The relative bustle of Challenge Control in the Park Hotel is left behind while I take to the streets. First I try to check-in to my accommodation early – they’re not having it, but do agree to keep hold of my pack while I roam about. The quest for some acceptable fried food isn’t terribly fruitful until I stumble upon Mum’s at the far end of the high street. A most odd place, but one which serves me bacon and eggs on toast, lemon drizzle cake (not fried) and lots of tea for £10. I suspect I’ve been undercharged for my 2.5 hour stay. We sort of got talking.
Eventually I’m in my room and washing off the detritus of a fortnight in the wilds. The shower is so good, I make it a really long one. The feeling of putting on clean underpants is indescribable. So I won’t try. It was pretty good though. I wander back around to the Park to kill some time, see who else is there and generally laze about. Some drinking is done, there’s the expected sharing of Challenge stories, mostly centered on the dual subjects of the weather and feet. Then it’s time for dinner.
The dinner is good, they find a way of giving everyone in the room a round of applause, and some plaques are handed out. And there’s some drinking. So pretty much what you’d expect. There’s a feeling of warmth from being a member of the Challenge Family, an acceptance that though our journeys have differed we all have much in common. I’m still talking of this being my one and only Crossing, but deep down I know I want another crack at it – if only to prove this one wasn’t a fluke.
I feel pretty lucky to have made it across, considering that I traveled to Scotland after a year nursing foot problems, one of which happened only a couple of weeks before. Plenty didn’t make it with foot problems being the main cause. So maybe it was a fluke. There’s only one way to find out…
I was so cautious with my planning that although the plan was to finish on the Thursday, I gave myself the Friday just in case. With my journey home not beginning until late on Friday evening, I have another day to kill and it starts with meeting up with Darren and Scott for breakfast, which is more like lunch by the time we find somewhere. This breakfast is washed down with a pint of cider, as I’m aware I’m in Scotland and this is what you do. So little have the 3 of us to do that brunch consumed we sit and decide to have another one. The cider drinking continues back at the Park as I wait for Rich and Chrissie, who I’ve not seen at all yet, to finish. Rich rolls in from Aberdeen and we have a beer/cider. Chrissie turns up and is the last person to sign out.
With hours left to kill, I decide to dine again at the Park and subject myself to a second Challenge dinner. This is a much quieter affair, and in many ways more to my taste. I begin to see why some people (Rich particularly) aim for a Friday finish, both to maximise the trip and for the quieter dinner. Soon it is time to head to the station with Darren and Scott. They head off to their bed compartment and me to my seat (cheapskate!) with promises to try to meet up for a walk in the Beacons sometime.
We’re rudely awakened at Penrith when the train starts to go backwards. Whilst I’m keen to return to Scotland, I hadn’t envisaged it being right now. The lines ahead have been brought down by a freight train and we’re all decanted at Carlisle into coaches to be taken to Preston. I’m marginally ahead of Darren and Scott in the queue for the coach and somehow arrive back in London at midday. They’re not there until nearly 5pm, due to a further incident. I’ve really ridden my luck on this trip!
I’m home and unusually unpacked straight away, with the washing going straight on. There’s little evidence of the TGO Challenge other than clothes drying on the airer and used maps in a pile on my desk. The notes I’ve made during the walk remind me to start writing up the trip before I forget it, as this is as trip I certainly don’t want to forget. The question now becomes not if, but when, I’ll do it again.
Reflecting on the walk, there are a few things that worked really well and a few things I’d change for next time…
- My kit choices were pretty good and suited the conditions I encountered for the most part. My choice of the ULA Circuit as my pack was absolutely the right one; I never regret using my Scarp when backpacking; and the decision to wear mid-cut shoes worked brilliantly. I even managed to get the provisioning about right, eating all of my food apart from a few raisins and jelly babies. I do think I was lucky with the weather and the choice of Paramo was one I got away with – if it had been a lot wetter I think I’d have wanted a proper hard shell. My Paramo Bora windproof though was easily the most useful piece of clothing I took.
- As already mentioned, I’d probably take a 3rd pair of underpants.
- I didn’t need to buy more gas in Braemar – the one I started with lasted 24 burns and was disposed of empty at the end of the trip. I suspect it would have been a different story if I hadn’t been using my Alpkit Brukit, and I really noticed the difference in efficiency compared with my other gas stove.
- The decision to give myself a conservative start paid off well. Whilst others were struggling in the early days, I was easing myself in comfortably, meaning I was ready for the bigger days later on. There’s not a thing I would change about the first section of my walk to Drumnadrochit.
- I also loved the Monadhliath once I adjusted to the bigger scale of it compared with where I usually walked. Again nothing I’d change. I’d happily take the same route across the Monadhliath next time.
- The decision to go via the Lairig Ghru was also good. I sense I may have been struggling on arrival in Braemar if I’d taken the extra day to go through Glen Feshie. Plus it was an opportunity too good to miss. I still need to go and take a look at Glen Feshie sometime though.
- My decision-making on the top of Cairn of Claise proved to be sound, although I do wish I’d put the effort in to recover more of my original route the next day, as this would have saved some road walking.
- On that note, I road-walked nearly 60 miles at the end of the Challenge – that’s far too much and it needs to be reduced for next time.
- Camping on the beach at Lunan Bay was one of the highlights of the trip – and probably the most memorable camp of the trip.
- My travel arrangements were good, although I’d only book a seat on the sleeper if I had that additional night before starting the walk like I did this time.
- I would change some of my accommodation choices though. I’d probably seek to up the number of wild camps next time. But this Crossing was about making sure I got across and so the number and spacing of B&Bs etc I planned worked in helping me achieve that.
- I don’t regret opting out of some of the socialising, notably at Lochallater, as by that point I just wanted to get to the end.
- I don’t regret carrying art materials (ok the sheets of handmade Khadi paper may have been a bit over the top), although they didn’t get as much use as I hoped. All I managed to achieve was a couple of line sketches in my notebook. I was just generally unlucky with not finding things I wanted to capture, when conditions were right and when I felt like doing it. This happens to me a lot – it seems I can either paint or walk, not both. Nonetheless, I’ve brought home over 350 photos and several have already been earmarked for full-scale paintings. More about these in due course…
All in all, it’s been an unforgetable experience, I achieved what I set out to do, and can’t wait to have another stab at it. If my wife lets me…