12th June 2021: Little Vantage to West Linton – 10 miles
I’ve been trying to walk this path for 2 years – in 2019 I had to cancel all my bookings after an injury and in 2020 I had to cancel all my bookings after the world caught Covid and we were all locked down. I was beginning to think I wasn’t destined to walk this path and was wondering what could cancel 2021’s attempt. As it was lockdown was eased just in time and I haven’t had to cancel all my bookings again.
I had an early start today, the plan being to drive up to the start of the walk and then do the first day’s walking in the same day. This saves money on accommodation and also saves me a day’s annual leave, but does make for a potentially long and tiring day. I’d also planned to leave the car at the end of the walk, parked somewhere as safe as possible for 5 days and then get a lift from the end to the start. I’d manged to rope my brother into performing that task and we met close to the M6 at 6am, with the prospect of 3 hours to reach the end of the walk, driving in convoy and then another 90 mins or driving to the start. As Churchill once said, ‘plans are of little importance, but planning is essential’ and so it seemed at 11pm last night when my wife got in from a late shift to report an engine warning light on her dashboard. She needs a car and it seemed selfish to leave mine parked up somewhere for 5 days while she waited to get hers looked at. In the end we made other plans and my meet up with Roger went ahead.
We stopped at Southwaite services for a bacon roll and pit stop on the way, and eventually arrived at the end of the walk, bang on schedule at 9am. The parking place I had carefully researched and chosen had a new ‘maximum stay 48 hours’ warning sign on it, so I scrambled madly to find something else. In the end I did find a spot, but I’ll spend a nervous 5 days hoping the car’s OK.
The sun was shining as I alighted at Little Vantage car park, easily the most remote start point for any long distance path I’ve walked – I have no idea what the walk planners were thinking of when they looked on the map, pointed at a tiny car park beside the A70, several miles from the nearest town, and said ‘yep, that’s a perfect place to begin a 65 mile walk!’
It may have been sunny but there was a brisk wind blowing and it wasn’t warm at all. I waved Roger farewell, planted my Tilley firmly on my head, shouldered my pack and headed off towards the inviting hills in the distance. The path was initially downhill, with East and West Cairn Hills sitting proudly astride the Cauldstane Slap. The Slap is a pass, between the hills, used in the past by drovers taking their cattle to market in England. The path was also stalked by reivers and cattle thieves and earned the name ‘Thieves road’.
I’d read that the first couple of miles of path were normally very wet and boggy, with many plank bridges over the worst of the bogs and I expected to get wet feet on this section. The reality was quite different though. The path is lovely, I can see how it might be bad in winter, or after a lot of heavy rain, but at the moment it’s soft and springy and the duck boards and plank bridges were mostly not needed, it was a joy to walk. The wind was at my back and it was warm, but not hot. I secured my Tilley using the ‘mountie’ method, with a tight cord at the back of my neck and it felt good all day, never in danger of getting taken.
I have to admit to a feeling of intense melancholy as I began the walk. I’m not sure why, I’ve been looking forward to this for ages and only felt anticipation until now. But as I walked the lovely path, towards the inviting hills I couldn’t shake the feeling. If Roger had still been in the car park I might have asked for a lift home. It was a powerful feeling of loneliness and sadness, something I’ve never felt at the start of a long walk before. I’ve had the feeling come down on me during a walk and succumbed to it more than once, cutting the walk short and heading home, but never so early in a trip!
I’ve said many times, that one of the greatest joys of long distance walking is the wonderful feeling of solitude, the emptying of the mind of everyday woes and just needing to put one foot in front of the other, day after day. The peace normally takes a couple of hours, as I empty my mind, put thoughts of responsibilities and work and commitments behind me and embrace the path. I couldn’t do that this morning. There’s a lot going on at work at the moment and it was all I could think about. My wife’s car was also front of mind. As Roger had driven me north to the start of the walk I’d rung our local garage and booked it in. The guy said he thought he knew what the problem was and it should be an easy fix, but I was still worried about how she’d cope for work on Monday.
I tried to focus on the hills. The path winds easily towards the twin hills and is flanked on both sides by more distant rolling hills, all green and resplendent with pine plantations (and some distant wind farms). The scenery is wonderful, but I was still in a funk. I thought about calling Roger back – he wouldn’t be too far away and I’m sure he would have mocked me, but he’d have come back for me. A couple of years ago, I’d have done just that, but I think my resolve has improved over the recent years and I knew this was just a temporary feeling of disconnection and I was sure ut would pass, given time.
I put my earphones on, tuned into an audiobook on my phone and tried to concentrate on that rather than my thoughts. This walk is just for me, there’s no guide book coming out of it, so I had no reason to concentrate on the path, I could just walk it and enjoy it. The feeling passed as I listened to Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series – I’m up to book 6 and it’s getting good! As my melancholy faded I began to enjoy the path too.
