Walking to Britain’s remotest pub

Strolling to the Old Forge

 

A two day solo hike over the Highlands to Britain’s remotest pub, in which I was surprised by frogs and found my inner gazelle. Writer’s cut (pre FT edit version) (click on pics for high res).

 

The Old Forge in Inverie is the most remote pub in mainland Britain. From the nearest village – Glenfinnan – the seaside hamlet of Inverie is a 28-mile yomp over the mountainous, road-free 17,500 acre Knoydart Peninsular – ‘Britain’s last wilderness’ – in the western Highlands of Scotland.

There are easier ways to get to Inverie. Speedboat from Mallaig, the harbour town terminus of the West Highland Railway, takes 10 minutes. You can drive to within only 16 miles, but retrieving your car is a long taxi ride. By far the best journey to the Old Forge is train to Glenfinnan, then a 28 mile hike, spending a night in a bothy. Unless you’re a masochist who fancies taking their inevitable hangover into the treacherous Highlands, the best way to leave is by boat.

To the bothy. 12 miles

The four hour train from Glasgow to Glenfinnan slices through such beautiful mountains andknoy1 moors that I managed only one paragraph of my book (scenery and one of the friendly American backpackers, right). After a marvellous four-poster sleep in Glenfinnan’s Prince’s House Hotel, I devoured their perfect fry up, and was ready.
The walk begins under the Glenfinnan rail viaduct (of Harry Potter film fame), follows Bonnie Prince Charlie’s 1745 Jacobite Revolution route into the mountains, then crosses three mountain ridges (view from viaduct below left). My plan was the first ridge on day one (12 miles), stay overnight in a bothy called A’Chuil (pronounced ‘ah, cool’), and finish the next day (17 miles).knoy26

I was alone. Walking alone is totally soulful. Once your internal monologue shuts the hell up, you become part of the landscape; just another animal making your way across it.

My rucksack was heavy with food, sleeping bag and other essential solo-walking kit, including map, compass and survival bag. There’s no mobile reception here, so you arrange to call someone when you finish. If you break a leg, you crawl to a stream (for water), wrap up warm, and wait.

knoy5Descending was soggy, steep and tough –the most difficult section of the entire walk. I lost the path several times, twice finding myself on slopes more suited to abseiling than rucksack-laden walking. Despite their vertiginous steepness, these slopes were made of soggy, grassy bog. After a few minor falls I had a bit of a cold fear sweat on, and a very wet arse.The route begins with three easy miles along beautiful Glenfinnan valley, then it’s three miles’ uphill slog to the first col (mountain pass) at 471m. Slog done, the views in opposite directions down two valleys were immense. Bang on the watershed, I found a pleasing little pond / big puddle from where the water could flow down either valley. A splash of my hand, and water previously destined for Loch Arcaig then Loch Lochy was re-routed many miles to Loch Shiel and the sea. Most satisfying.

knoy4However, the sodden sod was teeming, to my surprise, with mountain frogs (Are there such animals as mountain frogs? Possibly frogs on a hiking holiday). Birds flitted and tweeted, and two deer watched my faltering progress from a promontory. A stepping stone enthusiast would have loved the relentless fording of burns.

 

The bothy

Eventually free of the valley, back on a clear path, and apparently the only human in all this massive Highland scenery – and in the world as far as I knew – a final three mile march through warm scented pine forest took me to the A’Chuil bothy (there’s me alone in the wilderness below, albeit on a very man-made looking bridge (click it for proper view, as you can do with all these pictures)).

knoy6Bothies are stone sheds with fireplaces. You don’t have to book or pay, but you could find yourself sharing with absolutely anyone. I was hoping to be alone.

knoy8“Hello!” said Richard, a retiree from Glasgow, when I arrived at A’Chuil . “If you fancy doing some chopping, there’s the wood!

