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Southern Upland Way

10/06/2007

Doug Brown, Southern Upland Way, June 2007...

The 212 miles coast to coast Southern Upland Way has been on my ‘must do’ list for quite a while and although I have walked or run various sections in the past I have always wanted to do the whole ‘Way’ in a single journey. I was inspired to attempt an unsupported crossing by reading about Glyn Jones who completed the route in 6 days 5 hours, carrying with him everything he would need for the journey.

Lightweight travel and moving swiftly over varied terrain can be an exhilarating experience. On the face of it the idea of travelling without the encumbrance of a heavy pack or the constraints of pre-booked accommodation, transport or anyone else’s requirements seems like an ideal option. However once I started to plan the trip it soon became clear that preparation was even more important for this type of journey since I had to be sure that I had with me everything that I would need on route whilst keeping weight to a minimum.

Having the right clothing and especially footwear was a cause for some long debate and took the form of numerous trials throughout the preceding weeks until I was happy with my choices.

Food requirements were covered by cheese rolls, bananas, cup-a-soups and cereal bars for the first part and a couple of 'ready meals' for the latter stages, with tea, some drinks powder and loads of sweets to provide extra energy boosts when required.

 

***

 

On a previous attempt at the ‘Way’, travelling west to east, I had retired at Dalry due to a combination of fatigue and foot problems and so I decided that this time I would go in the opposite direction, leaving Cockburnspath at midday on the first Saturday in June.

The forecast for the week ahead predicted some unsettled weather, but for the start at least, the sun was out prompting the need for sun-screen. Just to get underway after weeks of waiting was a great feeling and at this early stage it was tempting to push on and to cover as much ground as possible. However I had learned from previous experience that it was best to start steadily and settle in so I tried not to think of the distance ahead and just enjoy the trip.

There is always plenty to see on the SUW, the constantly changing habitat and terrain bring with them an abundance of wildlife. The bird life in the Eastern section is especially varied and it was fun trying to pick out the different calls.

The first few miles passed quickly and the Coast was soon left behind as I continued on through Abbey St Bathans towards Longformacus. The path is fairly well marked, but as I discovered it is wise not to become too blasé about just using the marker posts as a guide. Following the Way along the side of a wood I continued on an obvious path towards the wind farm on Black Hill before realising my mistake and having to re-trace my steps to get back on track. This unintentional detour only cost me a couple of extra miles, not far in the long run, but it did teach a lesson on the need for careful navigation and from then on I always had a map at hand.

Travelling in this direction, Twin Law is the first proper hill on route and from its double-cairned summit the panorama is fantastic. Equally pleasing for a runner is the gradual descent down over the moor and I made good progress. At one point a dark brown mountain hare appeared on the track in front of me, he looked at me for a few seconds before deciding to lope off and show me how it should be done.

Although I had a rough idea of the distances that I would cover each day, I was quite flexible and when I reached Blythe Water there presented itself an ideal spot to stop for the night. The little valley with its rabbit-cropped grass beside the stream was perfect for a break and I doubted that I would find anywhere better before dark. So after a brew and a bite to eat I unrolled my bivvy bag and settled down for the night, lulled to sleep by the whaups and peewits (curlews and lapwings).

 

***

 

An early start saw me pass through Lauder and on to the Roman road, with the Eildon Hills looming ever nearer and acting as giant way markers ahead. A couple of years previously I had undertaken numerous short walks on the Way in order to complete a full set of ‘Waymerks’. These are 13 specially cast tokens, each with a different image depicting the section of the SUW in which they are hidden. Whilst I was not looking to collect any of the unique coins on this trip, it was like visiting old friends as I passed the location of each hidden ‘kist’.

By the time I reached Melrose and Galashiels people were getting up and about and I met quite a few walkers on the riverside path including some fellow joggers out for their Sunday run. This section as well as the magnificent Drove Road to Minch Moor, with its famous Cheese Well and ‘living sculptures’, was the busiest of the whole route, due perhaps to it being the weekend.

From Traquair it seemed like quite a haul up over Blake Muir but ‘what goes up must come down’ and I enjoyed the kindness of the grassy descent to the Yarrow Valley. By this time I was becoming a little tired and footsore so decided to stop near St Mary’s Loch for the night.

 

***

 

That night the rain that had been forecast finally arrived. I was warm and dry in my little cocoon but one of the drawbacks of sleeping in the open when it is wet is that at some point you will have to brave the weather and get your journey underway. The damp conditions brought out the midges, making heating food an unpleasant prospect, so I breakfasted on cold water and a cereal bar and got going as quickly as possible.

I knew that this was probably going to be the toughest day of the trip with a lot of big climbs to go over, however I much preferred the soft underfoot conditions of the hills to the unyielding tarmac and forest road stretches.

Crossing the Dumfries and Galloway border at Ettrick Head was a significant point of the journey for me; I was approaching more familiar ground and was actually looking forward to the challenge of the next section. By the time I reached Beattock the rain had cleared and the day was starting to heat up, in fact it was to stay dry for the rest of my trip.

A fairly recent change to the route takes you across the Daer reservoir dam which means you are spared from having to negotiate a somewhat rough and boggy hillside on Sweetshaw Brae. It was on this elevated pathway that I met a heavily laden walker coming in the opposite direction. When our paths crossed and we had a brief conversation, he told me that he had set out from Portpatrick almost a week earlier. That chat brought it home to me that I still had a long way to go!

