On Sunday, Janie and I decided to attempt The Mell Circuit. It’s one that Janie had originally (jokingly!) suggested to me, because it was on Woodland Trust land, and could potentially have a lot of wildlife interest. At an advertised distance of 15 (or 16.5, depending on source) miles, and with some decent uphill sections, it was certainly going to be a challenge, though!
Let’s face it, this walk is probably more challenging than any individual day’s walk of the West Highland Way!
This is a joint blog (I know, been a while) so Grahame is in blue and Janie is in purple 😉 It’s true that I suggested the walk a fair wee while back, but I admit it was without having any clue what I’d be letting us in for! After having to pull out of the WHW in April due to health issues though, this time I really wanted to challenge myself 🙂 Umm… yeah, great pride before a long walk! 😉
We arrived at the Glen Finglas car park at just after 10:30, when more or less as soon as the brakes were applied, the heavens opened! We got drenched in the process of putting on the waterproofs. Not the best start to the day, it has to be said! I was especially pleased that Grahame had done a u-turn 5 mins after we left my house, when I realised I didn’t have my waterproof trousers with me! It would have been pretty miserable without them!
There was a woman walking her two dogs here, who didn’t seem remotely bothered by the weather!
The walk itself started with beautiful scenery, and some of the wildlife that Janie predicted. The walk starts in a section of woodland, which was covered with Bluebells (the photo below really doesn’t do it justice). It was also full of birdlife, in the form of Redstart, warblers and other woodland species.
The downside is, it was also uphill! I’m not a big fan of launching straight into uphill on a walk. I prefer a little bit of a warm-up first. Sometimes it can’t be helped, though! The slope wasn’t particularly steep to start with, so it wasn’t too bad. Once up the top, the view of Loch Venachar was pretty good, it has to be said. On the way up, these were a couple of ruined buildings, which had been houses up until the clearances (shown below)
Luckily as you walk up the hill, there are a variety of stopping points in the form of memorial benches, which we did take advantage of at one point!
The path carries on round, through the woodland until it ends up at a tarmac road (have I mentioned that I hate walking on tarmac?). This carried on for about a mile, until it reverted to a dirt track with views over Glen Finglas Reservoir. Just before it changed to dirt track, we were overtaken by three cyclists.
As it turns out, dirt track was going to be the order of the day for the rest of the walk. The whole walk is based on a dirt track, which circles The Mell. Quite a lot of the track has a good covering of hard-core, so even though it was going to be a soggy day, the path itself was easily passible, although there is the occasional wee burn to walk through as they criss-cross the path at several points. Gave me a chance to test the waterproofing of my new boots though, so not all bad! 😉
After carrying on past a couple of farm buildings, (where we met 3 people walking the other way (and who asked us if we’d be walking all day and all night – to which we laughed of course! Little did we know!) the track turns a corner, with a view from a little hill. On the little hill was a dead tree trunk, which had clearly been well used as a seat. We couldn’t really resist, so off we popped to the seat to have a look at the view down the reservoir. Not only is the tree trunk a seat, but the below compass was also here. I quite liked it in several different ways. First, it’s not signposted, so unless you happen to decide to go up to the seat, you’ll not notice it’s there, and secondly, the pointers are quite descriptive.
A mile or so along the road, the track reaches a junction, with the branch to the right advising of the route to follow (shown below). You could take the left-hand branch and go around the Mell that way given that it is a circular route, but be warned, there is a very long, and occasionally steep, continuous slope to the top in that direction! The right-hand route, although occasionally frustrating, is definitely more approachable!
Just after taking the right hand junction, we noticed a land rover pass from the other way. We chose a nice flat rock here to stop for a bite to eat. Just round the corner from here, we got our first view of Glen Meann, and the route we were to follow.
The route from here, for quite a while was repetitive ups and downs, which got more than a little irritating and frustrating, it has to be said!
We did, however get to see some of the work the Woodland Trust has been doing in the area. The slopes of The Mell were covered with new tree growth, thanks to a massive deer fence, covering a large part of the area. I suspect that once the trees are of a reasonable size, the deer fence will be moved to protect a slightly different area, and expand the new woodland further. There were a lot of different birds singing in the newly wooded areas and this definitely brightened our day 🙂
At the end of the (relatively) level section, the uphill really begins! The downside of being able to see right the way along the glen is that you can see the route up the hill at the far end! Admittedly, the view back along the glen from the hill was quite impressive!
I’ll be honest and say that it wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting it to be, but for Janie, it was a totally different story! This was a real killer for her! With little experience of proper hillwalking, and not being in the best physical state, this was a real challenge for her. It was made even worse by the same things that were causing the frustration along the way. After a massive uphill, there would be a little downhill – then another massive uphill! I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t take long for Janie (and me, to a certain extent) to get a bit dejected with it. The fact that the hill was also going round corners, so you never really knew when it was going to end didn’t help. I should just say here that I generally actively avoid up-hills of any great length! The medical condition I have leaves me sapped of energy quite quickly and my joints and muscles are never really not sore. That said though, I was quite enjoying the challenge of meeting each uphill section and relishing the down-hills… to a point… being the point that Grahame mentions below! It didn’t help that at one stage the path divided again and we followed an up-hill route for a short while, only to change our minds and go to the alternative path, only to realise that we were right the first time, and have to do that same up-hill again! 😉 But we just braced against the wind and went for it!