Later another solo walker – thirty-something Sheridan from London – arrived. He just missed seeing me standing naked in a stream, shining white and visible for miles around. It wasn’t the best wash I’ve ever had, but my inner naturist enjoyed it.

knoy9That’s night sleep on the wooden bothy floor, listening to Richard’s bizarre grunts from the room next door, wasn’t quite as good as the previous night’s four-poster delight. (Sheridan and Richard at the bothy above left, my room right).

To the beach. Seven miles

knoy11After a few hours sleep, I left the bothy at 5.45am, and headed up to the next col with the rising sun and a stiff breeze on my back. A good track sped me through a forest, then petered out, and it became hard going. The path was clear but rough and, despite the sunshine, soaking. Often my foot squelched ankle deep into smelly black mud. In many places opportunistic burns had appropriated the path’s course, and, rucksack-burdened, I leapt upstream from stone to stone like an obese gazelle (looking back at the bothy, above left, and, if you look carefully and have a good screen, below).knoy12

Talking of gazelles, I saw no rare wildlife on the walk; no otters, pine martins, wildcats or ospreys. Making up for the lack of more elusive fauna were deer, more frogs, the odd lizard, plenty of beetles resolutely following the path like dogs on their way home, and many huge bitey-looking flies.

Up I went, over another col (320m). Cols are better than peaks, because they open a whole new valley. Peaks are a climax, followed inevitably by mild depression. Cols promise new adventure.

knoy13Down a steep but wide-sided valley, I strolled past lochs and waterfalls to the sea. I sat on the beach, ate brunch (hotdogs in ciabatta), and kicked back as shelducks flew by. It’s important to see a long walk not as a rush, but as a multi-location picnic (although what kind of idiot carries tinned hotdogs 25 miles when it could have been, for example, shrink wrapped ham at a fiftieth of the weight?).

knoy15I was the only human there, where two valleys joined to become a sea loch. There were two beaches, a salt marsh, many birds, two tree-crowned islands, two rivers, cliffs, burns aplenty, waterfalls… and I was the only one there, just another animal. I’ve rarely been happier.

There were plenty of ruined cottages, however. There used to be a village here, but residents were forced out in the Highland Clearances, because they were no longer useful to the landowners.

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In 1997, still fed up with neglect from absentee landowners, an agglomeration of charities and locals bought Knoydart for £750,000. It’s now managed by the Knoydart Foundation. They generate their own electricity, maintain the paths and so on.

Over the big mountain. 10 miles

The final hurdle was the highest: 550m height gain in a mile. If the path was bad, it would have been knoy19nasty. It wasn’t though; the track was a well-maintained, impossible to lose, dry joy. I put my head down and stomped to the col, popping Jelly Babies (the best quick energy food) all the way. At the top, the Inverie Valley opened up. I was mildly euphoric.

There were seven miles downhill to the Old Forge, following an ever-growing burn along a lush valley of flowers and waterfalls flanked by psychedelically green moss. “I knew you when you were just a puddle on the col!” I told the burn near the end. It was time I had company (left, nearly there).

knoy22The Old Forge

After two days alone, I was slightly spooked by the 10-strong crowd drinking outside the Old Forge, butI joined the friendly mix of walkers and locals for a pint of Wayfarer. I met Ian and Jackie Robertson (left), the pub’s current owners, who told me they were selling because Ian is 64 and wants to retire. To Inverie. “Why would you go anywhere else?” Said Ian.knoy20

It was a cracking night, with superb food, good booze and friendly drinkers in an excellent pub, all the better for having been earned. The morning’s speedboat ride (below) to Mallaig cleared the head. Even better, as we came into the harbour, a basking shark swam crazily by, and I ticked the ‘seen a rare animal’ box.

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The Old Forge, Inverie: http://www.theoldforge.co.uk/,01687 460012 

The Prince’s House Hotel in Glenfinnan: www.glenfinnan.co.uk , 01397 722 246

The West Highland line: www.scotrail.co.uk

Visit Scotland: www.visitscotland.com

The Knoydart Foundation: www.knoydart-foundation.com