Day 62: Tarmac
Winchburgh to Kilsyth. 28.6 miles. Miles to date: 931.9.
I was swimming against the tide and gradually losing buoyancy.
That’s how it felt it as I lowered myself into a seat in the busy Falkirk Wheel café, cradling a mug of tea as the rain battered the windows, rippling in curtains down the glass panes that allow visitors to look up at one of the engineering marvels of our age, slowly rotating like a titan’s timepiece.
I was 19 miles down with nigh-on ten to go. And I was weary of the walk, bored of the rain and depressed by the surroundings – mighty wheel notwithstanding. My feet were battered, blistered and bruised; 19 miles pounding tarmac does that to you.
And the hours would not diminish. I looked again at the maps, then the clock. Even if I carried on at the same pace I’d not be in Kilsyth before 20:30. 12 full hours of walking – my longest LeJog day yet.
I looked around at the tourists marvelling as a canal boat rose into the grey. There were no dripping waterproofs or sodden walking boots in here. Just happy kids and goggle-eyed adults holding cameraphones.
And I thought, yeah, I’d like that. Just for one day. To be a tourist that hops into a coach to tick off the next highlight on the itinerary.
It was probably my personal low point of the trail.
Then I picked up the phone to tell my B&B I’d be late… and fortune shone on me.
The view from the café. It was teeming down.
At 28.8 miles today was the furthest I’ve walked on LeJog by a couple of miles, and in the sore aftermath in yet another town that tourists never see I stand by my assessment of distances made three weeks back.
Under 12 miles is barely worth getting out of bed for. 12–16 miles is an enjoyable day’s walk. 18–20 stretches you but is manageable. More than 20 is hard work. 25 and over is simply too far to be fun. Hence the Marathon, I guess. The distance looms, weighs and drags, so that even with a respectable eight miles under your belt you’re not even a third of the way home.
On the plus side this was one of the flattest walks to date – a straightforward plod along the remainder of the Union Canal to Falkirk and then a continuation along the Forth & Clyde Canal. I climbed less than 560ft in the entire day.
So far, so good.
The problem is that canal towpaths are never as easy as they should be. I’m not sure the physiology of it, but assume it’s something to do with the fact that the feet, toes and ankles get tired quicker when they’re called on to perform the same motion repeatedly. Throw in some hills and different muscles are used, giving others respite. On the canal it’s the same tread over and over again. Before long I was desperate for any kind of gradient to give my feet a break.
Level walking: bad for the sole.
There’s also a mental element at play. When the scenery’s engaging your mind is diverted from the monotony of the pace; there’s tangible – viewable – progress as you chip away the miles. And while there were moments of enjoyment to be had on the canals, these are quiet and often lonely waterways, that slowly but effectively wore down my spirits.
But even that wasn’t the hardest thing. The hardest thing was the tarmac, the cruellest walking surface of all, for 28.8 miles until my feet became so raw it felt like I was walking barefoot.
Much of the day was along pleasantly wooded stretches.
Last of the big bings.
There were plenty of canalside estates.
Regular milestones. On one side they show the distance to Edinburgh, on the other the distance to Falkirk.
Some LeJog days feel like tests, where every factor that impacts on the walk weighs against you.
On days like that the weather plays a cheerleading role.
If it had been heavy rain all day – as had been forecast – I wouldn’t have minded so much. You get kitted out and slog on through it.
But as I left my AirBnB, prepared for the worst, it was dry. An hour later I was still plodding along in waterproofs and gaiters while bemused cyclists biked past in shorts and T-shirts.
So I took a breather, packed up my waterproofs and set off again.
Five minutes later the rain started.
Even then it didn’t rain with commitment, so that I continued for a good half hour, getting slowly wetter but not wanting to stop and put my waterproofs back on until the drizzle became rain proper and I had no choice, by which time I was pretty much sodden.
It was to form the pattern of the day. I’d just be finding a rolling pace when I’d be forced to break again, swapping camera and phone into different pockets to keep them dry.
At one stage it was hard not to take the weather personally. Every time – bar none – that I got my iPod out and put the earbuds in to relieve the monotony of the walk the rain would start. If you’d been in the environs of the delightful Redding canalside industrial estate at around 6pm and seen a bedraggled wayfarer throwing expletives at the sky that was me. I gave it a right good telling off.
Distant Linlithgow Palace. The spire is amazing. But there was no time to stop and enjoy it.