It got to the point where it was all getting a bit much for Janie, and we had to consider turning back. For me, this was a mental block as much as a physical one. We could see the up-hill stretching ahead, and getting steeper than we had faced up till then in places. A few months ago, on the Ben Cleuch Circular walk, I had reached a point where the pain was too much to continue but I’d had no other choice and I was terrified I might put myself in that same place again. So, after a short break to gather myself together, and get the walking poles out for a bit of extra stability, I made a deal with Grahame to re-evaluate at the end of each up-ward slope. And so we continued.
We persevered in the end, and quite a few turns later, we arrived at the cairn, marking the highest point of the walk, at 600m. This was approx 500m higher than our start point. (total ascent would be much greater than this, thanks to all the ups and downs!) Seeing as Grahame hasn’t mentioned the joy of reaching the Cairn, I will 😉 Grahame was a fair bit ahead of me on one particularly long, but not that steep, slope, and I was trudging up at the back of him and starting to lose hope of ever reaching this mythical cairn at the top, when he suddenly shouted! I looked up to watch him pick up a rock and decisively deposit it on the top of a pile I could only just see at the left of the path. No word of a lie, I thought I was going to cry with joy right there! It certainly gave me the boost I needed to get to the cairn with even a wee burst of speed behind me! 😉
It was no effort at all to smile for the camera, although it is relief more than anything else! 😉
The downward trip was largely uneventful, for a bit. A few small uphills to contend with, but, well, we’d kinda got used to that by then!
However, things were to get a little bit interesting, just after the last steep section of descent. Just after crossing a small bridge over the river leading into Glen Finglas Reservoir, and making the trek through the glen itself, I ran into problems. Regular readers of this blog will know that I had to pull out of the West Highland Way due to problems with my thighs and groin, which I’d associated with the weight of the pack. Well, the same problem occurred, but this time I didn’t have the pack weight. (I had a tiny little 20 litre rucksack, which was more or less empty by this time, as I’d more or less emptied the hydration bladder) As a result, I’m no longer sure what the cause of the thigh/groin issue is.
Due to the pain, the next hour and a half was a little less than pleasant for me, it has to be said. On level ground and on downhill sections it wasn’t too bad, but uphills sent shooting pains through my inner thigh and groin (and then hip, as we moved further along). I think we only managed to walk 2-3 miles in that whole time. The only other thing of interest during the painful section was that there was a small herd of cows near the path at one small section. There wasn’t a way around them, so we had to stick to the path. Now, this isn’t something that particularly bothers me, as I know cows are generally docile creatures, and not likely to attack. Janie, on the other hand, was more than a little concerned by walking in amongst them. Not surprisingly, we passed through the herd with no problems. I will just point out that I was fine with the cows until Grahame said not to get between any of the cows and their calves! There were cows and calves on both sides of the path, and none of them had those handy leading reigns that toddlers use, so I was worried I might be getting between two unknowingly! I admit, it freaked me out because they were big beasties, but no problems at all 🙂
Not long after the junction leading back to the car park, we decided to take a seat for a couple of minutes on a conveniently placed bench. The bench was quite a low one, but after a couple of minutes we moved on (basically, I’d hoped the pain will have died down a little before attempting one of the last big uphills before we finished). To my surprise, the pain in my hip and groin had vanished!
I’m still confused as to why this is. I now know I have a problem, but not what causes it, or what fixed it! After all, I was climbing hills the week before with no problems at all!
The return to the car from here was relatively straightforward, as we were simply retracing the outward journey. The only thing of particular note was a Cuckoo calling, which I have to admit, I had been expecting on the outward journey, as it’s the right kind of habitat for them.
Although both Janie and I had some problems along this walk, I think I can safely say that we both enjoyed it. Definitely! 🙂 It took us 8 hours, an hour longer than the estimated time, but considering the problems we both had, I don’t think that’s particularly unreasonable.
Now, the thing I really enjoyed about this walk was the remoteness of it. I actually noted every single human encounter along the way – 1 woman at the start, 3 walkers and 3 cyclists about 2 miles in and a Land Rover about 3 miles in – that’s it. Those were the only other people seen on the whole walk, and all on the very first stretch. We spent the other 12+ miles with no other human contact at all. Definitely a good thing (although when my pain started, it admittedly didn’t feel like it)
I think in future we’ll build up to a walk like that, rather than dive straight into it! The objective now is to try and get some half decent hill walks under our belts, for me to strengthen the thigh/groin muscles and Janie to improve her cardiovascular fitness levels.
I am, however, very proud of Janie for completing this one! It probably was a bit much to be asking of her so early into her training regime, but she managed it with very little complaint. I have to admit, had she not been along, I’d have probably got demotivated myself and turned back (Its a problem I really do suffer from when walking solo – lack of motivation for the strenuous parts).
Like Grahame, I feel this was a great achievement for both of us 🙂 I am proud of myself for pushing through the physical and mental barriers to achieve the whole walk, but Grahame also had to as well on this one. That is something that doesn’t happen often, but we both stepped up to the challenge and made it 🙂