambled eggs with (in this case) oatmeal cakes and cherry tomatoes.

The more digestible option: scrambled eggs with (in this case) oatmeal cakes and cherry tomatoes.

With our stomachs comfortably laden we rejoined the Pilgrims Way in the suburbs of Canterbury. It unrolled in front of us east towards Dover. We were heading away from Canterbury Cathedral, of course, so we were walking the Pilgrims Way in the “wrong” direction. But we were also walking the North Downs Way in the right direction towards its endpoint on the coast.

We walked across many kilometres of empty, silent fields. The solitude was blissful.

We walked across many kilometres of empty, silent fields. The solitude was blissful.

Sweet, juicy blackberries picked and eaten trackside.

Sweet, juicy blackberries picked and eaten trackside.

More trackside bounty: apples for the taking.

More trackside bounty: apples for the taking.

The path took us through rich farmland. We gathered wild blackberries (juicy and sweet) and apples from trackside orchards (tart but edible). We tunnelled through fields of head-high corn and graduated into a wide-open, bare expanse of newly harvested land. Between Canterbury and Shepherdswell – our stop for the night – we must have walked at least eight kilometres over tree-less fields filled only with stubble punctuated with the occasional hedge. Fortunately the sky was hazy and a friendly breeze fanned us. For hours we enjoyed one of the greatest rewards of walking – the profound pleasure of being utterly alone.

In the village of Shepherdswell we had dinner in a tiny pub, The Bell Inn, at the side of a village green scarcely bigger than the pub. A small group of men and women, children too, and dogs, clustered at the bar which was within arm’s reach of the dining tables. I made a complimentary remark about a flea-bitten pile of hair on the floor that looked something like a spaniel. This triggered an outbreak of friendliness. The dog’s life story was told to us in great detail. In its twilight years the animal’s last pleasure was to come to the Bell Inn, sit under a bar stool and sigh heavily from time to time. How I envied it. But it was deaf and nearly blind, so when the time came to go home, its owner almost literally had to tap the creature on the shoulder. It staggered to its feet and crashed into the bar, then looked around, identified the door and zig-zagged towards it. Behaviour possibly adopted from human models.

In the Bell Inn, Shepherdswell. Two dogs kept us company as we ate at the table on the left.

In the Bell Inn, Shepherdswell. Two dogs kept us company as we ate at the table on the left. The deaf and blind spaniel is snoozing on the right. Note the little girl in her pyjamas standing at the bar (partly obscured by the gentleman in the grey suit).

Meanwhile a menu had been scratched on a small blackboard. I ordered Chicken Masala at £9.80 (a bit over twenty Australian dollars). It took some time to prepare so I was anticipating a gourmet treat. When the meal arrived the chicken was “pulled” or shredded chicken in a brown barbeque-style sauce lying on a bed of greyish rice. Cautiously I lifted a forkful to my mouth. There was not a trace of any masala taste in the chicken and the rice was hard – not quite crunchy, but hard. And yet it was an Indian dish, because it came with a big crinkly pappadam glistening with oil.

Chicken masala, English country style.

Chicken masala, English country style.

The lady who had cooked the dinner emerged from the kitchen combing her hair and adjusting her horn-rimmed glasses.

“Everything all right?” she said stopping at our table and looking down at my plate with unmistakable pride.

“Mmmm, delicious,” I said. And indeed within minutes the chicken masala had disappeared, chased into my alimentary canal by a pint of cider. To be honest, once I had got over the initial shock and redefined the meal as not chicken masala but gastronomic Spakfilla, I quite enjoyed it. Walking does that for you… it gives you the gift of hunger, and the hungrier you are the less liable you are to quibble over little details like flavour and authenticity. What a relief to be free of all that and just eat.

The following day was our last day of walking. We faced a downhill stretch of just twelve kilometres into Dover. The weather was warm, hazy and still. The walking was easy, mostly through farmland and stands of straggly trees. As we neared Dover the North Downs Way joined with a tree-shaded branch of Watling Street, the old Roman road that, almost 2,000 years ago, reached from Dover into the interior of the Roman province of Britannia. Today the segment we trod is no more than a track with none of the Roman paving stones still evident. We could hear a whispering roar just beyond the skyline and as we neared Dover it became insistent and intrusive. It was the sound of heavy traffic on the A2 highway, the asphalt Watling Street of the twenty-first century that carries much of Britain’s trade to and fro across the Channel through Dover’s busy ferry terminal.

Dover Castle above the Victorian villas of Dover city. Our B&B was a similar building in the same street.

Dover Castle above the Victorian villas of Dover city. Our B&B was a similar building in the same street.

After dropping our backpacks at our B&B accommodation on Maison Dieu Street we headed for the waterfront. Dover city has little of the hyper-buzz of the terminal. In fact – just between you and me – Dover feels dispirited, even a bit seedy. We stood in front of the dingy Good Luck Chinese Restaurant debating whether to dine there. We decided its name was probably a warning to prospective diners and moved on. But, as we discovered the following day, Dover is redeemed many times over by the medieval castle on the brow of the hill high above the city. There is much to see there. The castle’s tall central keep, called The Great Tower, was built by Henry II in the late years of the twelfth century. Today it houses a truly remarkable and very accurate re-creation of the royal chambers of the time, including a blazing open fire and the king’s bed.

One of the beautifully restored royal chambers in Dover Castle.

One of the beautifully restored twelfth century royal chambers in Dover Castle.

On the Dover waterfront, within sight of the famous White Cliffs, we found the official endpoint of the North Downs Way etched into a stone paver. We were pleased to have arrived, but a faint sea breeze of regret also ruffled our hair. Emmy and I walk because we enjoy it. We don’t push ourselves hard, we have no big targets, we don’t talk much, we like resting almost as much as moving. But when we walk, every step brings the anticipation of something new, maybe something unexpected, maybe something challenging, and always (sorry… usually) something enjoyable.

Walking is something you can do on your own, in your own way, in your own time, and without too much fuss. And when you stop after a day’s walking – after the aches and pains, frustrations and fatigue have ebbed away – you get that fabled high, that mild sense of well-being that can last for days. We like that.

On the Dover waterfront I reach the endpoint of the North Downs Way.

On the Dover waterfront we reach the endpoint of the North Downs Way.

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The emptiness at the end: we spend a day in Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral's main tower seen from a neighbouring narrow street.

Canterbury Cathedral’s main tower seen from a neighbouring narrow street.

It was still raining as we walked into the pilgrim city of Canterbury through its medieval West Gate. Canterbury is not a big city (it has a permanent population of around 50,000 which rises to around 80,000 during university term time) so it didn’t take us more than fifteen minutes to stroll through its narrow streets to the city centre. But in the space of that fifteen minutes a miracle happened. The rain-filled clouds that had sagged above us all day – in fact for the previous two days – suddenly shrank away to the edge of the sky. We walked through Christchurch Gate into the yard of Canterbury Cathedral and stopped in astonishment. The ancient building was glowing tall, spiky and golden in a flood of warm sunlight pouring over it from a clear blue mid-afternoon sky.

Of course there are annoying, cynical academic types who will say this was not a miracle. Britain’s weather is very changeable and what happened was a routine meteorological event. It had nothng whatever to do with our arrival. Religion, they will say, is an alchemy of symbols and rhetoric that can transform the mundane, the trivial, the impossible, not to mention the downright bleedin’ obvious, into a mind-blowing miracle.

We arrive in steady rain at the medieval West Gate of Canterbury city...

We arrive in steady rain at the medieval West Gate of Canterbury city…

... and fifteen minutes later, Canterbury Cathedral bathed in sunshine against a blue sky. A miracle, just for us.

… and fifteen minutes later, Canterbury Cathedral bathed in sunshine against a blue sky. A miracle, just for us.

But what do they know? The pilgrim sees with the sharp vision of hope, the rationalist sees with the narrow, picky vision of evidence-based science clouded by an excess of data, cushioned by the comforts of hindsight, and aware that scientific “truth” is never final, perfect or uncontestable.

In the spirit of imperfect scientific enquiry I decided to attend the daily ritual of Evensong. So towards half-past five that afternoon Emmy and I entered the cathedral and stood on the gleaming flagstone floor looking up open-mouthed at the vast vault above us. The tourists had been cleared out and a resonant silence filled the airy interior. We went up several wide stone steps into what is called “the quire.” Here several rows of dark wooden pews lay lengthways on either side of the stone floor. They were slightly raked one behind the other like seats at a tennis court. Vergers in long, swinging black robes paced up and down solemnly ushering worshippers to their seats. We opened a little wooden gate at the end of one pew, squeezed in and took our seats in carefully nurtured silence. Around 100 people were in attendance.

The Quire in Canterbury Cathedral where Evensong is held, with ranks of pews left and right.

The Quire where Evensong is held, with ranks of pews facing each other left and right, and the lectern for scripture readings bottom centre.

A river of mellow organ music flowed gently into the quire in intricate melodious eddies. We couldn’t see the pipes or the organist, the music was just there, part of the ambience. At precisely 5.30 everyone stood up and twelve all-male choristers (in a bizarre touch they are officially called “lay clerks”) filed in wearing long white smocks with split sleeves draped over black full-length cassocks. The procession forked into two groups of six, each entering a pew that faced the other across the floor. A priest – a woman – welcomed visitors and extended a special word of welcome to newly arrived pilgrims.

The Evensong service got under way with a contrapuntal “responsory” in which the two halves of the choir spoke musically to each other. The bass, baritone, tenor and counter-tenor (falsetto) voices danced slowly and delicately around one another in an elaborate, gravely beautiful musical gavotte. This was followed by versicles intoned by a choir member in a high, half-spoken half-sung monotone and responses intoned in similar style but with extended contrapuntal elaboration by the rest of the choir. The cathedral itself seemed to sing an ethereal third line of counterpoint in the faint resonances it sent back from its walls and windows.

O Lord, open thou our lips.
And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

Then came the first reading, the opening verses of Psalm 14.

The fool hath said in his heart “There is no God.”

I sat up and paid attention. This was getting personal.

They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. No not one. The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there were any that did understand and seek God. But they had all turned aside, they had all been totally corrupted. There is not one that doeth good, no, not one.

I suppose I should have been chastened by these tough-love words, so obviously true in my case. But I was not humble enough. Inwardly I nodded, but outwardly I looked as indifferent as I could and returned to enjoyment of the music. The choir of Canterbury Cathedral is deservedly world famous. The disciplined passion of its singing is striking. Its gentle surges and passages of repose are beautifully modulated. Everything is balanced, pure, harmonious and serene. The singers are artists of the highest order.

Evensong ended with the normal Anglican-Catholic confession of faith (which I allowed to pass by me completely of course) and the singing of Nunc Dimittis (Now go forth), a simple and powerful dismissal that encapsulates the spirit of Christianity as it rose in Palestine two thousand years ago.

***

The following day Emmy and I returned to the cathedral to have a good look around inside and out. Again we stood transfixed in the long hall of the nave. Far above us the stone ribs of the walls bent inwards on either side and splayed like palm fronds to intertwine in an ornate pattern of criss-cross curves and circles down the length of the ceiling. Between the trunks of stone embedded in the walls, narrow stained glass windows cast glittering glances of bright blue and red light into the bower-like space of the nave.

The main nave of Canterbury Cathedral. To give you an idea of its dimensions, the tiny figure standing bottom-centre is Emmy.

The main nave of Canterbury Cathedral. To give you an idea of its dimensions, the tiny figure standing in the aisle before the altar is Emmy.

Readers of this blog will recall that several times I have complained about the misuse of churches to put a gloss of Christian respectability, even piety, on the lives of those who have participated in military murder, especially in wars of imperial aggression. (See Glazgeh: the friendly city and Santiago, killer of Muslims). Canterbury Cathedral is no different. One wall tablet commemorates eight local military personnel who were killed in the 1914 Battle of the Falkland Islands against a German sea squadron. In typical fashion their deaths are dedicated “to the glory of God”. Another commemorates the life of Major Simon Willard who, in the seventeenth century colony of New England (North America) “was made commander-in-chief of the British Forces against the hostile Indian tribes.”

Even an imperial war in southeast Asia is commemorated in this tablet.

An imperial war in distant Southeast Asia and another in South Africa are commemorated in this tablet.

I suppose you can argue that by condemning these violations of basic Christian teachings I am judging the people and events of history by values that were not current at the time. This would not be true. Nothing is more basic to Christianity at whatever time in its history than “You shall not murder” and “Love your enemies.” Christian pacifists (i.e. those who try to live by the values taught by Jesus Christ) have always been present at all times in history, but they have been ignored, or treated with contempt or ruthlessly eliminated by the hypocrites of mainstream “Christianity”. Saint Augustine (354 – 430) exhausted much of his considerable brain-power thinking up justifications for war and his thinking has been influential. Even today, as many protest at religious justifications for war and religious excuses for murder, the Augustinian nexus between the “Christian” establishment and the waging of war remains unbreakably strong.

Much of Canterbury Cathedral’s allure down the ages comes from the events of 1170 when its archbishop Thomas Becket was assassinated inside the cathedral by agents of King Henry II. Today the gory details of the murder are told with special relish. By my count we heard three times during our visit that an assassin’s sword lopped off the top of Becket’s skull leaving his brain exposed. Apparently Becket was still alive at this moment, but one of the assassins then dashed the archbishop’s head against the floor scattering his brains and blood over the flagstones. Visitors can stand at the exact spot where this happened, as I did, but I was examining the floor so closely I forgot to take a photo.

Within two years of his death Becket had been appointed a saint and his grave in the apse of the cathedral became a popular place of pilgrimage. But 350 years later King Henry VIII changed that. In his campaign to purge the Catholic faith and the Pope’s authority from England he ordered that Becket’s remains be dug up, his bones pulverised and the tomb destroyed. In later centuries, with the decline of religious bigotry, pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral resumed.

The absent tomb of Saint Thomas Becket, marked by a single candle in an empty space.

The absent tomb of Saint Thomas Becket, marked by a single candle in an empty space.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 2nd I reached the end point of the English Camino. The spot where Thomas Becket’s tomb once stood – now called Trinity Chapel at the far end of the cathedral – is marked by a single candle standing on the floor at the centre of an empty space. There are no remains, there is no tomb. As I stood there a small crowd of pilgrims pressed around me.

“There is nothing here,” one whispered. “It is empty, like Christ’s tomb.”

Faith creates its own reality. If the tomb had still been there it would have been seen as proof of Becket’s sanctity and the truths he stood for. But for some, apparently, its eerie absence under the cathedral apse is even more convincing, even though all that remains of Becket now is a mirage of stories. Perhaps (I am hoping) some pilgrims may ask themselves whether Canterbury Cathedral’s final emptiness – the absence at the heart of its magnificence – tells us something useful about the character of religious faith.

***

As Emmy and I walked the streets of Canterbury city we couldn’t help but notice the pervasiveness of Chaucer and pilgrimage in the city’s place names. We walked past another final destination in the pilgrimage of life, a retirement home for ladies and gentlemen called Pilgrims Lodge (at number 10-12 Pilgrims Way).

A rest home for elderly ladies and gentlemen at the end of life's pilgrimage: Pilgrim Lodge on Pilgrims Way.

A retirement home for elderly ladies and gentlemen at the end of life’s pilgrimage: Pilgrims Lodge on Pilgrims Way.

“Perfect for us,” I exclaimed. “Let’s go in and check it out. Maybe we can make a booking.”

It took just a single glance from Emmy – no more than a nano-second – and yet another of my brilliant ideas was shot down in flames.

Walking the English Camino

One of the small icons guiding walkers along the Pilgrim Way to Canterbury.

One of the small icons guiding walkers along the Pilgrim Way to Canterbury.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the first substantial work of literature in English, although most speakers of English today need a translation or paraphrase to understand it. Written late in the 14th century, it was immediately popular. One hundred years after it was written it was among the very first works to be mass-produced (on a modest scale) using the new technology of printing. It has remained a widely-read classic of English literature into the present. Basically it is a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims as they travel the Pilgrims Way from London to the holy tomb of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral about 90 kilometres to the south east.

The prologue to the Canterbury Tales describes the pilgrims as they assemble at the Tabard Inn in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames near London Bridge. More than 600 years later, on August 22nd 2015, Emmy and I dismounted from our donkeys in front of a smoke-filled hostelry in Southwark near London Bridge. The innkeeper appeared in the doorway accompanied by a mouth-watering aroma of roast goose and barley ale. I greeted him politely.

“I bid thee good morrow, master,” I said doffing my cap and bowing low as Emmy modestly primped her wimple.

Hmmm… let me rewrite that.

Emmy and I disembarked from a train at London Bridge tube station and made the short walk to our rented apartment in Southwark, just minutes from London Bridge and the high-tech landmark of The Shard. Graham, the owner, greeted us and explained the 100-channel TV set and the high-speed Wi-Fi. He recommended some nearby Spanish and Italian restaurants and listed the supermarkets where we could buy pre-cooked, plastic-wrapped meals.

A week later, having been catapulted out of London by train, we stood in a narrow lane in the village of Cuxton, six kilometres west of the regional centre of Rochester. We were facing the very modest entrance to the eastern half of the North Downs Way, a path that would partly piggy-back on the Pilgrims Way and take us to Thomas Becket’s holy tomb.

The unpretentious

The unpretentious “kissing gate” at the start of the eastern half of the North Downs Way in Cuxton, near Rochester. Note the way markers nailed to the post on the right. We’re heading in the right direction.

The pilgrim road to Canterbury fell into disuse after King Henry VIII launched an assault on the Catholic Church, its monasteries and its pilgrimage traditions in 1537. But it didn’t disappear altogether. Much of it was taken over for general transport purposes and later became asphalt highway. That’s why it is no longer possible to walk the entire length of the pilgrim path. It is simply too dangerous for pedestrians to mix it with modern traffic. Where possible the North Downs Way follows the old pilgrim path (or certain threads of the path), but whenever the path becomes highway walkers have to veer away from it and tramp over other ancient public trails and footpaths that lie like a cobweb over the rural landscape of England.

Emmy walks into the light as we head for Saint Thomas Becket's resting place in Canterbury.

Emmy walks into the light as we head towards Saint Thomas Becket’s resting place in Canterbury.

After an hour’s walking through open fields and canyons of woodland under a warm overcast sky we drew breath at the enormous, multi-lane complex of four bridges that span the Medway River at Rochester. Chaucer’s pilgrims would have crossed the Medway at this point too, possibly spurring their frightened horses over the stone bridge that was completed there in 1391.

From the Medway Bridge we set sail across the gently surging hills of Kent. Near the village of Blue Bell Hill, southeast of Rochester, we connected for the first time with the Pilgrims Way. Its broad flat surface offered welcome relief from the narrow track we had been treading. We stepped on and off the Way repeatedly as we headed towards Canterbury.

The wide,flat Pilgrims Way, a welcome sight for walkers who've been tramping rougher tracks.

The wide,flat Pilgrims Way, a welcome sight for walkers who’ve been tramping rougher tracks.

The modern iconography of pilgrimage at the Black Horse Inn in Thurnham.

The modern iconography of pilgrimage at the Black Horse Inn in Thurnham.

Everywhere there were reminders of the region’s pilgrim history. Some trackside icons pointing the way to Canterbury depicted a pilgrim wearing a cassock and brandishing a walking staff. Near the village of Harrietsham we came across a whimsical, life-size wooden carving of a pilgrim monk resting thoughtfully on a bench at the trackside. Medieval pilgrimage was a motif at the Black Horse Inn, our accommodation for the night in the hamlet of Thurnham about twenty-two kilometres from Cuxton. The inn’s cramped central room with its low ceilings, open fire-place, awkward nooks and crannies and crooked age-blackened beams was built in the thirteenth century. Dense strings of dried hops hung from the ceiling, a traditional decoration that is renewed from year to year. Perhaps medieval pilgrims in their grimy cassocks and straw-padded sandals had ducked their heads beneath this same bushy canopy.

The thirteenth century interior of the Black Horse Inn with dried hops decorating its ceiling beams.

The thirteenth century interior of the Black Horse Inn with dried hops decorating its ceiling beams.

As I tucked in to my tasty dinner of slow-cooked lamb shank and minty mashed potatoes an unwelcome echo from The Canterbury Tales turned up in my head. It came from the knight’s tale.

“The world is nothing but a thoroughfare of woe down which we all pass as pilgrims…” said the Knight.
“That’s why we are all here,” said the Franklin, interrupting the knight.
“The whole world is an inn,” our Host said. “And the end of the journey is always the same.”
“God give us grace and a good death.” This was the Reeve, crossing himself.
“Amen to that,” the Knight replied.

