My Southern Upland Way Experience
Back in the dark ages, in May 1991 to be precise, I decided to walk the Southern Upland Way. My previous experience at this point, was having walked The Pennine Way and the West Highland Way in the previous year, which I suppose was good experience. However, for both these walks, I’d been given an old rucksack by my friend’s older brother, and wow, did it give me pain.
It was made in the 1970s I think, with an external frame and I couldn’t even fit the sleeping bag inside, so had it strapped to the outside in a bin bag. Anyway, I’d splashed out on a new rucksack for the Southern Upland Way and thought it would be a breeze. However, the journey didn’t go to plan, as this time I had major boot problems…
It had taken over 12 hours travelling by train and bus to reach Portpatrick, mainly due to a delayed train at Preston that had upset all the rest of the connections.
Finally, feeling somewhat bruised and battered, the dog (Tess) and I were standing in Portpatrick about to head up a hill towards the campsite. After the short climb, we arrived and I began to pitch the tent. It wasn’t until I had finished and had been somewhat annoyed when trying to push the tent pegs in to the hard ground, that I realised it was situated on a disused railway line. I’d had my fill of anything connected with railways that day.
I awoke feeling surprisingly refreshed after the arduous journey of the previous day. I had my breakfast; together with my first dog hair that I hadn’t noticed until too late. I suspected it was to be the first of many.
I was eager to start my walk and only had 11 miles to reach Stranraer so was feeling reasonably confident. Walking towards the pier, through Portpatrick village, an elderly gentleman struck up a conversation with me about the walk from the other side of the street. He never did cross over to my side. Very soon, I saw a large sign and information board for the start of the Southern Upland Way. The first section was a pleasant walk along the cliff path. After three miles, I arrived at Killantrigan Lighthouse and decided to have a rest. The sun was shining and I felt very relaxed, in fact slightly too much so.
A road led from the lighthouse for three miles and then a rough track over moorland followed. It began to rain and after trying to ignore it for a while, I realised I would have to put my waterproofs on. After another mile, I sat in a ditch to eat my lunch; the rain finding its way into my sandwiches. I realised I only had another four miles to complete, before reaching Stranraer and the campsite.
It was on the road all the way and I began to tire of the monotonous tarmac. On reaching Stranraer, I noticed a small shop was open, so decided to stock up on supplies. A small boy outside asked if was a rock climber and then a man inside, asked if I was from Ireland. These were two rather unexpected questions, as I wasn’t carrying ropes and I am from Yorkshire. I was soon at the far end of Stranraer with the campsite in view. It looked very nice, especially as the rain had now stopped and the sun was shining. Mine was the only tent there, but later in the evening, two more arrived. The campsite warden also asked if I was from Ireland.
Unfortunately, the following day I would have to endure a hike of 21 miles. There was to be a lot of road walking that would make it easier, except for the lack of interest, but it would be the only walk over 20 miles on the entire way, so I would just have to find some willpower.
I had purchased some bread at the shop in Stranraer, called Scottish Square, but it was produced in Berkshire and resembled cast iron. The dog was happy though, because she got the crusts.
During the early hours of the morning, I heard a reasonable amount of rain falling on the tent. By morning, the rain was being very unreasonable and descending in buckets. This was bad news and unexpected. The previous afternoon and evening had been glorious. I noticed a wet patch appearing on the tent but managed to stop it by re-arranging the flysheet. The dog had caused the leak by leaning against the side during the night.
Twenty-one miles to complete and the rain wouldn’t stop; I delayed my planned exit from the campsite for an hour but the rain increased. I would have to take the tent down and hope for the best. Just as I had secured all the straps on my rucksack, everything now safely inside but decidedly wet; the rain stopped. I removed my waterproofs and began the walk.
