Friday 13 May 2016. Beattock to Over Phawhope bothy, 10 miles.
Despite a panic with a delayed train out of Carlisle, I made my connections and was ready to start mid-afternoon. The first few miles are uneventful, save for the very pretty Dumcrieff woods, the beech trees looking splendid in the occasional sunshine. Away from the valley soon after, there’s a climb up into forestry plantations, and soon a choice of routes. One stays lower, on the wide, gravelled forestry tracks of which I had already seen far too much the year before. The other went higher, up to the Graham (2000ft hill in Scotland) of Croft Head – though my guidebook noted that in 2012 this was ‘closed’. As I stood at the junction point, pondering my options, a hillwalker comes in from the latter, as if right on cue. He’d been on some of the local hills, Croft Head included, and so not only could he confirm that the route was very much open, he could give me chapter and verse on what to look for.
Which, first of all, was cleared forest, before a combination of forest tracks and paths took me to the edge of open country. It’s a nice little ridge to Croft Head, looking forward to the Ettrick Hills. From the top an engineered path zig-zags down to the Selcoth Burn; viewed from here, the track is no thing of beauty, but saves humans from creating a perhaps more unsightly, and dangerous, scar down the side of the hill as individuals tackle the steep slope. The southern slopes of Capel Fell, just across the burn, show that nature is quite capable of creating her own erosion hereabouts.
Not far from the watershed of Ettrick Head a sign at a stile proclaims the entry to The Borders, the second of the two contemporary local government units that the Way passes through. Once though it was Selkirkshire, and hence then the heading below. Over Phawhope bothy, my shelter for the night, is just over a mile beyond the boundary.
Scars on Capel Fell
Over Phawhope bothy
Saturday 14 May 2016. Over Phawhope bothy to Blake Muir, 19 miles.
Over Phawhope is one of the few bothies actually owned by the Mountain Bothies Association, and they have done an excellent job in renovating it, so I was rather surprised to spend a Friday night here on my own. The forests round about were now being harvested, giving a rather forlorn air to the surroundings, but there is plenty of access to hill tracks, including the local classic the Ettrick horseshoe.
The walk in to Over Phawhope via Croft Head is an SUW highlight; the walk out, by a mile of forestry track and then five miles of metalled road, is not. A path by the Ettrick Water surely cannot be impossible to negotiate. The scenery is all very nice, but a road is a road, and I got to reading the telephone pole markers to see if I could work out the sequence. It all ends at Scabcleugh, where a nice little track takes you up and over to St Mary’s Loch.
Circular sheepfold above Scabcleugh
St Mary’s Loch
Arriving here must cause much hardship to walkers with old, or even new, guidebooks, looking forward to a pint and food at “one of Scotland’s most famous hostelries”, the Tibbie Shiels Inn. I’m hard bitten enough to check these things, and knew in advance that the owner had no plans to re-open it following its seasonal closure. There’s a cafe on the main road if you’re desperate, but a few yards further on the good folks of the Yacht Club were happy for me to sit at one of their picnic tables for a while – one of their number even came to keep me company, which I found very flattering of her. The memory kept me going for the three miles along the loch. Just beyond is Dryhope Tower, a 16th century fortified home typical of the area and its lawless past. It’s been partly restored with a new staircase to take you to the top – far too interesting to miss.
Now, just as last year I had planned one very long day which at the last minute I decided to scrap, so I had this year. I had intended to wild camp near the Tower, leaving 21 miles to Galashiels tomorrow. But stopping at 2.30 on a lovely sunny day (if a trifle chill for the time of year) is plain daft. The problem is where to wild camp further on. I’d decided, in late planning, to aim for the summit of Blake Muir, though it meant buying a water carrier, there being no water on the top. I filled it at the next stream after the Tower, the Douglas Burn, and hiked it up a lovely green corridor of forest track (not nearly as steep as it looked on the map) onto the heathery moor. I found a good place to stop just before the moor’s top, and settled in for the night.
Wild camp on Blake Muir
Sunday 15 May 2016. Blake Muir to Galashiels, 17 miles.
I was pleased to have stopped where I did, for just ten minutes from my camp I would have been in sight of Innerleithen, with all its easy comforts. The Way does not pass through the town, turning off a mile short at Traquair (just inside the Peebles-shire boundary). The village is famous for Traquair House, the longest-inhabitated house in Scotland, with a long-established brewery too, but unlike Dryhope Tower it’s not a place for a 20-minute nibble stop.
Climbing out of Traquair I was conscious of a pair of runners coming up behind me. In these benign conditions I knew I was walking pretty fast but the fact that runners can, well, run up hills always gives people like me a reality check. Soon there were mountain bikers too – one stopped to ask me what had happened to Minch Moor bothy, something that I knew (demolished a few months earlier, before it fell down) – as well as day walkers, a party of three couples and a dog, the latter being keen to follow me when I went ahead. Sunday on the hills in May! Well why not, especially when the path, an ancient drove road that keeps high above the valleys of the Tweed and Yarrow, is as good as this. The path junction where the track to the summit of Minch Moor turns off is an important ‘turn point’, for it is here that the Eildon Hills above Melrose come into view, a marker for the route to come.