I didn’t echo the Amen. Rather I turned my attention to the dessert of sticky date pudding and whipped cream. Too much reading can make you gloomy.

***

The following morning dawned dim and rainy. I tried to be cheerful. Again my mind darted back to The Canterbury Tales. I recalled its upbeat opening lines…

“When the soft sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things, refreshing the parched earth, nourishing every sapling and every seedling, then humankind rises up in joy and expectation. […] This is the season for travellers. That is why good folk then long to go on pilgrimage. They journey to strange shores and cities, seeking solace among the shrines of the saints. Here in England many make their way to Canterbury and the tomb of the holy blissful martyr Thomas.”

An hour later I was cursing Geoffrey Chaucer, the madness of religious pilgrimage and the sheer unpleasantness of walking in Britain’s summer. I skidded down a mud-lubricated trough that someone – probably a bright-eyed hiking fanatic – had labelled a “path”. A path? It was a water-filled rut. Thick slimy hamburger-patties of dirt stuck themselves to the bottom of my boots as the “path” made vertical zig-zags over steep rain-sodden ridges. I looked at Emmy and noticed a film of mud creeping up her water-proof leggings. I was no better. An unscheduled wallow in a mini-bog had left dirt all over my leggings, backpack, and even through my hair. Already I sensed I was in for one of the most trying days of walking I would ever experience.

a rain zombie haunts the Pilgrim Way just east of Thurnham.

A rain zombie haunts the Pilgrim Way just east of Thurnham.

Emmy disappears into the misty rain as we struggle towards Charing.

Emmy disappears into the misty rain as we struggle towards Charing.

As the morning passed the rain thickened. Mist crowded in on us. Kent’s fabled “outstanding natural beauty” retreated, became blurred, and eventually disappeared altogether behind a veil of mist. At times we were walking through a grey-white tunnel where the only reality was foot before foot, plus ghostly branches and the struggle to stay upright. A break for lunch brought little relief. Somehow the rainproof cover over my backpack had disappeared, probably torn off by branches during a stooping detour around a mud hole. My backpack was limp with water and my sandwiches were too. But I ate them and felt better. The walk was indeed (as Chaucer’s knight put it) “a thoroughfare of woe” but after sandwiches and a mouthful of chocolate the woe was pretty bearable. And the rain had started to ease.

Hmmm... after a day of walking through steady rain, this headline is not much consolation.

Hmmm… after a day of walking through steady rain, this headline is not much consolation.

Nevertheless it was a long, tough day. As we trudged into the Bowl Hill Inn outside the town of Charing more than six hours had passed with just seventeen kilometres to show for it. In the bar the day’s newspaper lay draped across a stool. A jumbo-size headline on the front page proclaimed “Twenty minute walk each day adds seven years to your life.”

“Yes,” I thought, “and six hours on England’s Camino – if it’s raining – can dramatically reduce your interest in that extra seven years.”

I contemplate the downside of pilgrimage along England's Camino.

I contemplate the downside of pilgrimage along England’s Camino. Apparently my medieval alter-ego had similar doubts.

** The quotes from The Canterbury Tales come (with a few tweaks) from Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful prose paraphrase The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer translated and adapted (Penguin 2009).

Walking when you’re old

A typical way marker on the Great Glen Way near Inverness.

A typical way marker on the Great Glen Way near Inverness.

A few years ago Emmy and I were expelled from a beautiful country where we had been doing quite a lot of walking. It was a nice, peaceful country with wonderful scenery. We didn’t want to leave but we were told our visa had expired and could not be renewed. We were frog-marched to the border and forced across it into the neighbouring state. We’ve now put the frontier some distance behind us as we walk into this new and unfamiliar territory. It’s called The Seventies. It lies between The Sixties where we used to live, and a remote, rarely-visited state – a bit like Bhutan – called The Eighties. We have noticed that the countryside seems to be getting more and more Bhutan-like. There is a range of very high mountains in front of us and we can’t see what’s beyond it. So we have been trying to find an easy way through.

OK, OK… that’s enough of this allegorical stuff. This post is about the challenges of long distance walking when you’re old, so let’s get down to business.

First the bad news.

Stamina  When you’re old the capacity to persevere over long distances goes into decline. A decade ago I could knock over twenty-five or thirty kilometres a day and feel no ill effects. Now I find it a challenge to walk twenty kilometres a day. I can still do it, but I usually feel quite tired at the end of the day.

Strength  Muscles start to weaken in old age so you can’t lift a heavy backpack so easily or lever yourself up steep inclines. Worse, muscles hold the bones together, so as they weaken you are more likely to dislocate a joint or suffer a slipped disc in the back.

Fragility  The bones, joints and muscles become more fragile. It is easier to injure yourself – to break a bone, to pull a muscle, to sprain your ankle or feel stress-pain in the knees. And if this happens it takes longer to recover, for tissue to repair itself or a broken bone to knit.

Less speedy  Increasingly you lose the capacity to run or suddenly move fast. So when you have to cross a road (for example) you can’t rely on speed to avoid cars. You can’t run to reach shelter if it starts to rain. You can’t ford a stream by hopping nimbly from stone to stone.

This segment of

This segment of “path” was more like a rocky stream. Between Ardlui and Crianlarich on the West Highland Way, 30 July, 2015..

Balance  Balance becomes less secure as you age. This can be a problem when you are crossing stiles or moving over rough ground or when you are going down a steep incline or when the path is slippery. And the problem of poor balance can be exacerbated if your eyesight is also in decline because good balance seems to depend on collaboration between your inner ear and your eye.

Hydration and urination  Old people are less able to deal with extremes of temperature, especially heat. We get dehydrated and over-heated quite easily and this slows down the workings of the brain as well as the body. When you’re on your own in a remote place you don’t want to get mentally confused. You will also probably need to urinate more often (the ageing bladder seems to have less carrying capacity).

Now for the good news.

Long distance walking is low-impact exercise that you can do well into extreme old age. To be honest though, I don’t do it primarily for health reasons. The health benefits of walking are a welcome spin-off, of course, but they come second to the inner walk you undertake whenever you pull on your boots. I walk mainly because I enjoy the constantly shifting views, the peering around corners, the isolation and silence, the glimpses of wildlife, the sudden surprising sparks of thought, the guilt-free munching on chocolate. I’m pretty much in the same mould as Gu Yanwu and Patrick Leigh Fermor (both of whom have made an appearance in this blog) but needless to say I’m a bumbling Wile E. Coyote compared to these road runners.

In truth, the frailties I’ve laundry-listed above don’t amount to much. They can easily be combatted by keeping an eye on three key watchwords: preparation, caution and concentration.

