Clocking Three Thousand Miles
Storm Ali hit us while we were parked on a site overlooking the sea. The sky glowered and then the flashes and crashes began. Extremely high winds caused the Victory Van to shake and creak like an old sailing boat, but it was the ferocious heavy rain that made us wonder if we’d survive the night. Peppering the van so heavily, it sounded as if ball-bearings were being lashed at us. It was so deafening we couldn’t hear one another speak.
Next morning I ventured out, even though the winds remained strong and intermittent torrential showers blew in. Arriving at West Tarbert, where the lengthy Kintyre Peninsula starts, I was faced with a professional dilemma: do I take a 1-mile walk across the top of Kintyre to Tarbert, or a 120-mile route down and round the Peninsula which resembles a long pointy finger? On its eastern tip, at the first finger joint lies Campbeltown, famed for its whisky and strong naval connections. Not for the first time I elected for the long route option!
Walking south, at Clachan I joined the Kintyre Way - another of Scotland’s Great Trails which covers 100 miles down to Kintyre’s fingertip. Owing to its meandering path I would not use it all, but it set me off alongside the Sound of Gigha with its Island occasionally visible through driving rain. Along the way I passed through places such as Tayinloan, Muasdale, Glennbarr, Bellochantuy and eventually Machrihanish Bay, where I circled Campbeltown’s Airport. Formerly a military airfield, it has seen changing fortunes during its lifetime.
Originally created for the Royal Naval Air Service during WWI, it initially had one small grass runway. During WWII the Royal Navy built four concrete runways and the air station was commissioned as HMS Landrail. It was reported to be one of the UK’s largest air stations, used by both the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force before closing shortly after war ended.
The airfield enjoyed a renaissance during the Cold War of the 1960s, when a lengthy 10,000-foot runway replaced the four RN runways. By now the RAF was firmly in residence and further investment was made in the late 80s and 90s to enable NATO usage too. Used by the RAF’s unmistakable Vulcan bomber force, it was also certified to accept the NASA Space Shuttle had it needed to make an emergency landing in Europe. By 2012 the MOD sold the entire site: today part of it is a business park and the rest remains as Campbeltown’s airport.
Leaving Machrihanish I could look back over this vast area with such a rich military history. Ahead of me lay one of the toughest walks yet on another section of the Kintyre Way. Recent wind and rain had made conditions over this already difficult terrain very much worse. En route I enjoyed a solitary lunch break overlooking a picturesque valley before being routed to the cliff edge, followed by a lengthy steep climb away from the sea.
Below me at Innean Cove I saw the Sailor’s Grave which dates back over a century. In May 1917 a lone shepherd found human remains washed ashore. Assumed to be a sailor, the remains were buried in the cove, since when passing hikers and locals have kept a watchful eye on the grave’s maintenance.
The Way led me inland from the coast, but as I was keen to go out to Mull of Kintyre’s lighthouse, there followed a 14-miler out and back; we’d assessed the roads were not suitable for the Victory Van to come and retrieve me. In between squalls I had clear views across to County Antrim in Northern Ireland, twelve miles out to sea. My outward route to the lighthouse was on a single-track road through open moorland and forests, uphill all the way from sea level to 1,148ft. Once there, I lost all that height as I made an almost vertical descent to the lighthouse at the base of the cliffs, only to clamber all the way up again afterwards!
On the way I made a detour to a memorial placed to remember the 29 lives lost in a tragic Chinook helicopter crash on 2 June 1994. As well as the 4 crew members killed on that dreadful evening, 25 intelligence experts from the Army, MI5, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now called Police Service of Northern Ireland) also lost their lives. One of those killed was Tony Hornby who had served with Frank in the Royal Marines before deciding to transfer to the Army. Standing on the spot made me shudder to think what the first rescuers would have seen as they raced up the hill to the accident. I was glad I made the effort to walk out to the Mull to see the lighthouse and this memorial.
Returning to the Kintyre Way I walked around the fingertip overlooking Davaar Island, then on up alongside Campbeltown Loch. The sun was shining, which added to the satisfaction of ‘clocking’ 3,000 miles on the approaches to this town. I couldn’t have chosen a better place for my special moment. That evening I was invited to attend Training Ship Campbeltown’s biannual Royal Naval Parade, where the staff and cadets also celebrated my milestone event by giving me a warm welcome and making a generous donation to the Victory Walk. Thank you Campbeltown.
Since then I’ve sat quietly and contemplated what my 3,000 miles means. It’s the equivalent of walking across the United States of America – I find it hard to believe.
See Photo Album Numbers 48 – Storm Ali at Loch West Tarbert Part 1; Storm Ali at Loch West Tarbert Part 2; On the Kintyre Way – Lunch Stop; Innean Cove on the Kintyre Way; Clocking 3,000 Miles