Fort William is known as the Outdoor Capital of the UK, attracting thousands of people each year for its extraordinary walking paths, mountain biking, hiking, mountaineering and rock or ice climbing. This is the reason that we made our way to this town while traveling around Scotland. We had our share of castles for a while.
It was late fall when we arrived in the city and checked into our Airbnb apartment. A cozy single room annex with heated floors, a small kitchen, and views of Loch Eil. Our host showed us around and gave us some tips about walks and hikes in the area and encouraged us not to miss the North Face of Ben Nevis hike.
Happy to be settled in and hungry we headed to the town center just a short walk away from our new home. The main street was quiet and empty and most restaurants were closed until 5pm. It was just 3pm. The plaza church was now a brewery and pizza joint and was the only place open for business at that time. This was our third converted church in weeks and three is a trend. The best example was an indoor climbing wall inside the nave of a` church in Edinburgh. Unaffected by the religious vibe we ordered a beer, salads and a goat cheese pizza.
The place was empty but the waiter told us that during the summer there are long lines outside. The entire town is so crowded that it can take over an hour to drive from the outskirts to the center of town. She then made some suggestions for hikes and included the North Face of Ben Nevis as a must do hike. With this second vote, the next day’s hike was set.
Ben Nevis means The Venomous Mountain, a great name to add a dramatic sense of adventure to a simple day hike. It is not very tall. It stands at only 1,345 metres above sea level, making it the highest mountain in Britain. It is situated at the western end of the Grampian Mountains in the Lochaber area of the Scottish Highlands and, conveniently for us, at the foothills of Fort William. Quick research taught us that the North Face of Ben Nevis can be climbed in 5 stages in a single day. The route takes in some of Britain’s most magnificent rock scenery.
We had a problem. The entrance to the hike was not exactly within walking distance from town. Taking a bus to the entrance was not the problem, we just needed to be on time at the station early the next morning and make sure we didn’t miss the return bus home at 4:35pm or we would be left stranded a chilly five miles from Fort William.
The morning of the hike was frosty and cold but the sky was clear and sunny. The foresty hike was steep and, at some point, the trees were dense enough to cover the sun making the path eerie. However, there was light at the end of the tunnel and once we reached the end we were greeted by outstanding views of Fort William on one side and Ben Nevis on the other. Along the way, we found frozen lakes and rivers. It was beautiful.
The views continued to take our breath away as we walked a narrow path up the hill. The area is so big that we didn’t feel like we were making any progress. We had yet to reach stage 4 when the sun began to move behind the mountain. It was only 2pm. A solo hiker walking down greeted us with a disclaimer that “it will get chilly now that the sun is behind the mountain”. Within minutes we felt the temperature drop dramatically and the opportunity to reach the Charles Inglis Clark Hut, at stage 4, became out of reach for the day.
We had to turn around.
The way down was fast. We reached the main road by 3:10 way ahead of the 4:35 bus. So now what? A “Happy Valley” road sign close to the bus stop made us think that perhaps there was a village nearby where we could enjoy a cup of coffee or some food while we waited for the bus.
We ventured down the Happy Valley road which led to another signpost and not much else, this time for the Inverlochy Castle. A castle! In Scotland, there is no escaping the castles. We could see the winding road ahead curving behind a hill but no castle or village. The easy decision was to walk a bit to see if there were signs of life at the end of the road.
Moments later we found the castle.
It was the Inverlochy Castle Hotel and Scotland’s finest country hotel. The grounds of the main building were lush and rich in landscape, even though in the grips of early winter. Parked at the entrance of the castle was a black Rolls Royce. There was no one around. Finding it all a bit odd we approached the castle door carefully in case we were trespassing someone’s private property. Inside there was no reception area like a normal hotel would have. Instead, we were greeted by a person that looked and acted like a royal butler. He politely asked if he could help us. Keep in mind we are two Americans wearing baseball hats, muddy hiking boots, rain jackets and carrying backpacks! We explained that we had been hiking and were waiting for the bus back to town. We were looking for a place to have something to eat. Great. The castle had a restaurant and it was open for late afternoon tea. He welcomed us in.
As we walked silently we felt as though we had stepped into another time. The interior was, as you would expect, like a 19th. century castle with the type of furniture appropriate for such a period. The back room was the main tea room hosting a group of high society ladies drinking tea and eating pastries. They were all dressed elegantly.
Once seated in the main room our main observation was that the furniture was very tiny giving us an Alice in Wonderland feel. Settling in we noticed an older couple writing Christmas cards next to an oversized fireplace. They were drinking tea and eating cookies. On the other side of the room a gentleman was sitting on a comfy sofa reading a book while drinking water from a glass bottle that was chilling in an ice bucket. An odd choice for tea hour.
We didn’t talk much. Whispering felt appropriate as we tried to be as invisible as possible. That was the mood of the place. It was like eating pizza in a church type of feeling. A very serious waiter delivered the “tea hour” menu. Jim had the most delicious celeriac and apple soup and a beer and I had a decaf cappuccino. The table was so low we could have just sat on the floor and been much more comfortable. Whispering this idea to Jim produced laughter that we both struggled to repress. We were getting silly and we were getting stares. The whole situation was fun and surreal. We simply did not belong in such a place but were happy to experience it. As much as we wanted to be serious and respectful we were tempted to misbehave.
The couple by the fireplace finished their Christmas cards and left the room without finishing their cookies. Jim got up to use the bathroom and on the way he noticed the plate of cookies left behind, reached down to the very low table and grabbed one from the leftovers. More laughter. Now we were misbehaving.
The fun ended when we got the check for our rather expensive tea break. Even less fun was when we had to walk back to the bus stop in the dark, freezing late afternoon. Things turned miserable when the bus was an hour and a half late!
That completed our day hike.
Travelling rewards us with these wonderful experiences of serendipity. We are very careful travelers and understand the boundaries of adventure. However, we do allow some moments of curiosity to guide us if the situation feels safe. Exploring a road with a catchy name such as Happy Valley was inevitable and lead us to an unexpected experience that enhanced our day.