Preparation  Don’t make the mistake of starting a long walk too casually. You need to know as exactly as possible what you’re letting yourself in for. I’ve failed to do this a couple of times and got myself into trouble. Afterwards I berated myself for being geriatrically unprofessional (a certain amount of professionalism is required to be a successful old person). For an example of what can happen if your preparation is careless have a look at my post of August 8, 2011: https://walktenthousandmiles.net/2011/08/08/i-misjudge-the-cumbria-way-and-pay-a-painful-price/.

Without over-burdening yourself you need to be better prepared than younger walkers, mainly because you’re more vulnerable if anything goes wrong (and rest assured, something will go wrong sooner or later). A check-list may be a good idea. Like an airline pilot you should do a disciplined pre-departure check:

  • well broken-in boots
  • a broad-brim hat and long-sleeve shirt
  • first aid kit
  • plenty of drinking water
  • rain jacket, water-proof leggings, waterproof backpack cover
  • lunch, plus a snack or two like a chocolate bar or a muesli bar
  • spare socks, foot talc and blister plasters
  • sunscreen and insect repellent
  • walking poles
  • maps, compass and/or GPS device
  • trowel and tissues
  • multi-function tool

Most important of all, make sure you’ve built up your fitness gradually but as fully as possible before you start your walk. Ideally you should do a couple of dry runs over similar terrain and distances to the walk you are planning. As far as distance is concerned it is sensible to cut your coat to fit the cloth available. But being “sensible” is a bit boring. Just between you and me it is also good to stretch yourself a little – maybe stretch yourself a lot. The grimace of doing so is quickly transformed into a smile when you successfully push yourself beyond what you thought was “sensibly” possible.

Caution  Be ultra-careful. There is nothing worse than pulling a muscle when you are putting your socks on, or leaving your maps behind in the grass after a trackside toilet break (I’ve done both). As you age you can’t recover so easily or quickly from mistakes and accidents. So err on the side of caution in all you do. And remember: slow is good.

But having said that, don’t get fixated on risk-free walking. Old people need to take risks as much as callow, shallow youths do. Taking risks is risky, but it is also very good for your mental resilience. A word of warning though… you should be selective about the risks you take. In particular, as far as possible your risk-taking should not inconvenience younger people, the public at large, or “the authorities”. Although some people admire risk-taking in old people, most people have a double standard. They don’t mind young people taking risks (that’s “normal”) but they may get annoyed when risks are taken by “some old fool” they think should be doing crossword puzzles with a rug over their knees in front of a heater. So try to ensure that you, and you alone, bear the consequences of your risk-taking. That way you can avoid being patronised when things go wrong.

This smug-looking walker has just scaled the heights above Invermoriston on the Great Glan Way.

This smug-looking elderly walker has just scaled the heights above Invermoriston on the Great Glen Way.

Concentration  Surprisingly, walking demands pretty intense concentration over many hours. You can’t just set your feet in motion, then daydream or rubberneck. It is mentally exhausting to walk a long distance. There are two main reasons for this. First, to avoid getting lost you need to concentrate hard on navigation. Most of the tracks I have walked have been well way-marked, but there are tricks and traps in even the clearest track. Sometimes path markers get overgrown, on some the paint may have faded or flaked, elsewhere signs, markers or landmarks may simply have disappeared. Even the path itself may disappear. And maps are not always clear either. It is often hard to match the coarse scale of a map with the immediate detail you are facing. Maps also get out of date quite quickly. GPS devices and compasses are very helpful but they have to be consulted. They can’t stay in your pocket. So even with this technology unrelenting vigilance and frequent stopping are important.

Another potentially dangerous descent on the north shore of Loch Lochy, Great Glen Way, 8 August, 2015.

It looks benign, but the gravelly surface makes this descent potentially dangerous. North shore of Loch Lochy, Great Glen Way, 8 August, 2015.

Second, tracks can be rough – stony, slippery, twisty, narrow, muddy. A lapse in concentration can bring a stumble or the potential disaster of a fall. Don’t forget, if you are carrying a backpack you will be top-heavy. So it may be more difficult to keep your balance, and a fall can very easily be a heavy crash. And tracks can be very up and down. For elderly walkers a steep descent is an obstacle to be feared. It threatens severe punishment for even a split-second lapse of concentration. But again there is good news. Concentration is an excellent tonic for the ageing brain. The more you have to concentrate the better you are able to concentrate. For old walkers a strong mind is as essential as a strong body. The ageing body is quite resilient and adaptable, but when it falters the ageing mind – stiffened by hours of concentration – can step in and push it on.

Now, as I puff and stagger towards the end of this post, I want to recommend two items of gear that walkers of any age, but elderly walkers in particular, should have. First, walking poles. Two of them. Walking poles have two main functions that are crucially important for old people. Most importantly, they help a lot with steadiness and balance especially on steep descents, but also, they take a bit of pressure off your legs by giving you a lot of extra leverage through the arms. So don’t even look out the front door without a pair of them.

Walking poles are essential to help get you through muddy patches. Near Crianlarich on the West Highland Way, 30 July, 2015.

Walking poles are essential to help get you through muddy patches. Near Crianlarich on the West Highland Way, 30 July, 2015.

Not beautiful, but an effective solution to chafing and blisters. Injinji toe socks.

Not beautiful, but an effective solution to chafing and blisters. Injinji toe socks.

Second, buy some toe-socks. These are specially made socks with a little pocket for each toe, like the fingers on a pair of gloves. I used to suffer from blisters caused by chafing between toes. My toe socks stopped this problem instantly and permanently. The brand I use is Injinji. Before putting them on I powder my toes and feet very thoroughly with fine, sweat-absorbing talc. I also powder the outside of the toe socks and put on a second pair of socks, ordinary ones, usually thin white cotton socks. So I have two layers of socks. There is a bit of slippage between them that helps prevent blisters. Since adopting this strategy five years ago I have walked many hundreds of kilometres without a single blister, or any other kind of foot problem.

Ah… the end of this post has come into sight. It lasted longer than I expected but I took it slowly and I got there in the end. Time to rehydrate with a pint of calorie-rich cider.

You have to be careful going down steep descents like this one. The pebbly surface is treacherous.

You have to be careful going down steep descents like this one. The pebbly surface is treacherous. On the West Highland Way between Ardlui and Crianlarich, 30 July, 2015.

In Inverness and Edinburgh: two very different commemorations of war

... and a satisfying welcome.

A satisfying welcome…

The last leg of the Great Glen Way was straightforward – a day’s walk that took us along a clearly marked, well-worn track through conifer forests, moorland and farmland down to the beautiful parks and public gardens of Inverness. We had arrived on the other side of Scotland!

At the end of a long walk...

… at the end of a long walk.

After a bath and a quick rest at the creaky but comfortable Acorn B&B we headed for Jimmy Chung’s All-You-Can-Eat smorgasbord restaurant to celebrate. I tucked in to a big and very unhealthy meal of limp fried chicken dug up from its grave in a heap of greasy fried rice. This was followed by an even more unhealthy dessert of super-sweet, soft-serve ice cream topped with caramel goo all washed down with fizzy cider. This gastronomic cavalry charge should have broken through the defence lines of my digestive system and inflicted heavy casualties, but my stomach got up from the table and headed out the door totally unscathed, although at least a kilo heavier. My digestion had been battle-hardened by daily meals in the pubs of highland Scotland. It was now equal to any challenge, even Jimmy Chung’s.

