Monday, April 11, 2011

Drymen to Balmaha via Conic Hill

The Scottish Tourist Industry usually trades on the country's extremes. Programmes such as Coast, Mountain, or when Griff Rhys Jones is filmed careering down a river, re-enforce this image by constant repetition of the unusual, as if it were typical. In landscape programmes we usually see the Black Cuillin of Skye, the semi-Arctic landscape of the Cairngorm plateau, or the bleak vastness of Rannoch Moor. Human interaction with this land is therefore generally pitched in terms of remarkable feats of physical endurance, or danger. Indeed, Scotland is big enough, and its landscape wild enough to provide enough stories of maverick adventurers, of avalanches, Mountain Rescues or tragedies, to satisfy the media's thirst for the sensational. Scotland's uplands are rugged, potentially dangerous, and an awesome classroom for the study of the geology and geomorphology, or myth, legend and heroics. All this is rightly celebrated.

The danger in all this is that the extremes are revered at the expense of so many of the other things which the Scottish landscape offers. There are, for example, countless walks suitable for young families which will never grab headlines, but which can make for an idyllic day out, without great expense.

Our family-experience of walking in Scotland has evolved as the children have grown. When 'Boris', 'Norris' and 'Doris' were babies they were easy to pick-up and carry on a good day's walking, but soon reached a point where they were simply too heavy to carry - but were not yet capable of a full day out on their own legs. During these phases, hillwalking was severely restricted. The last time we all went up a hill of Munro height, was four years ago when I staggered up Beinn na Lap with the weight of nearly-two-year-old 'Doris' on my back. Now that she is five, and becoming increasingly strong and confident in the hills, family hill-walks are (at last!) beginning to recommence. Thankfully, Scotland provides not merely the Larig Ghru's and Aonach Eagach's - but so many of these smaller, walks which provide an excellent introduction to the Great Outdoors, at almost every grade of difficulty.

The various assembled characters of the Outdoor Activities Fellowship (OAF's) leave the Baptist Church car park, and head for the hills about once a month from Spring to Autumn. They try and offer a varied programme of walks for people of all ages and fitness levels. The progress that our youngest has made, has meant that for the first time we have been able to join them for a walk as a family, for one of their easier expeditions: Drymen to Balmaha via Conic Hill.

Above Drymen there were numerous route diversions through the woods due to logging operations. Thankfully, as the track is part of the West Highland Way, they had provided a well-signposted diversion. The first stage of the walk is a straightforward stroll through densely planted pine forests. After a mile or so the forest breaks to reveal a glimpse of the only obstacle on the route, Conic Hill. From the track the hill looks gracefully shaped, with steep sides and a cheerful looking little ridge running off it down towards Lomondside. It's a fairly short climb, steep in places, but with an obvious path to follow. 'Boris' who is 11, likes to walk calmly, and make intelligent conversation with the adults in the group. Eight-year-old 'Norris' likes to run between groups of adults, laughing, blethering constantly and finding the deepest patches of mud to leap into. Little 'Doris' likes to walk with either parent, but who despite being the smallest member of the party marches along contentedly.

On Saturday, Western Scotland sweltered in bright sunshine, and high temperatures and humidity which made walking hard, and thirsty work. The hills were not looking photogenic, as they sweated in a blanket of hazy-low-cloud and poor light. Nevertheless Loch Lomond looked wonderful, with people playing on the beaches, pleasure-boats in every corner of the Loch and the vague outlines of the big mountains to North peering through the bright haze.

The climb up Conic Hill from Drymen side is easy, the path curves around the back of the hill, ironing out the gradient. We stumbled upon the summit more quickly than we expected, and sat down in the leeward side to eat our lunch, enjoying the shelter from the wind and the view out over the water. The descent to Balmaha was surprising - if only for its busyness. When we had arrived early in the morning to drop a car off at the Balmaha car park, the place was almost deserted. By early afternoon, the place was buzzing, a significant proportion of Glasgow out enjoying the sunshine. This was reflected in the overwhelming volume of feet tramping up and down the Balmaha-Conic track. There were groups and families in trainers and street-fashions, walking up from Balmaha, the obvious up and down route. There were day-walkers like us, boots and day-sacks - trekking along from Drymen. We were all mixed up with West-Highland-Way-ers, with their huge rucksaks, unslept appearances and fixed expressions of relief and disbelief at the glorious weather! Youngsters, oldsters, and everything in-between-ers, basking in the wonder of Highland Scotland.

I enjoy hanging off the Cuillin, or marching for miles across Cairngorm uplands, but there is much to appreciated in Scotland's smaller gems too. We drove home with children falling asleep in the back of the car. My wife simply commented that if you could rely on weather like this, you'd never think of holidaying anywhere else.

No comments: