Thursday, 10 March 2016

Rob Roy Way: Aberfoyle to Drymen

Ben Lomond from the stone bridge over the Forth at Aberfoyle
Wednesday, 9 March 2016
Ascent:      285 metres
Distance:    18 kilometres 
Time:          3 hours 14minutes

Aberfoyle to Drymen is the last section of the north to south Rob Roy Way that I have been dawdling over for a few years. On a day like today it provides the very best of outings: relatively short but passing through some little visited remote trails and a chance to admire the great Victorian engineering of the Loch Katrine to Glasgow water supply. My intention was to do the Rob Roy Way north to south instead of the more usual south to north route. I have failed not only to do all sections in the right order or from north to south and I am only halfway through the walk. What I am enjoying is shuffling round the sections; each day is a surprise, a journey into the unknown, known parts of Scotland.

Beyond Balleich looking north to Drumlean

Track junction west of Balleich

Clashmore, where the track doubles down

Mating season

Victorian water pipe bridge over the Keilty Water

Looking north to the Menteith hills and Ben Ledi

Caribbean Blue

Radio Mast at the top of the Gartmore to Drymen road

One of the few signposts a mile north of Drymen

Campsies from outside Drymen

It was a fine March day and after the frosts had cleared I decided to walk the final leg of the north to south Rob Roy Way from Aberfoyle to Drymen. It is a half day walk through the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park and then onto the top road from Gartmore to Drymen for the last 6 kilometres. With the weather sunny and no rain likely I took the bare minimum - water, banana and jacket; and walked in just a pullover, jeans and an old pair of running shoes. It was cold but infused with bright sunlight.

As I passed through the village I met Keith Graham, who for many years had written a country column for the local paper and was a keen cricket coach. We discussed the emergence of Afghanistan as a cricket nation, they had just beaten Scotland and he told me that the game was flourishing with some fine cricketers emerging. He then told me that Cricket Scotland had decided to relocate its HQ to Stirling, attracted by the excellent cricket facilities at Forthbank. It was the sort of debate the Council had been having ten years ago when we eventually persuaded various sports clubs to relocate to Forthbank to release land for a new school and redevelop their dated facilities. It has paid off handsomely for all concerned..

The start of the walk leaves the village by crossing the bridge over the river Forth and heading south along Manse Road.  It is a route I do most days when running but walking allows more time to take in the surroundings and admire some of the views. Balleich is a small hamlet with Forestry Commission workshops and a handful of houses. Beyond here the track begins to climb and you are in the densely planted coniferous forest that is changing all the time as felling operations are sweeping through the plantations leaving swathes of open land blighted by tree stumps and punctuated by the odd limp birch tree that has been spared the chain saw.

The track climbs gradually and is fairly straight with just one left fork to take before arriving at the isolated cottage at Clashmore. There was no one else walking or cycling along this section and I allowed myself to be absorbed in a playlist of my favourite tracks that I had not heard for a year or so. On the day that George Martin had died it seemed appropriate to listen to favourite Beatle tracks first before reverting to shuffle. All sorts of memories were revived as I became lost in the music. Led Zeppelin's Going to California was particularly nostalgic, reminding me not only of the then indubitable american dream, now a long forgotten concept as Donald Trump milks the disillusioned blue collar vote, but also for the final lyrics:

"Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams,
Telling myself it's not as hard, hard, hard as it seems." 

These words had been etched into my mind about fifteen years ago as I cramponed my way up a slope of sheet ice on the way to a munro summit in a February storm. Visibility was minimal, the wind was taking the breath away and my hands were too cold to switch off my walkman. I persevered on hearing that it was not as hard as it seemed. Then Paul Simon's poignant and beautiful rendering of Father and Daughter. My pace lapsed as it always brings a tear as I reminisce on the joys of being a father to two daughters. Radio Ga Ga by Queen upped the tempo and helped me get back up to pace.

At Clashmore there are a couple of options, I took the one to the left and realised when I got home and consulted the map that it was longer but I had never ventured down this track before. The track twists through a number of low ridges, I kept to the right forks at each junction until arriving at a cross roads where I took the road to the left which I guessed would bring me to the water pipeline. The pipeline is a  massive and impressive feat of Victorian engineering that provides Glasgow with its water. I was relieved to pass a sign for the Rob Roy Way although I could have saved time and distance had I turned right at Clashmore. There was some compensation; I witnessed a large puddle with twenty or so frogs, they were engaged in a mating frenzy and it was effervescing as if it were a cold tub. I was then following the haphazard flight of a buzzard at close quarters as it tracked some prey.

It was good to escape the forest once I reached the water pipeline. It is largely buried but emerges to cross the Keilty Water where the quality of the engineering is revealed in all its cast iron glory. The track turns to the east towards the Gartmore to Drymen top road. I passed a woman walking dogs and then an elderly gentleman on an electric bicycle, he hollered at me "what a wonderful day". It was hard to disagree and I was pleased to see the benefits of an electric bike for someone in his dotage. Something for the future maybe.

I reached the road at the cottage and was disappointed to see that there were another three and a half miles to go, I had already covered 8 miles and my normally comfortable running shoes were beginning to blister me, There is long climb up the road until the Muir Park reservoir and then past the radio aerial at the highest point of 200 metres. A cyclist peddled past, his cadence suggesting a low gear and then an elderly couple in a car offered me a lift and didn't seem to understand why I would turn it down. He asked me if I had done National Service, I told him I was too young at which he started to give me his full military history. The road was quite narrow and he was driving alongside so I stopped walking to escape any further instalments.

The final downhill section to Drymen is an easy walk of a couple of kilometres although my blistered toes would dispute that. The views to the Campsies to the south east were spectacular as the afternoon shadows lengthened. On the other side there were glimpses of Loch Lomond and its smattering of islands. I had arranged a lift home from Drymen and arrived ten minutes later than I had estimated but I had walked a couple of kilometres more than the recommended route. I am not sure what or when the next leg of the Rob Roy Way will be but on present progress it won't be in any logical sequence, I have acquired a taste for shuffling sections according to my mood, bus timetables and the weather.

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