I had a special reason for loitering a day in Inverness – I wanted to visit the scene of the Battle of Culloden (1746) in which Hanoverian English forces and their Scottish allies commanded by Lord Cumberland smashed the rebel Scottish army under the Jacobite Prince Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. Echoes of the calamity have survived into the twentieth century in the worldwide Scottish diaspora triggered by English actions after the battle. I can remember my grandfather John G. Quinn talking eloquently about the great Scottish victory over the English at Bannockburn (1314) but speaking with equal bitterness about the disaster of Culloden. It must have been during a winter visit to our home in Benneydale in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island when I was about nine or ten years old. Granddad – known as “Grumpy” – sat up late into the night with me and my brothers Jim and Keith in our darkened living room before the slowly dying glow of a coal fire. We were all in our pyjamas ready for bed, but bedtime came only when we fell asleep on the cool linoleum of the living room floor.

Grumpy taught us American songs (“My name is Yon Yonson, I come from Wisconsin…”) and Scottish songs (“Just a wee deoch ‘n doris, just a wee dram that’s a’…”) and snatches of poetry by Robert Burns (“Wee sleekit cowrin’ timrous beastie…”). His face flickered black and orange in the firelight as he described the catastrophe of Culloden, the seizure of highland lands, the dismantling of highland culture and the brutal ethnic cleansing of highland Scots by the English and their Scottish allies. Culloden and a pungent, smoky fireplace still go vividly together in my memories of childhood.

My grandfather, by the way, was not a highland Scot. He was of Irish descent from a family that had migrated to Scotland more than a hundred years after the Battle of Culloden. Yet he felt a kind of Celtic solidarity with the Scottish victims of English barbarity and arrogance.

On Friday August 14th Emmy and I boarded a commuter bus for the half-hour ride to Culloden Moor on the fringes of Inverness. The site of the battle has been fenced off from the creeping approach of suburbia, and a custom-built information centre stands at the edge of the moor. This hosts one of the finest reconstructions of an historical event I have ever seen. It is especially impressive for its determination to accurately represent both the Jacobite and the English government causes.

The bleak Culloden Moor, much the same today as it was in 1746.

The bleak Culloden Moor, much the same today as it was in 1746 when it was the unlikely scene of a battle that changed the course of Scottish history and world history.

Visitors pass along several halls that present information on the religious, successional, military and social prelude to the Jacobite rebellion. The manoeuvrings of the two sides during 1745 are depicted in animated maps and colourful displays, including the Jacobite army’s incursion deep into England, the panic in London, the hurried marshalling of English defences and the eventual retreat of the Jacobites back into Scotland. As a walker, I was impressed – astonished actually – that to sustain the morale of his men Bonnie Prince Charlie appears to have walked at the head of his army from the Scottish border to Derby in the English midlands. As the crow flies this is a distance of around 300 kilometres which they covered in one month. But the army also meandered through Carlisle, Manchester and several other English cities so it is likely the prince and his men actually walked a considerably greater distance. (He went back to Scotland on horseback, though.)

The multi-media halls present the Jacobite story on one wall and the English story on the opposite wall. I found this even-handed coverage to be illuminating. It was also challenging because it undermined some of my long-held pro-Scottish sympathies. It gave me a view of the campaign that was much more rounded than Grumpy’s stories.

Having taken in the pre-battle information, visitors are ushered into a seatless cinema where a truncated and very realistic re-enactment of the battle is projected on 360 degree surround screens. It is as if you are standing between the two armies. You come away with a vivid picture of how hopelessly out-gunned and out-maneuvered the Scottish rebels were. They were good at close-quarter fighting but Cumberland’s forces were much better armed and better disciplined. Fired from a distance their grapeshot and musket balls made short work of the rebels. After the five-minute show you leave the small cinema shaken by the brutality and inevitability of the slaughter.

But the best (worst?) is yet to come. The cinema delivers you onto the battlefield itself. The flat moorland, covered in tussock grass and heather, is little changed from 270 years ago. Blue flags (Jacobites) and red flags (government) show where the two armies lined up. Discrete memorial stones show exactly where clansmen fell. Low-profile paths make it possible for visitors to walk the battlefield and view the terrain as the Jacobite and government troops would have seen it. To walk those paths under a dour Scottish sky is a memorable and sobering experience.

At a memorial cairn on the Culloden battlefield.

At a pro-Jacobite memorial cairn on the Culloden battlefield.

The following Tuesday, after a three-hour train ride south, Emmy and I were in Edinburgh. At nine o’clock in the evening we clawed our way through festival crowds to Edinburgh Castle where the annual Royal Military Tattoo is held. As we shuffled to our seats on terraces above the parade ground I was preparing to grind my teeth for ninety minutes. I would be muttering adjectives like “jingoistic”, “kitschy”, “over-the-top”, “crass” and “clunky”. I practised rolling my eyes.

But the very first minute of the tattoo routed my prejudices. An officer stepped forward, snapped a salute, and pronounced the initial salutation. It was in Scottish Gaelic. It rang loud and solitary across the hushed stadium. In the space of a few seconds the strange, ancient syllables had shredded my scepticism just as the Latin anthems of evensong can shake the convictions of an atheist. Culloden and its aftermath had not destroyed the Gaelic language or highland military traditions. It had radically changed them, certainly, but it had not destroyed them. I calmed down and sat back ready to enjoy the show.

There was literally a cast of thousands, with thumping drums and screeching wheeling bagpipers, highland dancing girls in flouncing kilts, Bollywood dancers in swirling glittering saris, undulating Chinese dragons, Swiss drummers clattering with staccato precision, and much more. And what was this? The brass band of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army!? Unbelievable but true. And did they play the “Internationale” or “The East is Red”? No way. They oompah-oompahed up and down the parade ground playing “Scotland the Brave”.

The show was indeed jingoistic, kitschy, over-the-top, crass and clunky but it was also colourful, entertaining and emotive. It had all the coherence of a Jimmy Chung dinner and it was just as delicious. Like the great mass spectacles of North Korea its main function was to make art from the military necessity of discipline and precision. And despite myself, I was willing to be taken in.

The clincher came towards the end. In a sudden cocoon of silence a solo piper sent out a Scottish lament from high on the walls of the castle. It was emotionally manipulative, sure, but even knowing this, I found it moving. It had – dare I say it? – meaning far beyond the froth of words. So I can’t translate it into words. All I can do is urge you to listen to it when the inevitable replay of the Tattoo hits TV screens later this year.

The Royal Military Tattoo about to get under way as night falls over Edinburgh Castle.

The Royal Military Tattoo about to get under way as the rain dries up and night falls over Edinburgh Castle.

