Fellow camper van drivers always give you a wave as you pass each other on the road. It feels good. Like we’re part of a community. There even seems to be some sort of special salute for us VW campers. I start waving as soon as I see what even vaguely looks like a camper coming over the prow of the southern Highland hills in front of us.
Our tartan van also gets sightseers turning their lenses away from the Scottish panoramas and taking pictures of us we cruise along, past Loch Leven, past the soft moors, under the soft sky. That feels good too. I try to look regal as they snap.
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. And 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 ugly conciliatory 1970s way, they remind me of watchful verecund 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.
It should seem obvious, you would think, but we drive around looking and can’t find the largest mountain in Britain anywhere. We pull over and I ask some teenagers eating crisps where exactly Ben Nevis is in this town. They look embarrassed, giggle at each other. Spotty, braces, hot in their v neck school uniform jumpers. “Don’t know” they mumble. This is getting ridiculous.
Eventually we find the Ben Nevis visitors’ centre, park the van and, with tremulous Scottish words in our ears (“You’d better get started soon. We don’t recommend going up much later than this..”), we get ready to tackle another unnecessary – but unavoidable for our tour – 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, and to our right runs a fairly disappointing view down onto the visitor centre car park and an unchanging landscape as we curl round the lower half of the mountain. It’s tiring and I get annoyed at simple things, like why doesn’t Scotland have more majestic deep green pine trees as I imagined it would? The pine trees I can see seem to thinly ride halfway up the slopes of the other peaks around us, and then stop. Leaving the ranges looking as if they have been plucked. Like mangy green vultures with their bald heads.
The climb is severe. Perhaps we got cocky from our other climbs, this one is testing us though.
It plateaus out for a while, passing a huge lake where one solitary camper has placed his small tent at water’s edge – has he got the best camping spot in the country? Then we come up hard against the steepness again. The climb has turned more captivating now though. Mountains all around and below us. Peaks beyond peaks. A loch cutting through these mountains and the eclipsed peaks behind and out to the sea and Northern Ireland beyond.
Ben Nevis’ interior has grown more interesting too. We pass a large falling waterfall which marks roughly the halfway point of the climb 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. No one can tell if he’s joking, but everyone’s thirst seems to be quite quickly quenched regardless.
As we near the top, the climb levels out a bit and I spot a few people snacking after the climb, and even a woman walking her cat on a lead, here, 4,400 feet above the sea. Pet lovers, tea drinkers, eccentrics, all very British, even on the 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. There’s a gully of snow that remains even now in the summer glare.
The view is incredible and 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 3,900 feet down; climbers on 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. It’s a great moment and I hold onto it as we stand here and keep it as long as I can before I turn to Passepartout and, with silent nod of agreement, we decide to take the unavoidable route back down again.
The descent is hard on the knees. By the time we’re down in the fields at the seat 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 Keats once had it. Looking back, with the peak hidden from the bottom and the sun dying behind just the torso of the mountain, it doesn’t look such a big deal. But it was. It definitely was.