Around Brown Knowe two more figures appeared in front of me, and soon it was their turn for a chat. One, Phil (52 but I asked if he had a bus pass yet) was an SUW walker on a 30-mile-a-day schedule: his feet hurt. The other, Betty (67, trim) was a day walker, just walking along the ridge and back again because she could. Her other hobby was long-distance cycling. At the triple-cairned Three Brethren Betty and I let Phil hare forwards to Lauder while we shared a bit of food (OK, she gave me a tomato) before she headed back, and I dropped down to the Tweed.
Phil and Betty below Brown Knowe
In the valley at Yair young canoeists were training on the Tweed, its level rather low given the lack of recent rain. (Across the two years, I was now on my eighth consecutive rain-free day on the SUW!) From here there’s a low and easy track, initially through bluebell woods, to the outskirts of Galashiels, with a population of 15,000 by some measure the biggest town on the Way. It’s quite tricky to follow the Way around its edge, but just beyond the metalled road leading east I soon located the path that would take me down to my B&B.
Monday 16 May 2016. Galashiels to Melrose, five miles (four on path).
I had booked in to the B&B for two nights in the expectation of needing an easy day after the 21-miler from Dryhope Tower. Yesterday’s 17 miles had gone very easily, but I didn’t see the need to cut a day from my schedule. Why get home a day early when having a good time? So today was set aside for a stroll, not a walk, with the luxury of no rucksack on the back.
The Way heads a little uphill before dropping down to the Tweed, the home built for Sir Walter Scott Abbotsford House dominating the scene, then crossing the river (and the Roxburghshire boundary) by the old, and now reinstated, railway bridge, and staying by the line to and just beyond Tweedbank station. From here it cuts back down to the river to give a pretty last mile into Melrose. It was not though being appreciated by the Mr Angry of trail walking who I met at the SUW information board by the river. He had just found a split in his new rucksack and was cross about that. Very cross. And he was cross, very cross, that he had got badly lost in the forest above Beehive bothy, so badly lost that he had put in a 37-mile day. He was hating the whole experience. He had a split in his brand-new £120 rucksack. He had got lost in the forest … I tried to step away, he advanced, lips chapped, shorts not hiding scabs on his legs from stumbles … oh, the poor man. I watched him go.
I headed into Melrose proper. After the prettiest Rugby ground I have ever seen, the Eildon hills a perfect backdrop, the next thing I saw was its ‘harmony garden’ which I might have recommended to Mr Angry had I known it was there. Though the town is one of the tourist gems of the Borders, principally for its Abbey, it would have been a very long afternoon for me on my own, so I took a bus back to Tweedbank station for a rail-assisted afternoon in Edinburgh, mostly at the National Museum of Scotland, where I took my fill of the Edinburgh Enlightenment and Scottish engineering.
Tuesday 17 May 2016. Melrose to Blythe Water, 14 miles.
Not Berwickshire yet: Melrose parish of the former Roxburghshire strays north of the Tweed, surprisingly, for a few miles. After a riverside mile the path turns north to pick up an old Roman road which takes you easily through rolling farmland, just shy of the 1000ft contour at its highest point, Woodheads Hill (just inside Berwickshire). It’s fast, uninhibited walking along here, meaning that the ten-mile Melrose-to-Lauder stretch, certainly in benign conditions like these, is no more than a half-day. Do remember to look round though, for views back to the Eildon hills.
The Way turns right just before the Market Place in Lauder, but it would be silly to miss this last little commercial hub on the path. There are several places for a bite, and I chose the Flat Cat art gallery, a bit of a cousin to the A’the Airts tearoom in Sanquhar the year before. I’d also picked up a tweaky knee on the Roman Road, so bought myself a precautionary magic bandage in the pharmacy, which seemed to do the trick. That’s what small towns are for. Out of the town, there’s a short stretch through the grounds of Thirlestane Castle, before a few miles of up-and-down led me to Blythe Water. Beside the footbridge here, there’s a half-acre or so of flattish grass that makes an excellent wild camp site.
Wednesday 18 May 2016. Blythe Water to Edgar’s Cleugh, 19 miles.
The last big day. You’re now on the southern Lammermuirs, a hill-group that I had crossed once before, at the start of my cross-Scotland walk. They are relatively low, heather-clad hills, popular for shooting parties and, since I was last here in 2007, wind farms. Back then I had searched out the highest of the group at 1745ft, Meikle Says Law: it has to be said that it’s one of the least-inspiring highest hills I have ever climbed.
