Tuesday, September 18, 2007

1 July: Grasmere to Glen Coe

We went downstairs to the Banerigg's cheery breakfast room around 8 a.m. and were served a generous full English breakfast by Angela. The only glimpse we got of her husband was through the little pass-through in the wall to the kitchen. We shared our table with a young woman from San Francisco who was eating alone because her husband wasn’t feeling well. She was a very typical San Francisco hippie hiker type. Actually it was pretty funny – John poured himself a glass of orange juice and set it down by his place, then went to get some fruit. In the interim, the San Francisco woman wandered in, sat down at John’s place, and started drinking his orange juice! You should have seen the look on John’s face when he returned to the table. He didn’t say anything, just stared for a moment, set his bowl of fruit down at the place next to me, turned around, and went to pour himself another glass of juice!

We checked out after breakfast and Angela waved us out of the driveway to make sure we didn’t meet an untimely end with one of the speeding cars coming ‘round the bend. We stopped briefly in Grasmere but most of the shops were closed – including a very nice-looking art gallery – because it was Sunday. It seems our brief impression of the Lake District will be one of incessant rain and mist-shrouded green hills, but it does look like a beautiful area. We headed north through the countryside, stopping occasionally to take pictures of lush sheep pastures and crumbling rock walls, which made for quite picturesque compositions despite the dreary weather (photo, right).

At the large town of Keswick, which marks the northern edge of the Lake District, we planned to head east towards Penrith and the M6, but we decided to detour slightly to visit Castlerigg, a circle of standing stones just outside of Keswick. The well-marked route led us out a country lane, where we parked along the road and walked a few hundred feet through a sheep pasture to reach the circle.

Castlerigg is one of the earliest stone circles in Britain, dating to around 3200 B.C., and is the most visited stone circle in Cumbria. The stones, made of local slate, are much smaller than those at Stonehenge (the tallest stone in this ring is 2.3 meters, compared with 7.5 meters at Stonehenge), but the circle’s lonely position atop a low rise, surrounded by windswept peaks and green fells, makes for quite a dramatic setting (photo, right). A few other people were exploring the site with us, including a family with young kids who insisted on playing tag between the stones (this is precisely why I was glad that Stonehenge is roped off!). Castlerigg consists of 38 stones laid out in a slightly flattened circle; only four are missing from the original configuration. A low rectangle of ten more stones stands within the ring, touching the edge of the circle on its eastern side. Astronomers have noted that the sun rises over the top of nearby Threlkeld Knott during the autumn equinox, and some of the stones are aligned with the midwinter solstice and various lunar positions. The circle was thought to be connected with the nearby Langdale axe-making industry, and two Neolithic polished axes were found at the site in the nineteenth century.

We wandered around the site for a while, contemplating its serene setting and enjoying the view of the surrounding countryside, then headed back to the car. We cut east to the M6 and then hightailed it north, past Carlisle, into Scotland. I tried to take a picture of the “Scotland Welcomes You” sign, but I was using our little point-and-shoot Canon and it focused on the raindrops on the windshield instead of the sign – effectively summing up our weather experience thus far! We passed Lockerbie (notable in our minds as the site of the 1988 Pan Am terrorist bombing) and hit heavy traffic as we approached Glasgow, which appeared to be caused by an accident on the M6. We did not hear until later that evening that there had been a terrorist attack at the Glasgow airport the night before, although when we passed the airport we noticed nothing amiss.

Susie, in all of her infinite wisdom, shunted us off of the motorway early and onto the A82, straight through downtown Glasgow. It was slow going but at least we got to see some of the city rather than being stuck in traffic on the motorway. We passed through an interesting area full of trendy interior design shops and then an ethnic quarter lined with Chinese and Indian restaurants. Once out of Glasgow we headed towards the town of Dumbarton and the Erskine Bridge. Unfortunately I was a little confused about where we were on the map and didn’t realize that we were already on the north side of the Firth of Clyde. I ignored Susie and told John to take the Erskine Bridge. It took us a few minutes to realize that we were headed south over the bridge, back towards the airport, instead of north! We started paying attention to Susie again and eventually got ourselves turned around and going in the right direction (fortunately there are no longer any tolls on the bridge!).

After this little blunder we had smooth (albeit slow) sailing up the A82, along the shores of Loch Lomond (the largest loch in Scotland, with a surface area of more than 27 square miles) and through the Trossachs, a scenic area of wooded glens and small lakes. The road was a winding two-lane highway that took us through dense forest along the lakeshore, past the famous Loch Lomond Golf Course, home of the Scottish Open. The scenery started becoming really dramatic as we turned northwest at Crianlarich and approached Rannoch Moor, a bleak fifty-square-mile expanse of boggy moorland, bristling with hardy rushes and pockmarked by gleaming pools and low hillocks (photo, right). I kept making John pull over so I could take pictures. Of course the pull-offs were never where I wanted my photos! The thin ribbon of the A82 cut straight across the moor, and we felt very small in the vast sweep of water, earth, and sky.