Two and a half miles by road took me to Castle Kennedy and a beautiful park with a loch and castle. Just over a mile further on I was back on the road for a short distance and then on a track through a farm. It was a steep woody climb from here and I had my first rest. After the short break, I began to follow a muddy track and then came across a tractor carrying freshly cut logs. It was travelling slower than I was and that is slow. I followed in its tracks that were now deep muddy channels. Finally, I came to a road that I would have to follow for five miles and monotony began to set in. After three and a half miles, I came to New Luce village and called in the Post Office for a few items. On coming out, I met with rain. A mile out of New Luce the rain stopped and so did I, to have my lunch; the halfway mark of the day. I was tired of walking on roads but I soon resumed the hike.
My first chance of a track for what seemed an age had a sign that read, “No Dogs Allowed”. I instructed Tess to keep a low profile. Unfortunately, there were a couple of farmers manoeuvring cattle in the farmyard ahead. I began to walk through the farmyard ready to apologise when one of the farmers just gave me a smile and a nod, so we got through that one okay. I climbed over a stile and saw moorland. I marched through the bogs and felt really into my stride, the sky turned blue, the sun shone and the views were quite spectacular. I came to a young tree plantation, so the views weren’t restricted walking through the trees.
As I came to the last six miles of the day I began to tire, my feet began to hurt, the trees got taller and the views disappeared. The trees were never ending and the miles felt the same. I was heading for a campsite at Derry farm. As I tramped along the narrow water logged paths, I began to think how strange it was that I hadn’t met anyone walking the way. The paths were little used and the sign posting was faultless, even the stiles appeared to have been recently constructed. It was as though I was the first walker to tread there.
My feet were becoming extremely sore; my new boots that I thought were now tried and tested were giving me trouble. I was surprised as they were an identical pair to my previous boots that had never given me any problems. I wanted to stop walking, pitch camp and have something to eat. I looked at the map and saw it was one and a half miles to the farm. At last, I saw the farm so used my last ounce of energy to reach the gate and saw a notice that advertised camping. I entered the farmyard, which was a sign for the resident three dogs I could see, and numerous ones hidden from view, to growl and bark. I rang the doorbell, nearly on my knees but there was no answer. This was a big let down; my heart sank to my boots to join my painful feet. The next farm that allowed camping was four miles away and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it. I walked around the outside of the house and saw there was someone inside. I wondered if the occupants had seen my dog and were hoping I would go away. Turning round to leave, I suddenly heard a man call after me. He said I could camp, and vaguely waved his hand in the direction of a trailer over the other side of the track away from the farmyard. I walked towards the site but it was useless, no facilities, not even water, completely open and covered in sheep. Forget it I thought, and continued hobbling down the narrow road in search of a better place to camp.
I collected some water from a small pool, which looked far from pure and after a mile, found a place to camp just off the road between a wall and the tree plantation. It was sloping hopelessly but I was ready to collapse. I pitched the tent, clambered inside and everything slid to the left, including the dog. I cooked my tea, studied my feet and realised I would have to sleep. In my sleeping bag, I slid to the left to join everything else; what a set up.
The tent was still standing when I awoke. I unzipped the flysheet to see a blue sky. After packing everything away, I climbed back over the wall and made it to the road; my secret camp was over. I decided to try to get some fresh water at the farm at Knowe three miles away, where I knew camping was available.
After three quiet miles on the road to Knowe, I saw the farm. I rang the doorbell and a woman answered who very kindly filled my water container. It wasn’t until I was leaving the farm that I noticed the camping spot. It was nicely mowed but on the roadside and its dimensions were roughly twelve feet by eight with toilet non-existent. How do they think you go about your ablutions with no privacy; beside the road, outside the house?
I had four miles by road again, but the views compensated for more tarmac tramping. The blue sky had stayed and it was a lovely clear day. Half way through the four miles stretch, I decided it was time for a rest; my feet up to now were only slightly uncomfortable. I saw a ditch beside the road so clambered down into it. I removed my boots and socks to give my feet a breather. Bare foot, socks airing, boots airing, I suddenly saw hundreds of ants crawling over the rucksack. I quickly put my boots on, struggled with the rucksack and escaped the invasion. Sitting down again I felt a sharp nip on my arm. It was an ant and an angry red one at that. I quickly brushed it off thinking how it was a big bite for such a small ant.
