Southern Upland Way – Day 3
30th April 2013 – New Luce to Bargrennan: 18.8 miles, 1,809 feet
“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God.” Anne Frank – Diarist and Holocaust victim (1929 – 1945)
Two posts in one day, you lucky, lucky people! Here is day three, posted on day three!
I’ve been composing the open sentence of this blog entry since about 11:00 today. When things were going badly it was mainly a moan about the underfoot conditions; which were either soggy, horrible bogs, cow trodden, rutted meadows or blister inducing tarmac, interspersed with rocky forest roads. In the lighter moments it waxed lyrically about the glorious weather, the complete absence of wind, the glorious remoteness of the path, the complete lack of other walkers and how I seem to have found my stride; the 20 miles were done by about 15:00.
The actual truth, as ever, is probably somewhere in between. The path was bad in places, there is a lot of tarmac pounding today, but the weather and the distant views were fantastic.
I’d had a chilly evening in Tha Butchach, the place was OK, but so cold! I spent the time in bed, with the ineffectual heater going full blast and watching episodes of ‘The Walking Dead’ on my phone. The last minute purchase of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 was an inspiration. It’s got a great screen and I can prop it on my chest and watch the movies or TV episodes that I loaded onto my SDcard. It’s great for blogging too and the mapping apps I’ve got look brilliant on the bigger size display.
I’d arranged for breakfast at 07:30 and sure enough Peter had it ready. He’d taken my order when I’d arrived and I’m always pleased at that sort of efficiency as it avoids that annoying 20 minute wait between arriving in the dining room and the cooked breakfast being dropped in front of you. But even the dining room was freezing. I had just my socks on, as I’m carrying no evening shoes and my boots were both too muddy and inappropriate for the breakfast setting. My feet slowly started to freeze as the cold crept up from the floor and through my socks. I didn’t hang around in there and hurried back to my room to finish my packing and get out into the sunshine and hopefully warm up a bit. I started out in long sleeved baselayer (which proved to be too warm later in the day), my soft shell jacket and my Craghopper trousers got their first outing of the walk, as the forecast had been fairly unequivocal; no rain today (and so it proved).
I was walking by 08:15 I guess. Re-covering the 1.5 miles or so back up the road out of the village, towards the farm at Balmurrie. That was just the first section of tarmac, the first of many. The path beyond the farm takes to the fells, but without any sort of path on the ground to follow. Even with a moderate footfall there should be a visible path to follow, but not here. I followed the way marker posts moving from one to other as best as I could, avoiding the boggy sections if possible and hopping across tussocky grass sticking out of them if not possible.
This sort of way marking was repeated quite a lot today. The path goes over a remote section of hillside or through huge pastures and all you have is the posts to show you the way. I couldn’t help but think there should be more path work done; not flags or hardcore paths, but just something to help you cross huge boggy sections. Perhaps duck boards would help, and there were very short sections of these in one or two places, but nothing like enough.
The section of fell beyond the farm was pretty wet and tussocky. The first way marker pointed me down to a beck (or burn I suppose, now that I’m in Scotland). On a popular trail the best place to cross would be obvious, used by many people and a path worn to indicate it. But here you were on your own, pick a spot and make the best of it. This sort of treatment was very evident today. In many places I got the impression the trail planners had decided to cross a fell or pasture and just plonked the way markers at the most visible locations. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind this sort of walking, I do it a lot, especially in the Dales and also on Skye last year. Making your own way across a landscape is great, breaking trail and following the lie of the land, but this is a National Trail and people of mixed abilities will be drawn to it for that reason. There were sections today where, in bad visibility, you’d be struggling without really good navigation skills. You’d be on the map and compass for many hours. No problems like that today though, the sky was beautifully blue, cloudless and I could see for miles, with great visibility. I used the GPS on more than one occasion to check my progress as much as anything. The path is so easy to follow, the way marking is brilliant and almost odiot-proof, it could just do with a few more people on the path to wear a decent line.
