Normally if you wake up and have no idea where you are it’s because you’ve either had a crazy night on the sauce or you’ve been kidnapped. Of course it was different a few weeks ago when I opened my eyes and discovered I’d magically woken up in the Scottish Highlands.
I was on the Caledonian Sleeper train in a comfortable private cabin which had left London Euston the night before and rocked me into a deep sleep somewhere past Watford Junction. When I woke up the next morning and looked out of the square window, everything had changed. Gone were the populated platforms, the frenetic energy of people scrambling to their destination and tall buildings that loom over you like giants. Instead I saw blue skies, snow capped mountains, low hanging cloud and glorious, glorious space.
Waking up on a train ain’t so bad when it’s the Caledonian Sleeper
Local taxi driver, Alistair picked me up at Fort William Station and drove me to Argyll where my friend and adventurer Sophie Radcliffe was staying. He apologised for being a couple of minutes late, explaining that there were terrible road works on the Fort William road. When we got to the congestion in question all I saw were three cars waiting at a temporary set of traffic lights. ‘You should see the road works in London’ I said, suddenly delighted at the realisation that I was about to spend three days away from the clamour of the city.
Sophie had rented an idyllic little lodge that overlooked a beautiful loch with the flattest water I think I’ve ever seen. She had arrived in Scotland a week before and was using the lodge as her base whilst she shot a documentary.
View of the loch from Sophie’s lodge at the Holly Tree Hotel
A few words about my host for the weekend.
Sophie is an extremely hard-working endurance athlete and adventurer who, through her many creative ways, empowers others to have great experiences of their own. She has an enormous following of around 40k on social media and as a friend of hers, knowing her in person, off grid and filter free, I can tell you that she is as honest, open-hearted, warm and positive in the flesh as she is online. When you go on an adventure with Sophie, there are no half measures. You can expect to face your fears, find yourself doing something utterly bonkers, possibly even puke in your mouth but you will come out of it completely buzzing. (I realised this last year whilst cycling through France in the pouring rain at 2am on her London to Paris in 24 hour sportive).
Sophie, hostess with the mostess
Running the West Highland Way
I arrived at Sophie’s lodge, dumped my bags, slipped into my tights and trail shoes and jumped in the car to meet Scot, also a scot and our running buddy for the day. Our plan was to run 25km of the West Highland Way, part of a glorious route that leads you up a lung-busting trail called The Devil’s Staircase. It was uphill from the off and I took a few miles to find my rhythm and stop my heart from exploding. Before I knew it the scenery took over and I was entirely distracted by the other-worldly landscape that carried me up higher than I’ve ever run before.
Reaching the summit
Reaching the top of the Devil’s Staircase brought about mixed emotions. On the one hand I was relieved to know that the next half of our day would be downhill. I was blown away by the rugged surroundings and I was ecstatic to be staunching a massive piece of chorizo. Strangely though, I found the silence up there, on such a windless day, extremely eerie. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop which made me realise how much I rely on sound back in London . Up there on the summit in the company of two others and with absolutely no sound as a buffer I actually found it quite intense. I kept breaking the silence with inane small talk. It’s harder than you think to just be still and admire it when you are never without at least a hum or a murmur.
Downhill to the pub
There is not one single thing that motivates me to run more than the promise of a cold beer at the end. Sinking thigh-deep into a bog and rolling my ankle on the uneven footing did absolutely nothing to dampen my spirit. In addition to my motivation for booze was the incredible feeling that I was running through a magical dreamland like something you might find in a Tolkein novel. There were deep, imposing valleys, mystical streams that we drank from, wild flowers and odd little cottages that seemed to have no roads leading to them. My inner Loyd Grossman asked me ‘who’d live in a house like this?’ to which my imagination presented a creature like Caliban from The Tempest with a wizard master who roamed about the Highlands casting spells. I was in love.
The pub also came sooner than I thought and our trio high-fived each other for completing 25km and 2,110 ft of the West Highland Way.