The canal opens up with farms on either side.
Wildflowers carpeted the banks of the canal.
There was infrequent canal traffic.
The Avon Aqueduct.
Grangemouth oil refinery. On some parts of the walk today you're only a few miles from the Forth.
While I was busy getting wet, the goal of the day was to get west.
Here’s the thing.
If you use the Pennine Way to enter Scotland at Kirk Yetholm you end up in about the worst place possible to approach the West Highland Way.
It’s why a good number of LeJoggers choose instead to head directly north from Edinburgh, through Fife and up through the Cairngorms to Inverness, cutting off the semi-dogleg of the West Highland and Great Glen Ways and saving a few days walking to boot.
Another option is to abandon the Pennine Way earlier – at High Cup, for example – then head north through Cumbria and the Lakes to enter the Scottish Borders on the west, putting you in prime position to trek up to the West Highland Way’s start point just north of Glasgow in Milngavie.
But if – like the majority of LeJoggers – you want to do both the Pennine and West Highland Way then you’ve got no choice but this long cross-country trip west.
As a consequence the first week in Scotland can feel like you're sailing into the wind, as you clock up nigh on 100 miles west and just a handful north. Today’s a case in point: 28.6 miles across, but I’m actually only half a mile further north – and further away from John o’Groats – than I was this morning.
It's not atypical. I barely travelled north on Day 60 between Melrose and Innerleithen. And Day 55 Kirk Yetholm to Jedburgh was south all the way. It's the price you pay for completing the Pennine Way and ending up at Kirk Yetholm – which is not that far from the North Sea.
I’ve got to stop making a habit of it.
Parts of the walk were grim. This is the Young Offenders Institution, Polmont.
Polmont industrial estates.
What felt like the world's biggest Tesco store, in Polmont. I went there for lunch. There was a strange moment when they said they were out of veg burgers. I told them that had freezers full of them downstairs. They then found one.
Approaching the Falkirk Tunnel.
Inside the tunnel.
Water was pouring from the tunnel roof in places. Note the crazy jet on the far right of the picture.
After spending the best part of five days walking canals so far on LeJog – be they in Bath or Birmingham – I’m pretty much done with them. And while both the Union Canal and Forth & Clyde Canal are – for the most part – pleasantly rural, flanked by miles of wildflowers, plenty of old woods and, in places, open countryside, these are quiet stretches of water. Often desperately so.
If your gongoozling love is the busy industry of canal life then these canals are not for you. The constant cycle of tourist barges on the Falkirk Wheel notwithstanding, only a handful of narrowboats passed all day. And if your thing’s locks you’re in for disappointment too: the Union Canal runs 31 miles on the same 73m contour. Which may be technically impressive, but it doesn’t add much interest to a towside walk.
I’d have liked more human activity to pass the hours, but though there was the occasional cyclist and jogger to nod hello to, they were few and far between. These canals have a wilder feel than the English counterparts I trod. There are benefits to that: wildlife was flourishing in and alongside the lilied waters. But it was scant compensation for miles of lonely walking.
As such, the highlights of the day were all engineered.
The first, the 600 metre long Falkirk Tunnel – famously blasted out of Prospect Hill so that the 18th century industrialist William Forbes didn't have to view the canal from his estate – was not the gloomy claustrophobia-inducing experience it might have been, but actually – with its coloured fairy lamps throwing reds and yellow ripples across the murky waters – quite fun, like a fairground ride for those who like their thrills at a snail's pace. As you walk along the cobbled towpath the light at the end of the tunnel grows steadily until you’re back in fresh air. (Or, in my case, the rain).
The Avon Aqueduct, the second longest in Britan at 810 feet in length, is also quite a sight, though – walking the narrow cobbled pathway with canal on the left and a 90 foot drop on the right – not for the acrophobic.
But the day’s unquestionable highlight – and probably the manmade highlight of my entire LeJog - was the mighty Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift that's as tall as eight double decker buses.
I won’t describe the physics. It’s down to water displacement apparently. Meaning boats can be raised 35 metres between the Forth & Clyde Canal and Union Canal – a journey previously made on an 11 lock staircase – with barely any power required at all.
The scientific principles at work may be elementary, but the engineering and design is breathtaking, on a scale that stopped even this wet and weary walker in his tread. A proper wow moment, and I’d love to have stuck around.