The fell beyond Balmurrie farm was quickly squelched across and I entered the first forest of the walk so far. The path uses fire breaks when it’s not on forestry tracks and these were invariably awful. There’s been a lot of rain in the last couple of weeks and a lot of lying snow for several weeks before that, so this has resulted in very wet tracks. Again I cursed the trail planners for this section. The fire breaks were mostly composed of sphagnum moss with occasional tussocks and the path just ploughs straight through it, or along it for one annoyingly long stretch. Again I felt this could have been treated somehow to alleviate the walking. Sphagnum isn’t the best surface to walk on, especially when it’s holding lots of water. My boots at least are coping with the conditions and my feet were dry all day, until the at hour when I over topped my left boot in a hidden hole full of water, right up to mid calf!
A little oasis in this section of the route is to be found at Laggangarn. Here is the Beehive Bothy, an incongruous structure in a clear in, with good water and flat surroundings for campers too. There was no one around and I stopped only long enough to re-adjust my pack and take a couple of photos. Beyond the bothy are a pair of standing stones, with ancient significance and a small interpretation board beside them.
Then it was back into the forest, slogging along more wet firebreaks until I caught sight of Craig Airie Fell ahead. This bald prominence is the first summit of the walk and also has a trig point on it. The Southern Upland Way skirts the slopes then turn sharply left, up the side of the hill to the summit. It was warm and wonderful up there. The views were somewhat marred by three nearby wind farms, but if you could ignored these, the place was perfect on a day like today. I stopped, scoffed some Jelly Babies and drank some if the Coke I’d bought in the shop the previous afternoon. I was reluctant to move on, but with 12 miles still to do, I needed to be making tracks.
There followed a seemingly interminable amount of forestry track, hard on the feet and ever so slightly uneven, so you couldn’t switch off completely as you can on tarmac. The views were gone too, apart from the occasional glimpse of distant hills through the conifers either side of the track. Once the forestry track ended, the Way followed a tarmac road, a quiet one at least, with very few vehicles, but my feet were beginning to feel sore after a few miles of it. I found a bridge parapet to sit on. For possibly the first time ever on a walk, I removed my boots and socks and aired my feet. I’d generated a bit of a sweat inside the Gore Tex lining and I laid the socks out on the bridge, to dry in the sun while I dangled my feet and ate my lunch.
The feet and socks dried nicely and I felt much better after this little sojourn, although there was still a deal of tarmac to suffer along.
Eventually after what felt like 10 miles, but what was probably only about 6, I left the road and joined another poorly defined and soggy forest path. This one took the prize for worst path of the day. Where you could see the path it was soaked, muddy and foul smelling. In places, where logging operations had been carried out, there was no path at all. I climbed over felled trees, splashed and slogged through deep marshy patches and all the time looking as far ahead as possible to make sure I was on the right line. I was relieved when the ‘path’ met the tarmac again at Glenruther Lodge. After a couple of kilometres it headed off uphill again to meet the trig point on Ochiltree Hill and from here the path just got worse and worse. The final couple of miles into Bargrennan were dreadful. I put my headphones on to try and take my mind off it, but the path cut through a huge pasture, obviously heavily used by cattle. It was pretty bad.
I arrived at House o’ Hill in Bargrennan and felt pleased. The day had been challenging, the path a nightmare in places and hard on the feet in others, but the weather and the distant views had been stunning. I’m into the hills tomorrow and their presence in my eye line today kept me going.
The hotel is super. The staff are wonderful and nothing is too much trouble. I’ve been upgraded and the room I’m in is newly refurbished and of a high quality. I’ve had my first proper evening meal since I left home and although I have no phone signal again, I’ve at least got a decent WiFi signal, so I can Skype the wife and upload this, with some photos.
Day 3 wasn’t my favourite so far, but it’s set me up for 26 miles tomorrow. If it’s raining when I set out, I’ll be taking the shortcut along the road and missing out the first path. This saves me about 2 miles.
The hotel manager agreed to leave out a breakfast tray for me. She doesn’t do breakfast until 08:00 normally but understands I have along way to go, so I should be able to get cereal and toast at least, which is more than I’d hoped for.
Sorry if this one was a little moaney but forgive me. More to come tomorrow, as I will have at least a signal and probably WiFi too.