Originally written: Sunday, March 24th, 2013

Choosing a route along a prescribed National Trail may seem like a pointless exercise, or rather the re-enactment of a task that has already been done for me by the trail planners. However, things are rarely so simple and although I’ve walked several waymarked trails now, I have rarely followed them blindly and without consideration.

I am not a purist when it comes to walking Long Distance Paths. Although I like to leave from the official start point and arrive at the official terminus, the route in between is often modified slightly to meet my own requirements, to take in particular places off the main route, or to avoid boring or potentially boggy sections.

I came in for some criticism from two guys I walked with on one section of the Pennine Way, who felt that my avoidance of a notoriously boggy section, in favour of a tarmac road and then a forestry track, was an unwarranted deviation. They went as far as to say that I hadn’t actually walked the Pennine Way because of this. In purists’ terms they were right. Unlike, for example, Wainwright’s Coast to Coast path, the Pennine Way and southern Upland Way are prescribed routes; the C2C is a suggested route. If you deviate away from AW’s route you can still claim to have walked ‘Coast to Coast’, but should you deviate from THE Pennine Way or THE Southern Upland Way (the capitals are important there), then can you really claim to have walked the route? Personally, I don’t care.

I walk for the sheer pleasure of walking, not to follow the green diamonds on the map. Although I subscribe to many walking-related tick lists, such as the Wainwrights (the 214 summits in the Lake District described by AW) and I am painfully pedantic about the accuracy of my collection of these, I do not apply the same sort of thoroughness to my long distance paths.

As a result, route selection along the Southern Upland Way has taken up quite a bit of my time.

The first thing I did was to download the full route from the Long Distance Walkers Association website. This is then loaded into Memory Map on my PC. The LDWA is an incredible resource and the annual membership fee of £13 is negligible when compared to the information that is made available as a result.

Once the route is loaded on my PC I checked it against the guide book, for any changes, modifications, diversions etc. In this case, it was a good match. Unfortunately, the maps I have for Memory Map are a few years out of date and the route has been moved slightly over time. This means that in some cases, the route I needed to take didn’t match the green diamonds on my map, but this is no great problem.

I now look for hills or trig points along the route and any that are within a mile or so of the route, that could be easily diverted to if I wanted. This is all achieved in Memory Map and results in a route with trig points and hill scattered along its length. I then whittle these down to the ones I easily include without adding too much distance or height to the day.

The route needs to be tweaked for accommodation as well. If the B&B or Hotel I’ve chosen isn’t exactly on the route, I may need to leave the route early to find it. I may also skip some sections of the route while doing this, but this isn’t done to create shortcuts, it will only be done to avoid long road walks or especially dull lengths of the path.

My SUW Deviations

The first deviation I make is into Stranraer. The official route swings around the south of the town, using minor roads and farm lanes.

Avoiding the tarmac section around Stranraer
Avoiding the tarmac section around Stranraer

All the journals I’ve read say that this is a boring road walk with uninspiring views, a section to get out of the way. So I’m going to skip it. I leave the path at Ochtrelure and head into Stranraer and when I leave the town I’m heading east to pick up the path at Big Plantation. I’m using the most picturesque route I can between these two points.

On the other hand, as I approach New Luce at the end of the second day, there is the opportunity to skip about four miles of moorland walking and replace it with a mile and half of road.

Sticking to the path around New Luce
Sticking to the path around New Luce

This smacks of short-cutting to me and it’s not something I’ll be doing. Double-standards perhaps? I don’t think so. It’s a fairly short day anyway, so I shouldn’t be too tired or time restricted and the moorland sections are generally to be savoured in this early section of the walk where the majority of the scenery is farmland and minor roads.

The next major change to the route is at the start of the fourth day. This is a long, tough day; 26 miles and 3100 feet of ascent if you follow the path slavishly. This early in the walk it will be a physical challenge and one that I’d like to make slightly easier if I can.

Possible short-cut at the start of Day Four, saving two miles
Possible short-cut at the start of Day Four, saving two miles

So rather than following the blue route, that heads south for a long way, before swinging north east again, I’m considering heading north from the hotel, along a quiet lane and re-joining the path at Stroan Bridge, where I understand there is a small track beside the river that links up with the SUW route. This is certainly a short-cut and will save me about 2 miles on the day. I will see how I feel the night before and make a decision then.

The next diversion is a huge one, changing almost half of the day’s walking into Wanlockhead for a completely different route. The main reason for this is to bag a trig point and two hills; one of which is a Marilyn.

An alternative route into Wanlockhead to bag a couple of hills
An alternative route into Wanlockhead to bag a couple of hills

The red route above is the diversion, with the blue route being the official path.

That will be the final large change in the route. Over the course of the walk I make about 20 small diversions for trig points and hill summits, but these mostly divert up to the summit and back down, re-joining the path at pretty much the same place as I left it.

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