A day in Drumnadrochit, home of the Loch Ness monster

There is a mad look of triumph in my eyes. I spent a day in Drumnadrochit!.

You may remember, in a previous post I reported that the name “Drumnadrochit” resonates with me. I speculated that it awakened a primitive memory of my Celtic past. You can’t say “Drumnadrochit” without sounding sorta Gaelic, especially if you can gargle the /ch/. It has pretty much escaped being spray-painted in an Anglicised beige by the English language. Most Gaelic place names in Scotland have not been so lucky. The name Inbhir Nis, for example, has been beige-washed into the form “Inverness” so that it harmonises with English nouns like goodness, happiness, kindness etc. and proper names like Harkness. The Gaelic Chuil Lodair – scene of the famous battle near Inverness in 1746 – has become the nice tame Culloden. The Gaelic Ceann Gronna has become the pure English Kinghorn, Obar Deathain has become Aberdeen, and so on. The capital of Scotland, Edinburgh, was once known as Dun Eideann – the hillfort of Eideann. The Gaelic dun (hillfort) was chopped off and replaced with the English borough (in the eccentric spelling burgh) which was then nailed to the rear end of Eideann to make it conform with the morphological conventions of English.

A road sign in Scottish Gaelic and English.

A road sign in Gaelic and English.

For the past fifteen years the Scottish government has implemented a policy of bilingual (Gaelic and English) road signs in highland Scotland and in the western islands. These signs are now general and they are spreading to the names of buildings and organisations, indeed to public signs and announcements in general. When we crossed by ferry from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye, announcements on the ship’s public address system were in English and Scottish Gaelic. Gaelic signage is now reaching beyond the highlands and the traditional Gaelic-speaking areas into the southern regions of Scotland too. And the BBC’s Gaelic-language TV channel BBC Alba can be seen in all parts of Scotland. As I write these lines in Edinburgh, I am watching the cartoon program Transformers on BBC Alba with robots bouncing across the screen speaking gruff but fluent Gaelic.

Drumnadrochit has come under pressure from English too. The “real” form of the name is Druim na Drochaid (the ridge of the bridge), so “Drumnadrochit” is a partial Anglicisation. But worse, much worse, many people abbreviate the name to “Drum”. This abomination even appears on a couple of signs in the village, including in the name of the main supermarket.

Nevertheless, it is good to see Gaelic fighting back. It is part of a wider yearning among Scots – especially in the highlands – to have their unique identity mainstreamed. This is one of the most powerful drivers of the Scottish independence movement. Unfortunately it is no longer possible for Scottish identity to be purely Celtic. The English language and England’s often barbaric domination of Scotland are now part of Scotland’s heritage. You can’t press a cultural reset button and go back to pre-Sassenach times. So Gaelic will continue to live side by side with English, and given the global authority of English, Gaelic (like Welsh and Erse) is likely to remain the language of a small minority in its own homeland.

***

On the morning of Tuesday, August 11th the siren call of Drumnadrochit (if you will permit me to be even more pretentious than I usually am) lifted Emmy and me from the three-pronged junction at the centre of Invermoriston village and dragged us up a long, very steep, zig-zag climb. It was tough going. We had to stop often with our chests heaving. But there was a morale-boosting moment too. We came across a group of cyclists – four men and four women in their early twenties – struggling to push their heavily laden bikes up the steep incline. Flaunting our fifty-year age advantage and twirling our walking poles we pirouetted past them on twinkling toes (ahem… some exaggeration here, you understand, but very minimal).

Vista in the high road between Invermoristen and Drumnadrochit.

Vista on the high road between Invermoriston and Drumnadrochit.

It was a long, slow ascent but eventually we surfaced above the tree line. Inadvertently we had chosen to walk the high road to Drumnadrochit. There is also a low road – a path through dense stands of conifer forest running close to the shore of Loch Ness – but somehow we missed the turn-off and didn’t realise our mistake until the cold of the high hills began to pinch our faces and slither in a clammy trickle down our backs. But we were amply rewarded with silence and the exhilaration of walking across empty spaces without fences or boundaries. The treeless earth rolled away to the horizon, then to more horizons beyond. The hazy sky withdrew high into the air above us. The path faltered as if it too wanted to disappear into the vastness.

Emmy reaches a monument marking the highest point on the path between Invermoristen and Drumnadrochit.

Emmy reaches a monument marking the highest point on the path between Invermoriston and Drumnadrochit.

Luckily we didn’t get lost. After a couple of hours the path dipped down to the rim of the incline that nose-dives into Loch Ness. Here we could look left and right and see practically the whole length of the lake. It stretched out below us like a giant silver sword lying deep in cushions of moss-green velvet hills. A few tiny V-shapes in the water showed us where yachts were creeping up and down the lake.

This is what happens to you when you do too much walking. Covered in sun screen I take a selfie on the heights above Loch Ness.

This haggard individual has been doing too much walking. Covered in sun screen I take a selfie on the heights above Loch Ness.

Our path sloped gently away to the north east. The walking became easier. Around mid afternoon we caught our first glimpse of Drumnadrochit. It was not what I expected. Where were the two or three smoke-filled stone hovels I had seen in my mind’s eye? Where were the sharp-faced, crabby old crofters cutting peat and living a subsistence existence with their ragged sheep? From a distance Drumnadrochit was a sizable settlement. Rows of neat picturesque houses with grey slate roofs over white stone walls stood amid lush trees and fields. I learned later that more than 2,000 people live in the village. Farming and tourism are the main sources of income, but Drumnadrochit is also a dormitory community for people who work in the offices of Inverness, a mere half an hour’s drive away on the A82 highway.

The village hasn’t lost contact altogether with its rural remoteness. Left and right of the A82 highway right in the centre of the village, flanked by souvenir shops, a pub and the supermarket lie fields filled with grazing cattle and big rolls of fresh-cut hay. Many old houses are still standing too, with low doorways that open directly on to the footpath and small upper-floor windows you can almost reach up and touch. In some streets they line up opposite brand new developments that more-or-less maintain the architectural character of the village but offer more room. As we breakfasted in the bright conservatory of the Tramps B&B we looked out over a neighbouring paddock filled with rust-coloured highland cows – the ones with sharp-pointed handlebar horns and a fringe of hair that covers the face. Twice during our stay a cow managed to jump the sagging fence and go meandering down the middle of the street. The local community seemed to enjoy shooing it back into the paddock… it was an opportunity to stand in groups in the middle of the road and catch up with local gossip.

A strip of old houses in Drumnadrochit.

A strip of old houses in Drumnadrochit.

Drumnadrochit is riding into the future on the humps of the Loch Ness monster, known affectionately as Nessie. We took a cruise on the lake with George Edwards, a local identity who has been out on the waters of the lake almost every day for the last fifty years. In 1989 he discovered the deepest point in the lake a murky 248 metres below the surface, “much deeper than the North Sea” George stressed several times. Today the spot is known as the Edwards Deep.

George is a true believer, a stalwart of the Nessie industry. He thinks there are several of the creatures in the lake, not just one.