I’ll definitely be back.
Approaching the Wheel.
A boat leaves the top of the Wheel.
I loved it.
It was reassuring to see, even on this quietest of canals, a few lads with lager and captain's hats braving the rain. I'd have welcomed a lot more.
So there I am in the Falkirk Wheel café, rain hammering down, 19 miles down with ten to go, as I reach my LeJog low point.
I phone the B&B – who’ve kindly offered to pick me up from the canal – to let them know I’m running late.
I’m at the Falkirk wheel, I say. I’ll be in Kilsyth in three or four hours.
“You're at the wheel?” the owner repeats. “That’ll no' be three hours.” A gentle laugh. “You’re only 20 minutes away.”
I can’t believe what he’s telling me. “20 minutes? Seriously?”
“Aye, You’re just up the road.”
Relief floods every vein of my wet, flagging body. I’ve made some kind of navigational error to the tune of ten miles. I must have input a figure wrong on my daily route spreadsheet or something. Twenty minutes. I feel like a prayer I never made has been answered.
I was just about to organise the pickup when my host speaks up again: “Just checking, you are driving, aren’t you?”
My heart sinks.
No. I'm walking,
“Act, sorry. That’ll be more like… yeah, three or four hours.”
And my heart sinks further.
I pull on my waterproofs as the tourists in the Wheel café sip coffee and head into the downpour.
I’m done with the walk.
I was done with it miles back, but my patience – like the skin on the ball of each foot – has been worn away.
I’m done with the weather that won’t let me be. The rain that's toyed with me all day and which is now sending wind in eddying gusts strong enough to throw me from the delicate stride that is the only thing keeping me going.
I’m done with the tarmac, which holds nothing but punishment for knackered toes and soles. Tarmac is for cars and bikes, not walkers.
I’m done with the solitude of it; a loneliness more resolute than on the bleakest stretches of the Pennine Way.
And I'm done with the relentless poverty, which is there in every tumbledown lock keepers cottage, in the padlocked warehouses, the monochrome estates on the hillsides that are on no-one’s political radar. The rain, falling in wind-whipped blankets, is a desolation too far. So are the regular canalside notices talking of the area's golden past: mining, ore processing, Alfred Nobel’s vast explosives empire. Once, no more. These are towns born to an industry that’s passed forever on. The sunny names – Bonnybridge, Summerford, Brightons, Greenhill – can't hide their dispositions.
As I chip away at the painful miles there are three moments that lift the spirit.
A dart of blue: a kingfisher gone in the blink of an eye.
A movement ahead. An otter eyeing me from the path. It hangs around for a while, then plops back into the canal.
Finally, at mile 25, a little old guy in shorts and T-shirt, laughter lines making every expression a smile. “You been far.” He says. It might be a question, might be an observation.
I tell him my story. He tells me his. He’s climbed the Munros. He's walked the world. Trailed from Germany to France via the Alps. Rambled with his boys from Cape Wrath south. All long before there were guidebooks and bothies. HIs wife is ill now, he says; he doesn’t get out like he used to. But he’s here. Treading this canal towpath at eight o’clock. The first person in eight miles.
Temporary lifts. But no more than that, as I creep over the marsh of Dullatur Bog that runs so deep the canal engineers had to stack its embankment up 16 metres before it settled, and finally – finally – to Kilsyth, and a riverside Inn that’s heaving with couples in their Saturday night gladrags.
A woman in high heels outside is chatting to her other half: “I can’t wait to get my shoes off,” she says.
I know how she feels.
The final few miles were a tortuous – and straight – slog above the marshes.
No day is the full Morrissey.
If you’d ended up limping into rundown Kilsyth to find a bed it might have been.
But salvation comes from the LeJog Brother and Sisterhood.
Specifically Mark Moxon, who recommends a little farm B&B up the valley.
There are a choice of rooms at Allanfauld – all cosy, in a beautiful old farmhouse with big views.
There’s fresh milk and tea. Twix Bars on the tray.
And a bath.
It feels like a secret handed to end-to-enders as a reward for making it along the canals.
I settle into the soft bed and nurse my swollen feet.
And vow never to walk 28.8 miles again.
I *so* wanted this walk to be over.
End of the day: the canalside Inn in Auchinstarry, just south of Kilsyth.
Next: Day 63 – Kilsyth to Killearn.
Previous: Day 61 – West Linton to Winchburgh.