Eventually I came to a mile across farmland before reaching a forest. My feet were increasing in pain. Half a mile into the forest, I stopped for lunch and aired my feet again (checking for ants first). Two ramblers passed me, still no way walkers.
With three and a half miles to go, the forest track turned to pine trees. I hobbled on and eventually came to the River Trool and followed its bank. I crossed a bridge and joined a narrow road, but realised I had made a mistake and joined the road too soon. It would be no further in distance, so I followed the road winding its way to Caldons campsite. It was half past two; I had planned an early arrival to enable my feet to have a bit of recovery time. The campsite was spacious, had good facilities and a shop but unfortunately didn’t stock dog food, only cat food. At this point, I didn’t think Tess had a care as to what it said on the tin. After erecting the tent, I felt so tired that I had a snooze for an hour. Then I checked my poor feet. The following day I had 15 miles to cover and no campsite for the next two nights. Things were looking grim and my feet agreed.
On waking, I looked at my feet. The walk to the toilet block would test them out, as the distance was a hike in itself. On returning, my feet had passed the test. They felt okay having made a reasonable recovery. I didn’t leave until half past eleven since I had no official campsite to reach that night.
The first three miles through forest, over looked Loch Trool, the sun was shining and it looked beautiful. The path however was uneven; up and down over tree roots and boulders, and an unfortunate start for sore feet. After these three miles, I came to a rough track and realised I would have to follow it for nine miles, mainly through forest restricting views. It was quite boring and my feet worsened. I decided to have a rest but an angry bee continually disrupted even this, as it insisted on zooming past numerous times, missing my nose by an inch. Shortly, I continued on the treadmill, boredom had reached crescendo point. After eight miles and with one mile of never ending, feet battering track to go, I came across the stream from which I had planned to collect water for my night on a hill. I had a late lunch at the same time; it was 4 o’clock. I was soon following the track again but in agonising pain.
Finally, I came to a left turn to follow a smooth but equally boring tarmac road, before turning right for the last mile of the day. A new tree plantation was the scene. A path had recently been constructed, but it was agonisingly uneven and I was travelling at a snail’s pace. I couldn’t stand the pain of my feet a moment longer; I was at the end of my tether and came out of the young forest in a painful daze.
Here I was to pitch camp. I hobbled round and round the tent, trying to get it up. At last, I was in the tent, cooking my tea and looking at my feet. A rather strong wind was snapping the flysheet back and forth, but the views were quite marvellous. When dusk began to fall, I returned to studying my feet and the map. The latter showed a planned route of 17 miles to Manquihill Hill. The former showed an array of blisters and sore spots. I decided to head for St John’s Town of Dalry (a hobble of seven miles) and then see if my feet could hobble the remaining ten. That decision made, I got into my sleeping bag feeling rather subdued and drifted off to sleep.
It was still blowing a gale when I awoke, and a few rogue raindrops were splattering on the tent. I left the lonely hill at 10 o’clock and began to follow the narrow path down towards Clenrie Farm. I was able to collect some water from a stream but unfortunately, there were two lambs enjoying a paddle a few feet away. From here, it was one and a half miles on a rough track and my feet were hurting already. I followed a road for another two miles in drizzle, and came to a way marker pointing to the left. I followed a muddy track into a wood and arrived at a small wooden bridge over a stream, but a field of cows were glaring at Tess from over the other side.
We walked towards them and they glared harder. I’d had some very unnerving experiences where cows were involved, when I was with the dog, to the point where on one occasion we were literally herded into a river! Losing all confidence, I checked the map for another route. Following the road would mean an extra mile and my feet gave a small scream. I looked at the cows again, they looked at me and it was no use. Then I saw a possible detour, so scrambling under some barbed wire on my side of the stream, and walking along the bank so that on entering the field, I was some distance from the beasts, solved the problem. The field was steep and my heart was still racing as my eyes scanned ahead for more cows. Over the summit an array of the beasts were in view, but there was a good distance between us and I thought that if we kept a low profile we would probably go unnoticed. The ground had dried hard in its churned up state from the cattle, so my feet were being battered again. Shortly, we came to a road, and then crossed an empty field. After negotiating a bridge, we had arrived at St. John’s Town of Dalry.