The views behind are often as important as those ahead and behind me today, a long way in the distance, I could see the ‘wings’ of the new Queensferry bridge over the Firth of Forth. Closer inspection also revealed the famous three arches of the old rail bridge. I tried to use the long zoom on the camera to pick them out. I passed a few walkers heading back to the car park, got a couple of hellos and a couple of grunts. The path seems to be maintained by ‘Friends of the Pentlands’ or something similar and I must admit, without all the little plank bridges (all helpfully studded with nails for grip) and the couple of footbridges, this would be a pretty dreadful slog in wet conditions. It’s obviously well-walked and the little car park had been pretty much full at 10.30 when we got there. There aren’t any major hills close by, so I imagine people are just walking up to the Slap, or maybe the two Cairn Hills and then walking back. This thought was supported by the fact that the closer I got to the Slap, the fainter the path became – less well trodden I assume.
I reached the top of the Slap and a decision point. I had planned to turn left here, up the steep climb to East Cairn Hill and then along the ridge of Pentland Hills and finally down into West Linton. The wind was quite fierce at the top of the Slap and although that was a consideration, it was the group of 7 or 8 walkers climbing the hill I’d intended to climb, that actually put me off. I didn’t want to follow a line of people all along the ridge. I’d chosen this walk because I expected it to be quiet, lonely and mostly quite remote once you left town in the morning. I also had to consider my knee (which hasn’t got any better since the Cross Dales Trail) and the pulled muscle in my left calf which was still nagging gently too. I erred on the side of caution and denied myself the pleasure of the steep climb, the 4 or 5 Tumps and the trig point at the end of the ridge and settled for the standard Cross Borders Drove Road path, right down the centre of the valley.
It’s a cracking path too! The views to the sides, ahead and behind were gorgeous. Green hills, speckled with dark heather and highlighted with the last yellow grasses of winter. The occasional white dots of sheep and the larger ginger lumps of cows added small points of interest. This side of the Slap, the path had less of a managed feel to it, feeling more like a traditional hill path. It’s rough and rocky in places, grassy and smooth in others and I even jumped a couple of tiny burns as I headed gently downhill. The wind was coming strongly from my right and I began to look for a sheltered spot for lunch. I could see the path ran through a plantation ahead and figured I’d find somewhere in there.
Around 1pm I reached the trees and found a tiny quarry beside some timber stacks and selected a spot, out of the wind, to sit down and have my lunch. From the top of the Slap I’d been talking it really easy. Without the diversion along the ridge, today was a short walk by anyone’s standards and my notes said I wasn’t going to be able to get into my room until 4pm, so I was ambling. I spent as long as my arse allowed me, uncomfortable as it was on the hard ground of the quarry, and folded up my sit mat and set out again.
I passed Baddinsgill reservoir and two sets of farm buildings with the same name, all along a tarmac lane. I heard a quad bike come up alongside me, so paused my audiobook and said hello to the lady who was riding it. She was looking for a lost Pekingese (sp?) terrier and was hoping I’d seen it on my travels. I hate little yappy dogs – they serve no purpose other than to annoy me and anyone else within yapping distance, but I didn’t say this of course. I just told her I’d not seen any dogs today and wished her luck on her search.
I soon left the tarmac and joined an absolutely splendid grassy track around the base of Faw Mount. The path drops off steeply to the right with a lovely winding burn meandering its way through the valley below. The wind had dropped now, or I was more sheltered from it, and the sun shone occasionally, although if I had to summarise today’s weather in one word it would have to be ‘cloudy’. I joined another tarmac track, albeit not a road as such, and this soon led down into West Linton. It was only 2.30pm, but the track led directly to my hotel for the evening so I thought I’d chance my arm and see if my room was ready.
The Gordon Arms is a great little pub / hotel, and it was showing the Wales v Switzerland match in the bar. I was tempted to get a pint and sit and watch it, but the bar was pretty busy and the lady said I could have my room if I wanted it, so a shower won out over a pint!
I unpacked my gear and then groaned audibly when I noticed that the shower in my bathroom was the exact same make and model as the one I’d had in the Black Bull in Reeth a couple of weeks ago. Fortunately this one works properly and I managed a half decent shower.
I’m in the bar now, writing up this report, and feeling much more at peace with myself and with the path. I’m glad I resisted the urge to call Roger to rescue me!
My knee is feeling pretty good, but 9 miles isn’t much of a test for it, and I’m glad I didn’t test it properly with the high route, even if the ascent hadn’t been too bad, I saw how steep the descent path was off the ridge, as I passed, and I’m glad I didn’t have to come down it. If it had been the last day instead of the first I’d have been less cautious, but I’m happy with the decision I made.
I’ve just had a really excellent burger in the hotel bar, watching the Denmark v Finland game. Toppings were free, so it seemed rude not to add bacon, fried egg, onion rings and haggis to the 7oz steak burger.
The bar is packed and there’s a great mood. I watched the end of the Wales v Switzerland game and Wales got a good cheer from the locals when they equalised. I doubt they’ll offer the same support to England tomorrow! There was much hilarity and jeering when the TV began to countdown to sleep mode. The barman fluffed cancelling the countdown and got a huge boo when the TV shut down! The mood changed somewhat a few minutes later however, when Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch and was having to be resuscitated by medical staff.
There’s no breakfast served in the hotel in the morning, so I need to go to the local co-op to pick up some bits before I head back to my room. I doubt I’m going to be able to post this tonight as the WiFi is appalling in the hotel and although I have a 4G signal, it’s not great.