“I have seen them myself several times, most recently in 2009 when I took a photograph of one of them.”

The photo was displayed in the cabin of the boat. It showed an indistinct, blackish, fish-like shape on the surface of the water. Under pressure from sceptical passengers George admitted the photo was far from conclusive evidence, but he also emphasised that the technology did not yet exist to rule out the existence of the creatures.

“The water is simply too turbid,” he said. “Sonar can’t penetrate it.”

As he said this he was using the boat’s sonar to show interesting images of the lake’s bottom. Loch Ness is shaped like a bathtub with almost vertical walls and a flat featureless bottom. There is very little life in the lake: not many plants and just a few freshwater crustaceans and tiny fish. Not enough – one would have thought – to sustain a herd, or even a small family, of large prehistoric animals. Eventually George Edwards made a revealing statement. As we floated close to the shore near the ruins of Urquhart Castle he swept his arm airily over the lines of tourists trekking ant-like among the castle’s tumbled walls and towers.

“Do you think swarms of tourists would ever come to Drumnadrochit just to see another mouldy old ruin? They want Nessie, and they certainly won’t come here if all we can tell them is… Nessie doesn’t exist.”

Drumnadrochit’s Loch Ness Centre provides an interesting overview of the lake and its mysterious inhabitant. In a series of deft and attractive multi-media presentations it sketches the history of monster sightings. It also gives interesting and attractively packaged information on the geological and biological character of the lake. And most importantly, it sums up the damning scientific evidence against the monster’s existence. But unfortunately even this scientific presentation fudges its conclusion.

“So does the Loch Ness monster really exist?” it asks as if the question was still open. “You be the judge.”

Just down the road at the Nessie Centre the question is not even asked. Here fantasy has routed science and chased it from the battlefield. Nessie kitsch rules in a thousand different guises. Disney-style cuteness has moved in. You can buy a dozen different cuddly stuffed Nessies, all bright green with big eyes and goofy grins. There are Nessie cartoon story books, Nessie tee-shirts, Nessie fridge magnets and shot glasses, even Nessie cushions. Outside the Centre there is a nice big fibre-glass Nessie where children can have fun hugging its neck and sliding down its humps.

A Nessie storybook for children...

A Nessie storybook for children…

... and cutsie-pie stuffed Nessie monsters to help tolddlers get to sleep after their Nessie story.

… and cutsie-pie stuffed Nessie monsters to help toddlers get to sleep after their Nessie story.

Yes, the monster really exists, but it is a carefully designed commercial monster. And there are thousands upon thousands of customers eager to embrace its “reality.” Why?

Why even ask the question… after all, the Nessie myth just a bit of harmless fun, isn’t it?

Well, yes and no. On the face of it Nessie is indeed fun, but is it wholly harmless? The Loch Ness monster is disputed booty in several wider culture wars. For a start, Nessie seems to be swimming up and down at the boundary between science and fantasy. The impulse to fantasise – to tell stories – is instinctive and powerful and healthy. But it can produce an undesirable side-product – the idea that scientifically verifiable evidence doesn’t matter. The story’s the thing. Myth is inevitable so the anthropologists tell us and maybe (just maybe) Nessie is a myth that must exist. But anti-science is a big, and apparently growing, problem in so-called technologically advanced societies and Nessie seems to have been captured by the science-deniers.

Commerce depends a lot on the Nessie myth. Here a company providing fresh water calls itself Thirsty-Ness and even makes its name look like a stylised Loch Ness monster.

Commerce depends a lot on the Nessie myth. Here a company providing fresh water calls itself Thirsty-Ness and even makes its name look like a stylised Loch Ness monster.

Even condom sales get a boost from Nessie.

Even condom sales are stiffened by the Loch Ness monster.

Diving a little deeper, it also looks as though Nessie embodies the yearning of many for some kind of uncivilised wildness. (It is a yearning that pumps the legs of certain elderly long-distance walkers.) Civilisation has not been around long enough to completely erase our instinctive impulse to connect with a wild environment. We want Nessie to exist so that she (he? it?) can reassure us life’s not just nine-to-five. But modern commerce – regimented, regulated, tunnel-vision focussed on profit – is the implacable enemy of wildness. So Nessie can exist but must be regulated for commercial ends. The “monster” of wildness must be made cuddly, cute and efficiently saleable.

A tee-shirt targeting the stressed parents of little monsters. Awww... so cute.

A tee-shirt targeting the stressed parents of little monsters. Awww… so cute.

***

As we walked the streets of Drumnadrochit I said to Emmy:

“Let’s sell our place in Canberra and move to Drumnadrochit. I want to reconnect with my wild Gaelic past.”

She didn’t need to say anything. “Withering” is a strong word but it is much too feeble to describe her look. Ah well… another great idea bites the dust.

Ignoring the coming-and-going of tourists, cows still graze in the village of Drumnadrochit. That's our B&B at the rear of this photo.

Ignoring the coming-and-going of tourists, cows still graze along the streets of Drumnadrochit village. That’s our B&B at the rear of the photo.

From Fort William to Fort Augustus: we survive an encounter with Helen

The Great Glen Way runs through a disused railway tunnel on the south bank of Loch Oich.

The Great Glen Way runs through a disused railway tunnel on the south bank of Loch Oich.

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.

Emmy at the start-point of the Great Glen Way in the centre of Fort William

Emmy at the start-point of the Great Glen Way in the centre of Fort William.

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.

Most (but not all!) of the Great Glen Way is easy walking. Here, between Fort William and Gairlochy the path runs flat and wide beside the Caledonian Canal (left). It even has occasional trackside benches. Perfect for old people like us!

Most (but not all!) of the Great Glen Way is easy walking. Here, between Fort William and Gairlochy, the path runs flat and wide beside the Caledonian Canal. It even has occasional trackside benches. Perfect for old people like us!

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.

Looking back towards Fort William from near Gairlochy, the mountains are still flecked with snow, and the summit of Ben Nevis (right) is blanketed in cloud as it usually is..

Looking back towards Fort William from near Gairlochy, the mountains are still flecked with snow, and the summit of Ben Nevis (right) is blanketed in cloud as it usually is..

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?”
“Not far.”
“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?”

Walking through dense conifer forests on the north side of Loch Lochy.

Walking through dense conifer forests on the north side of Loch Lochy.

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.

Trackside lunch amid blackberries with Scotland's dour highland hills glowering above.

Trackside lunch amid blackberries with Scotland’s dour highland hills glowering above.

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 quiet waters of Loch Ness on the evening of our arrival in Fort Augustus.

The quiet waters of Loch Ness on the evening of our arrival in Fort Augustus.

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.

Boats queue to enter the locks behind me at Fort Augustus. At 7.00 pm the temperature has fallen to around ten degrees. Ah... summer in Scotland.

Boats queue to enter the locks behind me at Fort Augustus. At 7.00 pm the temperature has fallen to around twelve degrees. Ah… summer in Scotland.