My feet cried out for mercy and I gave in. I booked in at the Clachan Inn, had a shower and spent the afternoon watching television. I realised that to get back on schedule, I would have to cover an average of 16.5 miles per day, so spent the evening re-planning the remaining route. This was “feet permitting” of course. I had an early night and was in bed by half past nine. Unfortunately, my room was situated above the kitchen, so I was serenaded to sleep by the crashing of pots and pans. In fact I wondered if there would be any left for breakfast after such treatment.
I awoke in a comfortable bed that I did not want to leave and checked my feet. They seemed to have made a slight recovery. I went down for breakfast at 8 o’clock and was alone. My cooked meal soon arrived and the owner and I chatted about my feet, which wasn’t great conversation over breakfast.
I left the Inn and headed up the hill out of Dalry. It was a very friendly place and I was bid good morning by a few of the residents. My breakfast seemed to have done wonders. I was in top gear coursing my way to the top with no problems. Actually, I think I was trying to get in as many miles as possible before my feet gave out. Rather like speeding to the garage before the petrol runs out. I had soon covered five miles at top speed. The walking was good, over deserted fields and moors. It was nice to get away from the roads and tracks that so far had seemed to take up so much of the Southern Upland Way.
I had arrived at Butterhole Bridge, a nice name for a rather uninspiring bridge. I headed over more fields for one and a half miles before crossing the B729 road. Faced with a steep climb, I continued. When most of the ascent was completed and being presented with a marvellous view of green hills, I stopped for lunch. My feet were just beginning to twinge. I enjoyed my sandwiches in glorious sunshine, as the clouds decreased and the blue intensified. My next challenge was Manquihill Hill and after lunch, I headed for the hill.
There was a crisscross of sheep tracks and it took me more than a mile to find a way marker but I knew the general direction I had to take. Suddenly in the distance I saw a fox, Tess gave chase, which surprised me somewhat as she would run away from dogs. She soon returned, excited but prize-less. Manquihill Hill was a steep, hard climb and I realised the necessity for the word hill to appear twice in its name. On the summit, I had a rest and before me stood Benbrack, a giant steep sided, green dome. The path made a straight, no nonsense ascent up the side. The walk to the top was only two miles but it was a tough walk. The only compensation for such a climb was the magnificent far-reaching views.
Ahead of me lay two more giants, Cairn Hill and Black Hill, but I was tiring now having covered twelve miles. In addition, it was rather late in the day and I would have been happier heading for the valley rather than another summit. The terrain reminded me very much of the Cheviot Hills. On the summit of Black Hill, which was actually green, I’d had enough and my feet were screaming out again. I reached a forest track and stared at the stones, my feet hobbling painfully over them. I was heading for Polskeoch Bothy but these last three miles would be hell. The track made an annoying loop in the forest then rapidly made its descent. My blistered toes battered on the inside of my boots. Then quite suddenly and with great surprise, I saw a building, and on closer inspection saw the word, “Bothy” above the door; this was it.
I unlatched the door and saw the place was empty. I assembled my belongings in a corner, in case I should have company later on, though it was quite late, being 7 o’clock, then began to explore my temporary home. One small room had a sink and a few well used pans. The second, very spacious room had a table and three chairs looking rather lost in the centre. There was a fireplace and a sleeping area, which was a large box type construction at the far end of the room, covered in old carpets and rugs. It could have slept eight people easily. I wandered outside again into the evening sun and to my surprise discovered a flush toilet around the back! I returned and began to cook my tea, feeling quite comfortable in this little house. Later, I decided to try to light the fire even though my fire building experience was nil. However, after about half an hour I had three logs burning quietly. I took a rug from the sleeping area and placed it in front of the fire, then pulled up a chair. Tess joined me and tired to have a warm snooze, peering at me through sleepy eyes as if to say she definitely preferred this to the tent. It was all very pleasant and as dusk fell, I lit half a candle I’d found and it was like being in days of old.
To be continued so check back soon! …