Running Ben Nevis
‘How have you not seen Thelma and Louise?’ I asked Sophie as we drove in her bright Orange Jeep through the windy off-road track up to the North Face car park. It was day two in Scotland and Sophie and I were about to run part of one of the most famous mountains in the UK; the regal and intimidating, Ben Nevis. We had the music pumping, the windows down, the spirit of adventure wafting all around us and I was reminded of the iconic female road trip. I started to explain the plot line to Sophie who understandably seemed confused that I was likening our trip to a film that involved a murder and a double suicide. ‘Yeah you just need to watch it’ I reassured her ‘then you’ll see what I mean’.
Running up Ben Nevis
Our plan was to have a slightly ‘lighter’ day and let our tired legs cruise up the mountain at their own pace. The summit was still covered in snow which meant that we could only run as far up as the Charles Inglis Clarke Memorial hut at 2,300ft.
Oddly, I felt better that day. I’d had a good breakfast, I’d rehydrated, clicked into the Highland pace and was bubbling over with endorphins. The temperature was cooler than it had been the day before and patches of snow on either side of the trail reminded me of quite how different an experience this was for me.
I was running up a mountain! Not metaphorically, quite literally, right there, right then.
Once we reached the CIC hut we stopped in for a little nose around and seemed to startle a group from the mountain rescue team. I got the impression that it’s not every day a couple of girls in Sweaty Betty leggings swing by.
We sat down and chatted to them for a while and it was so interesting to hear about the mountain from the men who know it like the back of their hand.
Very sadly they explained they were in the middle of a search to find the bodies of a couple that had gone missing in February. A few days after I got back to London I heard they had found them. All of it reminded me that although we are on a constant pursuit of new adventure we still need to be aware of our surroundings and use our judgement of conditions wisely.
Wild Camping in Morar
Our second adventure for the day began with driving down the winding and beautiful road to the west coast of Scotland for a wild camping experience.
At risk of alienating some and delighting others with this reference, I was utterly beside myself en-route when we went passed the Glenfinnan Viaduct, also known for it’s appearance in Harry Potter! Later that evening I Googled it and apparently they filmed it there because dragons are native to that area of Scotland.
Harry Potter eat your heart out
By time we got to White Sands Beach in Morar it was about 5pm and the sun was starting to set. We walked our tent, over-night bags and food up a hill and found a perfect, secluded spot looking out across the turquoise water to the Isle of Skye.
White Sands Beach, Morar, Mallaig
Sophie and I had a brief moment of chaos whilst trying to peg the tent down before it blew off the side of the cliff. We were pitching against the clock to get everything set up in time to share a beer and watch the sun go down. Our priorities were on point.
Dinner that evening was a lavish feast of chorizo, a packet of couscous, some gorgonzola cheese all cooked together in a JetBoil and eaten out of collapsible plastic bowls. As we finished our meal the temperature started to drop rapidly and we decided to dive into our tent and get cosy. Being the seasoned adventurer she is, Sophie came equipped with a hip flask full of Whisky which is just as well because I on the other hand had only packed a very light sleeping bag which I bought for a trek in Northern Thailand. (Yes, Thailand and Scotland have very different climates).
Through a combination of sips of whisky and sleepiness from all the miles and ascent over the last two days, we drifted off to sleep. This time, silence was golden.
I woke up the next morning and clambered out of the tent with as much grace as Mr Blobby after my limp sleeping bag had forced me to put on all my clothes in the middle of the night. Sophie was already up and capturing the sunrise on her GoPro camera. I needed coffee.
Out came the JetBoil once again and this time we cooked bacon butties which I practically inhaled in one mouthful. Breakfast tastes so much better after a night of camping.
We packed up our camp and cleared away any human evidence that we were there at all. Our Scottish micro-adventure was winding to a close. On the drive back to the lodge Sophie rounded up everything we had done that weekend. We’d run along the West Highland Way and up to the CIC hut on Ben Nevis and in one day had gone from a snow capped mountain to a white sandy beach where we wild camped and watched the sun set over the Isle of Skye. What a weekend.
On Sunday evening I once again boarded the magic sleeper train that returned me home the way I came – in my dreams and back to the city.
Adventure really is only a sleep away.