Finally we entered Glen Coe itself, said to be one of the most impressive glens in all of Scotland. (I had done my research carefully: my goal on this trip was to experience the Highlands without driving all the way to the farthest northern reaches of Scotland, and no other place fits the bill quite like Glen Coe, one of the most popular destinations for hikers and climbers in the whole of the U.K.) The awesome grandeur of the scenery is difficult to describe – impossibly green, glacier-carved slopes sweeping away in perfect arcs on either side of the road, topped by craggy peaks peeking in and out of swirling clouds. Everywhere the mountainsides were streaked with trickling streams and cascading waterfalls – never have I seen so much water! We passed the almost perfectly pyramidal form of Buachaille Etive Mòr, one of the most recognizable mountains in Scotland, although our first view of it was shrouded in mist. We proceeded through a narrow, rocky gorge to Bidean nam Bian, the highest mountain complex in Argyllshire, and stopped at the Three Sisters overlook to take in the panoramic peaks of Gearr Aonach (Short Ridge), Aonach Dubh (Black Ridge), and Beinn Fhada. Somewhere up between Beinn Fhada and Gearr Aonach lies Coire Gabhail, which means “Glen of Capture” but is more commonly known as the Hidden Valley or Lost Valley. Legend has it that the members of Clan MacDonald used to hide their stolen cattle here, as once you pass the glacial slide blocking its mouth, the glen itself is wide and flat – perfect for cattle grazing.

Just past the Three Sisters we found the well-marked turn-off for the Clachaig Inn, which is located a few kilometers down the old single-track road leading to the village of Glencoe. The Clachaig pretty much fit the description I found online – a hiker’s lodge with basic accommodations and casual pub dining – but nothing could prepare us for its awesome setting, smack in the heart of Glen Coe, with rugged mountains thrusting skywards on all sides. The inn consists of the original lodge building, which has served Highland travelers for some four hundred years, two modern wings, and two award-winning pubs, the Boots Bar and the Bidean Lounge (photo, right). We were greeted by a friendly hostess who showed us upstairs to our room in the newer Bidean wing (I had wanted a room in the older Ossian wing but they were booked), telling us quite matter-of-factly that we didn’t have “the greatest view.” Actually, our window looked out onto the roof of the neighboring wing, but if we craned our necks we could see part of Aonach Eagach, the long ridge of mountains to the north. Our room was miniscule, with a double bed, a tiny desk, an open closet, and not much else. The bathroom was equally tiny, but equipped, as we were soon to discover, with a very good shower (with better water pressure than we’ve had on the whole trip!). The only real negative was the mattress, which was one of the worst we’ve ever encountered in our travels – rather surprising for an inn that caters to outdoor enthusiasts who are primarily looking for a good night’s sleep!

We decided to go for a walk before dinner, as it was only about 5:30 p.m. We thought it was only a mile or so to the village of Glencoe, so we headed down the single-track road, just as it started to drizzle. Unfortunately “a mile or so” was an understatement and in the interim it started to rain quite heavily. We had our raincoats but no umbrellas with us. Finally we asked some folks who were walking in the other direction how far it was to town, and they said they had actually measured it at three miles. Suffice it to say that we decided to turn back, a few minutes after passing the Glencoe Youth Hostel and Bunkhouse. Before we turned back, we encountered a young man hiking alone in the opposite direction. He stopped to ask us for directions and we started to say that we had just arrived and didn’t know where anything was, but it turned out that he was looking for the youth hostel and we were able to tell him that it was just beyond the next bend. By the time we got back to the inn we were soaked through and had to go back to our room to change into dry clothes.

We went down to the Bidean Lounge for dinner, which is the “nicer” of the two pubs (by definition, you can come into the Boots Bar straight from the hiking trail but are supposed to remove muddy boots before entering the Bidean Lounge). It was very comfortable and casual, with lots of cushy leather couches in addition to regular dining tables. The place was busy, but we found room at a small round table in the corner near the entrance. A huge troop of college-age kids tromped in and pretty much took over the rest of the place. John had an Angus cheeseburger and I had a bowl of chili, both of which met our requirements of warm and filling. I ordered a couple of Scottish ales for us to sample – John had the Kelpie organic seaweed beer (don’t ask – it’s what the guy at the bar gave me!) and I had the William’s Gold, which was quite tasty. We were tempted by the sticky toffee pudding (the gentleman next to us, who had a very sweet Hungarian Vischla under his table, dug into his serving with gusto) but we decided we were full and called it a night. Before we headed upstairs, we checked out the weather forecast for the next two days: Rain.

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