Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The Southern Uplands - Kirk Yeholm to Strathcarron - 10th to 15th May 2016

Wideopen Hill on the St.Cuthbert's Way 

The next morning, after breakfast, I left the guesthouse and headed to the bus stop in the centre of Kelso. In common with most of the Border towns and villages that I had visited in the past, I liked Kelso. It had a handsome square sporting an impressive town hall and I had enjoyed spending a couple of hours wandering around it's tidy streets the previous year as I waited for my bus to Berwick as I made my way back from completing the Pennine Way.  Now, however, I was too impatient to start my walk to spend time looking around the slumbering town as I crossed the square to the bus-stop.  After a short bus ride, I found myself on the village green outside the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, scene of my post-walk celebrations at the end of my gruelling ten and a half hour battle against the elements the previous year as I had crossed the Cheviot Hills from Byrness. My first two days of the walk would follow the St.Cuthbert's Way, a long distance walk from Melrose to Holy island, although I would be walking it in a reverse direction to Melrose. From here, I would then follow the Southern Upland Way to Traquair. I was familiar with this long distance, coast to coast National Trail as I had walked it in 1999 with a friend, so I knew what to expect. 

River Bowmont, Kirk Yetholm

Then, the walk has been a tough, two week trek carrying far too much weight in our rucksacks through some fairly remote, impressive scenery. I well remembered from that earlier trip the section I would now be walking in reverse from Melrose as we had spent the previous night in the Minch Moor bothy, which I had found very uncomfortable and I had struggled through lack of sleep the following day as we made our way to Melrose. 
Now, after alighting from the bus, I sat on a bench on the green in front of the Border Hotel where I had finished the Pennine Way ten months earlier, adjusting my rucksack and stowing items that I didn't need for the days walk. The weather was fine but quite hazy and the horizon was invisible as I walked up the valley out of the village. The valley was surrounded by hills in every direction but my attention was drawn to the Cheviot Hills to my left. Now the hills seemed benign but as I climbed, I remembered how hostile they had seemed last year on my final day on the Pennine Way. 
After leaving a valley road, I began climbing Wideopen Hill, which proved to have a number a very steep inclines that initially fooled me into thinking I was close to the summit, only to reveal another very steep climb once I reached the 'top'. It was during this climb that I spotted a walker ahead, who appeared to be moving very slowly. It soon became obvious that I was catching him fairly quickly and as we approached the summit I drew level with him and discovered that he was a young Belgian walker setting off to walk the Scottish National Trail, which was essentially what I was doing but with my own variations. It became apparent that he was carrying far too much weight as, despite being decades younger than me, he was struggling up the hills and staggering a little from side to side. We exchanged pleasantries but it soon became clear that he didn't want to walk with me, which I was more than happy about and I left him sitting on the summit having a break. The rest of the day became a trying walk through beautiful countryside that meandered irritatingly, often following tarmac lanes, although these were devoid of traffic. After a particularly long stretch of road walking from Morebattle, the walk degenerated into a frustrating struggle searching for a campsite and water supply. Eventually, as it was getting late, I decided to head for the hotel in the village of St. Boswells. I arrived at the hotel at around 8.15pm to discover that they were full! The receptionist helpfully pointed out that there was another hotel a couple of miles back in the direction I had just walked from so in desperation, I walked back to the village and bought 2 litres of water from a shop and descended to the River Tweed. Here, I had to walk for around 15 minutes along the riverbank to avoid a golf course, after which, I found a flat, grassy field and hurriedly pitched my tent in the rapidly fading light, before collapsing into my sleeping bag. I had been walking for almost 12 hours.

Camping by the River Tweed 

I awoke early after a surprisingly good nights sleep and packed up and was walking again by 6.30am. I returned to St. Boswells and picked up the onward route as it followed the banks of the Tweed. The weather was once again fine with sunshine sparkling on the river as oyster catchers swooped around, their unmistakable cries piercing the quiet of the morning. The route soon left the river for tarmac to the village of Bowden where it began climbing through forest to the triple peaks of the Eildon Hills. I had first set eyes on the hills many years earlier on the Southern Upland Way and was looking forward to reacquainting myself with them.  Despite my weariness from the previous day's exertions, I plodded slowly to the summit on very steep, stony paths before reaching the highest point where I had excellent, panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. I had decided that I would finish at Melrose, even though it was before midday, to compensate for the extra long first day, the town had been my original intended halt and the early finish would give me an afternoon off to recharge my batteries.  After descending very steeply, I reached the town centre where I stopped for coffee and breakfast before I made my way to a nearby campsite only to be informed that they were not accepting tents until May 21st! I thought this was a little bizarre considering the site was open to caravans and camper vans! I made my way back into the town centre where I found a reasonably priced room in a hotel. After unpacking my rucksack, I headed back into the town for a stroll to Melrose Abbey and along the banks of the River Tweed in the warm sunshine, before picking my way back to the hotel through the thronging tourists. After an afternoon spent writing up my diary and posting photos on the internet, I slept for a while before heading to the hotel bar for dinner. 

The Eildon Hills 

The following morning, I left the hotel at 08.30 on another glorious, sunny morning and headed for the banks of the River Tweed where I picked up the Southern Upland Way path that I would be following all day. The first section along the river was a delightful walk but this was over all to soon before I had to negotiate what for me had been the worst section of the walk all of those years ago, as it meandered around the suburbs of Galashiels. The Southern Upland Way is normally walked in the opposite direction, from west to east, so after a long day of steep ups and downs, I remember finding the route around 'Gala', as it is known locally, particularly frustrating.