Lammermuirs wind farm
Twin Law, east cairn
Today’s target, Twin Law, is much lower at 1466ft, but a far better summit. It’s reached first by a long land-rover track linking shooting hides and then an easy path on what counts as Twin Law’s summit ridge. Looking north, I could see the wind farm that would have all-but obliterated by 2007 cross-Lammermuirs walk; west, back to the country I had passed; east, a patch of sea; and south – what was that high ground, I wondered? A quick map check showed that this was of course the Cheviots, which I had crossed when finishing my cross-England walk the month before. There’s a good story about the Twin law cairns, and an even better surprise. The story is that the cairns commemorate brothers who unwittingly slew each other in battle. The surprise is not that the cairns each hold a howff, an indentation large enough to shelter in, but that the eastern holds both a visitor book and a bottle of whisky! Only one other entry so far today, said the book, a family of four dog-walking.
Next target was the fishing reservoir of Watch Water. Research told me that there was a small cafe here, so I called in. It was hosted by Gavin, a retired plumber who loved the solitude – a dozen fishing boats were tied up alongside but none were in use today. The cafe sells tea, coffee, pot noodles and snacks; a cup of tea was what I had came for. We got to talking, and he told me that he spent a month in the Highlands every year, each day walking a little further, to stave off stiffness in his hips and back; he also told of an SUW walker who had called in an hour before, taking his dog with him on the trail, a dobermann-poodle cross – the dog had his own backpack. Shouldn’t be difficult to spot, I thought.
The village of Longformacus was an easy road walk down in the valley. “Is there a shop?” I asked a resident. “Not since 1972” came the reply. I didn’t really need one, and munched on some tablet by the village bridge. Next up was a last moorland crossing, rising above the Dye Water, on which I remembered going wrong in the other direction back in 2007, on my cross-Scotland walk. Coming from the west rather than the east, all seemed straightforward, though I think I can see where the problem lay earlier (it’s noted in an amendment to the 2007 page). High on the hill, there’s a lovely line of beech trees, and a waymarker gives a 50-yard diversion to a noted viewpoint, which these days does little more than give an excellent view of the Black Hill wind farm. The Way then crosses a B road before staying high through Roughside Wood until its final descent into Abbey St Bathans.
This is a tiny, bijou little village clustered around the little church. The café / gallery was, I knew, closed today, a shame as I’d had a nice little break there in 2007. Instead I lingered a while beside the church – a local history talk was being prepared inside, I saw – before heading off for my last mile of the day, a wild camp spot just beyond the end of a lane heading north. Quite incongruously, the other side of gorse bushes from my pitch, there was a hot tub awaiting the couple of days each year that were both warm and midge-free.
Abbey St Bathans church
Thursday 19 May 2016. Edgar’s Cleugh to Cockburnspath, 10 miles.
The last couple of days before Beattock, I was part of quite a little community of Southern Upland Way walkers, sharing our frailties and our endeavours. This had not happened this time; I’d only met 30-miles-a-day man on the stage out of Traquair, and Mr Angry at Melrose.
But they were around. Just as I was striking camp, a 75ish-year-old woman came past. She’d found a wild camp spot near the B road above Abbey St Bathans, and had been on the move since 7.30 (it was now 9). She had a little moan about her sack, rather old school and heavy in comparison to mine, but clearly she was one to just get on with things. I’ve far more admiration for the likes of her than the 30-mile guys; I’ve put a mental note of 70 as the age when I’ll give all this up (this was written when I was 65 and has since been amended to 75). I soon picked her up again, coping cautiously with a herd of cows, and helped see her safely across to the stile – “they give me panic attacks,” she said of the cows.
Not far beyond the farm of Blackburn (where I’d joined the SUW in ’07), I came across the guy and dog that Gavin at Watch Water had told me about. It turns out that my pitch was only a few hundred metres short of his. I hope he was impressed by my successfully divining the heritage of his dog. We shared the road down to the A1 and saw ourselves safely across – though it’s far less busy, up here, than almost any Essex A road I’ve had to negotiate. So that would be at least three finishers today: whether that’s fairly typical or not at this time of year, I’ve no idea. Maybe there were others who had stayed overnight in Longformacus.
Penmanshiel woods, a haven for wild garlic and gorse, rise above the A1 to give a last taste of the uphill, before entering the Pease Dean nature reserve. This hugs the eponymous dean and the contorted path takes flights of chicken-wired steps up and down throughout its length; I wondered how Stanley (the dog) would cope.
Pease Bay would be a lovely stretch of beach but it’s home to a massive caravan site – the long mile of coast to the village of Cove is wonderful however, despite a cement works and nuclear power station on the horizon. The trick is to look at the rocks. It was gazing at their striations that led, in 1787, local man James Hutton to publish his ‘Theory of the Earth’, a first scientific debunking of the Biblical myth of the Earth’s creation in 4004BC.
Alas with a bus timetable now to think about, I didn’t have time to drop down to Cove Harbour, purchased in 1990 to prevent Pease Bay-type development. Instead, I took the last short mile of the way, an anticlimax underneath the graffiti-strewn A1 bridge, into the official finish at Cockburnspath (don’t pronounce the burns, one of the graffiti writers says). It was a nicer village than I’d been led to expect, with a tiny square, unusual kirk, and functioning post office with a coffee machine and chocolate.
One minute before the bus came, it started to drizzle heavily: the first rain I had been out in for 170 miles. Other walkers be warned, this does not always happen.