Camper van drivers give a salute as they pass each other on the road. It feels good, like we’re part of a community. There even seems to be a unique wave just for us VW campers. I start waving like an idiot as soon as I see what even vaguely looks like a camper van coming over the prow of the southern Highland hills in front of us. The strangeness of our tartan van puttering along the small roads gets sightseers turning their lenses away from the Scottish panoramas and start taking pictures of us we judder past Loch Leven, past the soft moors. This feels good too. I feel imperious sat up here above the road. Regal. An official Department of Transport-type road sign by the side of the road tells us that in half a mile there is a place to stop for “Coffee and things” which seems ludicrously simple, but very sweet in its out-of-time guileless way. We don’t stop though. We’d called in earlier for a cup of tea at a cafe on the side of the road called ‘Thompson’s.’
“You pronounce the name Tom-son,” said the white-haired, white-bearded owner in his soft Scottish voice.
“Tom-per-son,” said Giristroula.
“Tom-son,” repeated the owner, smiling, lifting a schooling finger in the air. “The p is silent,” he said. “Like in a swimming pool…” He paused, grinning at his joke, looking at Giristroula, for a response.
“Tom-per-son?” she tried again.
The old man walked away shaking his head, disappointed.
“Some of your names are very difficult you know,” Giristroula said to me.
I told her of a story I’d once heard of a man named Burnip who when ordering something over the phone said his name was spelled “Like turnip, with a B.” The package eventually arrived addressed to a Mr. Turnip-Witherby…
“Well exactly,” said Giristroula, sipping at her tea, staring out the window.
As we cruise along in the van now, Giristroula, as she often does, scans the cloud-picked skies above. She spends an extraordinary amount of time admiring British clouds. Like some sort of connoisseur she recognises instantly if we’re in for a day of the fat white woolpacks, or smacking her lips at the silver-rimmed sharp ones or contemplating gravely the weak high streaks in the sky.
“We don’t really get clouds like this in Greece,” she says. “So close and, I don’t know, so.. real. And your ones move so fast along the sky…” She carries on staring out of the window at the scudding clouds. The cumulus, the stratus, the nimbus. As if she’s trying to map them all.
“It’s just awful when you get those endless grey skies here though. Just like a low ceiling. A ceiling of cloud. Just sitting there for days.” She pulls her head back through the van’s window and crinkles her nose at thought of them, like a bad smell.
Soon we’re pulling into Fort William. A long picket of flat white homes – charmless, detached, unchanging bungalows set back from the road – stand in a line as welcomers to the town as we drive in. In their rather dull, conciliatory, 1970s way, they remind me of watchful spectators lining the road in old tv footage of Royal Family visits to towns like this. A man tends his roses. A boy in full football kit, including the boots, washes the family car on the drive. A postman goes from house to house.
“If they’re bills, I don’t want them!” says one man.
“Is that my premium bonds win?” says another.
Both of them completely sure they’re the first person to say it. That human, or is it just British, need to say something. To connect, even when all they get back from the postman is an eyeroll. Just like all the supermarket shoppers with their “Is it free then?” jokes when the item doesn’t scan in the supermarket. Or the “You were looking a bit lonely there…” as they approach the bored checkout girl with no customers. “Couldn’t let you stand idle…”
It should seem obvious, you would think, but we drive around looking for – and can’t find – the largest mountain in Britain. We pull over and I ask some teenagers on a bench, eating crisps, where exactly Ben Nevis is in this town. They look embarrassed, giggle at each other. Spotty, braces on their teeth, hot in their v-neck school uniform jumpers. “Don’t know,” they mumble. This is getting ridiculous. We drive around some more and eventually find the Ben Nevis visitors’ centre and park up the van. With tremulous Scottish words in our ears – “You’d better get started soon. We don’t recommend going up much later than this you know…” – we get ready to tackle another unnecessary, but unavoidable for our tour of British symbols, struggling ascent up boulder and crag.
Ben Nevis is steeper than Snowdon. More unforgiving. Rockier too. The view on the left is sheer sand-coloured rock rising high above us. To our right runs a fairly disappointing view down onto the visitor centre car park. There is a unchanging landscape as we curl round the lower half of the mountain. The climb is tiring and I get annoyed at simple things, such as: why doesn’t Scotland have more majestic deep green pine trees as I imagined it would have? The pine trees I can see here all seem to thinly ride halfway up the slopes of the other peaks around us, and then just stop. Leaving the ranges looking as if they have been plucked, like mangy green vultures with their bald heads. Perhaps we got cocky from our other climbs, this one is testing us though. I have half a bar of Dairy Milk and an emergency Twix in my anorak pocket, not exactly regimental preparations. The climb plateaus out for a while, passing a huge lake where one solitary camper has placed their small tent at the water’s edge. Then we come up hard against the steepness again. But the climb has also turned more interesting now as we’ve climbed higher. Mountains all around and below us. Peaks beyond peaks; a loch cutting through these mountains; eclipsed peaks lying behind; and then out to the sea. And there, what must be Northern Ireland, lying as a shadow beached beyond.
Ben Nevis’ interior has grown more interesting too. We pass a large cascading waterfall which must mark roughly the halfway point of the climb to the top, and where a group of us congregate to drink great fistfuls of water in our sweat-drench cheap climbing clothes. A returner, coming back down the mountain, tells us that there’s a dead sheep in the stream, further up. He has a round piggy face, currant-y eyes, and chuckles to himself as he passes. The sort of man convinced of his status as a great wit from evenings holding court at the golf lunches, Rotary Club dinners, sales rep away weekends. No one can quite tell if he’s joking here or not, but everyone’s thirst seems to be quite quickly quenched and we all walk away from the waterfall in ones and twos and strap on our rucksacks again. Grimly resigned to continuing our climbs.
As we near the top, the gradient levels out a bit. I spot a few people snacking after their climb – rugs and thermos flasks. and even a woman walking her cat on a lead up here, 4,400 feet above the sea. Pet lovers, tea drinkers, eccentrics, all so very British. even on the very roof of the country. The top of the mountain, when we finally reach it, has a large rock-strewn floor, giving an other-worldly feel. Lunar-like. There’s a gully of snow that remains unmelted, even here now, in the summer glare. The view really is astonishing. I think how, if I leapt off the edge and glided through the air, I would pass back down the whole country, high above everything. The Angel of the North a speck below me; the Blackpool Tower 4000 feet further down; climbers on the mountain top at Snowdon peering up another 900 feet at me as I passed; soaring over London’s Shard Tower even if they built it four times as tall. I hold onto this feeling as long as I can as we stand here, before Giristroula turns to me and with silent nod of agreement between us, we decide it’s time to take the route back down. Having come up, I guess all you can ever really do is go down again. And best not think of futility of these things. Climbs like this are meant to great life-affirming moments after all, not for dwelling on the pointlessness of existence and how we’ll all be gone soon enough. The descent is hard on the knees. By the time we’re down in the fields at the foot of Ben Nevis again, the sun is setting and I feel I’ve truly mounted ten St Pauls without the aid of staircase, as fellow climber John Keats once had it. Looking back, with the peak hidden from us here at the bottom, the sun dying behind and just the torso of the mountain visible, it doesn’t look such a big deal from here. But it was. It definitely was.