The next major obstacle to be tackled was the highest point of the journey, the Lowther Hills. I was fortunate with the weather, good visibility meant that I had no navigation problems and could enjoy the views; however it also meant that I could see the summit with its Radar station from quite a way off! This is an area of the Way where you can best appreciate how remote you can be on the walk, a great place to enjoy the solitude but also a reminder that care should be taken in bad weather. As a safety measure, I kept in touch throughout my journey by mobile phone. I looked forward to switching the phone on from time to time to update my progress and to receive text messages of support from friends back home.

After the descent to Wanlockhead I continued onwards to Sanquhar, dusk was gathering, so I began to look for a place to stop. I finally settled for a quiet spot beside the river Nith to rest for the night.

 

***

 

My attempts at breakfast were again rather sub-standard; the ‘Creamy Oats Porridge’ I had in mind was more of a paste in the light of day, but it did serve its purpose. As the sun rose into the sky I also gained height, climbing through the fields and rough grazing to Cloud Hill. From here I watched a shepherd gathering sheep across the other side of the Scar Valley, before I dropped down to the tarmac road and on to the forest.

Around here and further on in the Galloway Forest Park area, forestry workers were carrying out lots of work in harvesting mature trees. This work is opening up the views to the hills and lochs, making it even better now to appreciate the surroundings.

Beyond Allans Cairn to Benbrack the path gets very wet and muddy in places, so it was a relief to be off the hill and get back to the dryer and more solid ground of the sheep grazing farmland below. It was now very warm, the heat of the day a foretaste of things to come.

Reaching St Johns Town of Dalry was another important milestone for me. This had been the place where my previous unsupported attempt had come unstuck so to get here and be able to continue in relatively good shape was a tremendous feeling. In my opinion, the view from Waterside hill overlooking Dalry is one of the best on the SUW and I have in the past, been lucky enough to see a Red Kite soaring over this small hilltop. However if there were any of these magnificent birds around on this occasion then they were, for the meantime, keeping out of sight.

As I headed westwards on the forest road passing Loch Dee, my feet were once again feeling the effects of the warm weather and harder ground, prompting the need for some recovery and a tea break. Sitting beside the White Laggan burn during this rest period, I turned my mind to thinking about the distance left to the finish. I decided that I could reach Portpatrick sometime during the following day, but just when would depend on progress for the remainder of today.

By the time I moved off again, the light was fading, making the use of my head torch a necessity. The uneven ground on Trostan Hill was made more difficult by the lack of daylight and so by the time I reached Loch Trool I decided to rest up for the night. Settling into my bivvy bag for what I hoped would be the last time, I reflected on this area’s most celebrated visitor, Robert the Bruce, who in 1307, achieved a famous victory here in his campaign for Scottish independence.

 

***

 

For those who have never tried it, being on your own in the great outdoors at night can be quite exhilarating. Tiredness undoubtedly plays a part, but from my experience, the tumbling water of the Glenhead burn sure sounds like voices, and when you are laying in the dark near to an historic battle site your mind starts to play tricks. I prefer to think that it was because I wanted to get an early start on the remainder of the journey that I set out along the loch side as soon as it was light enough!

The path along the riverside towards Bargrennan was lovely, with a splendid show of bluebells amongst the broad leaf woods. A bit further on Loch Ochiltree looked stunning, wearing a veil of mist and basking in the early morning sun, it was shaping up for a fine day of trail running. The only problem was that on the road sections my feet were starting to protest about the treatment they were getting and I was obliged to take frequent breaks to give them a rest.

The softer ground of the forest tracks and paths gave them some respite and on the trail section past the ancient Standing Stones at Laggangarn and the more recent structures of the wind farm on Balmurrie Fell I was able to jog at a relatively faster pace.

I was now confident about finishing my journey on that day and decided that there was no point in carrying any unnecessary weight all the way to Portpatrick, so at a spot near to the Cross Water of Luce, I ate the majority of my remaining food.

By Castle Kennedy, the heat of the day had really built up and I was glad of any shade offered by the road side trees. In the open it was extremely hot and I was making slow progress on the tarmac roads. Even the track by the reservoir and through the field at Knock and Maize was a struggle and the road to the Killantringan lighthouse seemed never ending.

However, once on the grassy cliff top path I gained a new lease of life and with the end now almost in sight, managed to summon enough energy to break into a respectable jog.

The last mile or so passed quickly and it seemed no time at all until I rounded the final corner of the SUW and looked down on Portpatrick Harbour. All that remained was to descend the steps to the information board, pose for a photo, then adjourn to the pub where I celebrated with a well earned coffee.

It had taken me 4 days 7 hours and 54 minutes to cover the 212 miles from Cockburnspath.

 

* * *

 

On reflection, the Southern Upland Way is a great challenge and I understand that this lightweight approach to completing its distance will not suit everyone. However, one fantastic opportunity that this method does present is that you are out on the trail at both ends of the day and are totally immersed in the changes to the sights and sounds that both dusk and dawn bring.

I was surprised at how few people I met on the journey; since I was travelling in the opposite direction to that described in the guide books I had thought that I would meet quite a number of fellow travellers. I can only hope that in the future more people will realise the potential of the walk and take up the challenge.

 

Doug Brown.

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