The Tweed Valley

 ​Today though, I enjoyed the stunning scenery of the Southern Uplands as I romped along the roller-coaster ridges that rose and fell constantly throughout the day. ​The walk today was 18 miles to Traquair, where I intended leaving the SUW for a road walk to Innerleithen around two miles away, making the distance for the day around 20 miles. I passed the 'Cheese Well' which is a small spring at the side of the path where the tradition is to leave an offering for the fairies and sure enough, there were many coins, as well as some other offerings, including a mouldy looking piece of cheese. Someone has obviously taken things too literally! As I approached the spot where the Minch Moor bothy had been all of those years ago, I was saddened to see it had been removed. Although I had found it very uncomfortable, I well remembered sitting out on the terrace as the sun set with my friends looking out across the Tweed Valley. I later saw an official notice in Traquair informing that it had been demolished because it was in a state of disrepair but I had previously read that it suffered from being too close to 'civilisation' and had become a hangout for partying youngsters, so I guess this may have been a factor in it's demolition. Once in Innerleithen, after a frustrating walk to the campsite where I found the booking in office unattended, I secured a room in a bed and breakfast house and ate in the pub next door before retiring early to bed. 


View from Hog Hill, Southern Upland Way 

The following morning, after a huge cooked breakfast in the guesthouse, I left Innerleithen following the road back to Traquair and continued along it until the Cross Borders Drove Road headed off steeply into the hills. It was at this point that I said goodbye to the Southern Upland Way, the two routes had coincided since before Minchmoor but now headed off in different directions. 

On the Southern Upland way

As I climbed, the scenery around became one of typical Southern Upland landscapes, huge rounded, rolling hills as far as the eye could see. As I climbed higher, I became aware of a group of walkers far above and wondered if they were the group I had seen in the hotel bar the night before. I was feeling fairly energetic but as the ground was quite steep, needed to stop occasionally to rest but it soon became clear that I was rapidly catching the walkers. Near the top of the climb, at a point close to where the path passed Kirkhope Law, I found a group of young girls sprawled out on the grass resting, with a adult male in attendance. We exchanged greetings and I was then bombarded by a number of questions from the chatty girls who wanted to know if my walking poles were the reason for my rapid progress on the climb. I told them that they certainly helped and a number of them vowed to purchase some although I didn't like to point out that even with walking poles, climbing steep hills is still quite tough! The youngest looking and most talkative of them then asked me if I was Australian, causing great hilarity among her friends who blamed the 'altitude' for her error. I answered a few more of the girls questions before speaking with the man who was presumably leading them and discovered that they, like me, were headed for Peebles. I wished them well and set off on an airy ridge walk on a mostly grassy path and as I rounded the Cadrona Forest, was presented with a view of Peebles nestling in the valley below. I descended fairly quickly, as the day was overcast with a keen, cold wind that did not encourage me to linger. Eventually, I reached the valley floor in a sheltered, wooded dell by a river, where I found an information board detailing the history of the Cross Borders Drove Road. The 'road', was a route used by cattle drovers moving their animals from the Highlands and Islands to Norfolk, where they would lay up for a time as they fattened them ready for Smithfield's market in London. The drovers slept out on the hills with their animals for weeks at a time with 'only a handful of oatmeal and an onion or two to eat'. I walked through the attractive town of Peebles situated on the banks of the Tweed and pitched my tent at the Rosetta campsite, where I spent a freezing night and awoke to frost on the tent and condensation on my sleeping bag.

The Cross Borders Drove Road


Leaving Peebles


Harehope Forest, Cross Borders Drove Road

The campsite was situated directly on the route so the following morning, I just continued walking up the road, which soon turned into a track climbing steeply onto the hills. The views were again expansive and the paths on springy turf making the walking comfortable. The Pentland Hills came into view ahead as the Cross Borders Drove Road threaded it's way through the remote, lonely hills that had characterised the walk so far. The route then entered a very dense, sombre conifer forest on the Cloich Hills and the temperature took a tumble. The uninviting feel of the forest was alleviated briefly by an open section of path lined by small 'Christmas trees'. Emerging from the trees was a great relief and I took the opportunity to take a break on a bench that I found conveniently situated across the valley from the forest and sat enjoying the sunshine and the views, a perfect antidote to the gloom of the trees. I arrived at the very quaint village of West Linton by a roundabout route that seemed to add a couple of unnecessary miles and I headed to the Gordon Arms Hotel for lunch as I was too early to access my bed and breakfast. The landlord of the hotel had recently taken charge and wanted to know what sort of facilities to provide for walkers staying at the hotel. He wanted to know if a laundry facility would be popular, I agreed it would be very useful, as would drying facilities. After I had finished my meal, I sat outside of the pub on the sun deck relaxing and enjoying the sun before walking the short distance to my B&B.


On the Cross Borders Drove Road

In the Cloich Hills 

Today was a transition day as I crossed the Pentland Hills from West Linton to Linlithgow and left the Southern Uplands behind for the Central Lowlands. I set off in fine weather once again and soon found myself in quiet, remote hills following paths of springy turf. The walk over the hills, although fairly remote, was surprisingly easy and I rolled along feeling in good form as I headed for the Cauldstane Slap, a pass in the hills, Slap being a local word for pass. The Cross Borders Drove Road is known as the ' Thieves Road' at the point where it crosses the pass because this was where the border Reivers lay in wait to rob the drovers as they passed through on their way south to the cattle markets. I arrived at the pass in good time and as I descended, had distant views of the Forth road and rail bridges near Edinburgh but these were overshadowed by the new Queensferry Bridge, which is currently in construction and looked like three, huge majestic sail boats. Soon, I had reached the road, signalling that I had reached the end of the Cross Borders Drove Road, my crossing of the beautiful Southern Uplands was at an end as the walk now changed character completely. 

The Cauldstane Slap


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