8th May 2015 – Stroanpatrick to Sanquhar: 18.7 mls
I didn’t really expect a third day of good weather, so it was a bonus that I walked in sunshine for most of the day – broken by white clouds which took over later and eventually turned into rain, but not until after I’d arrived in Sanquhar! I was returned to the exact spot from which I was collected the previous night, by George, my ever-cheerful and informative driver and I was soon walking along the short stretch of tarmac towards the building at Stroanpatrick and the grassy track into the hills.
I heard a keening from above and looked up to see a Red Kite and another bird – a Buzzard, guessing from it’s size – dog-fighting in the sky above me. They were screeching at each other and diving and swooping, trying to get the high ground. I heard them for a while, whirling above me and calling – it was a wonderful sound.
Today’s walk eases you in gently – there’s a relatively flat section through fields, before the main climb of the day up to Benbrack. The first 5 miles have about 2000 feet of ascent, the most climbing of the walk so far, but they are fairly genteel and even on the grassy slopes up to the Sandstone arch on the summit, there’s no steps kicked in, so it’s not that steep. I found a lot of new signage since my last walk here – new style wooden fingerposts with “Core Path xxx” marked on them, as well as the usual Southern Upland Way directions. I think a series of local routes have been built up that spiral off the SUW to make small circular walks. A good way, possibly, of getting more people interested in this very underused National Trail.
I enjoyed the long walk up to Benbrack – the weather was excellent, the path was mostly firm and obvious and the views became progressively more spectacular the higher I got. I diverted slightly, across tussocky grass, to visit the TUMP summit of Manquhill Hill, which gave me a great panorama of hills, some blighted by dreadful wind farms. The following descent through forest, beside small lochans and up again to the grassy slopes beneath Benbrack was great. This is the sort of forestry walking I like – not surrounded by trees, but walking between them with views available and wide, grassy tracks rather than narrow boggy ones.
I took a couple of breathers on the long ascent of Benbrack – these allowed me to catch my breath, rest my burning calves, but more importantly, to soak in the views that I was being offered. This still isn’t proper highland walking, but the views are no less spectacular for the modest altitudes. I took a load of photos, trying to capture some panoramas with the camera on my phone, but not sure any of them actually do justice to the grandeur of the place.
The stone arch on the summit soon came into view, preceeded by the trig point and a rickety stile to negotiate. The wind was pretty chilling here, so I lingered only long enough to take a few pictures, then pressed on, following the fence line on a squelchy path with some sections that needed to be avoided, but I was still able to look to the surrounding hills rather than my feet.
Last time I walked here I diverted down to a B&B in the valley, so my ridge walk was truncated at Cairn Hill, only a mile or so from the summit of Benbrack. This time though I got to continue onwards, along the wonderful undulating ridge, with new views to my front. I had thought about diverting up Colt Hill to bag the Marilyn summit, trig point and the second of the three sandstone arches in the area, but willpower was lacking today. My mind, like yesterday was full of doubts and my thoughts were never far from home, family and the overwhelming desire to go home.
Beyond the turn at the foot of Colt Hill the trees have been felled and the view to the right of the path is of desolation; stumps, dead branches and discarded limbs but with green shoots of new growth finding a footing amidst the dead remains of trees. A short while later and the path dives back into the forest, on another wide path, lined by much younger trees, low enough that I could see the skies and the path had an open feel to it.
I came to a forestry track. The obvious route would be to follow this, north towards the road at Polskeoch, but the Southern Upland Way planners have decided to divert to visit a small monument called Allan’s Cairn. I thought there must be some good reason for this, so I crossed the road and followed the waymarked path. With hindsight, this was a mistake and the next mile or two was pretty tortuous. The first couple of hundred yards, to the tiny monolith, surrounded by a protective iron fence is fairly good, still on a wide path through the trees. The ‘cairn’ in itself isn’t worth the diversion in my opinion, but each to their own I guess. The path beyond is a nightmare.
I’ll qualify that slightly – the path on the ground isn’t too bad, it’s not boggy until the last 50 yards, but the number of trees across the path made it an assault course of Royal Marine Commando proportions. I must have counted 15-20 trees down across the path. Some of the ones closest to the ‘cairn’ had been cut through, but after these I was crawling on hands and knees under them, braving the crown jewels as I clambered and scrambled over them and forcing my way through deep undergrowth as I went around them. I cursed all the way down the hill and eventually lost my rag completely, shouting out my frustration, as I pushed my way out of the last and went knee deep in a hidden bog. Fortunately, my forward momentum carried my other leg onto solid ground, or I could have been stuck there still.
Rejoining the good forestry track I looked for somewhere to sit down, have some lunch and take my boots off. I found a suitable stump in the sun, out of the chilling breeze and sat down with a relief. After lunch I set off down the track, passing the bothy, where I collected some water, and onto the tarmac road at Polskeoch. It would be easy to say that the horrendous mile or so down from Allan’s Cairn had had a negative effect on my mindset, but that would be unfair. I was enjoying the trail, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would rather be at home than here, walking in great weather, on a trail that was only going to get better in the next three days. I wrestled with myself all along the road, through the lovely valley with great views and up onto Cloud Hill.
I found the next Kist, making a full set on the walk so far. The path across Cloud Hill is pretty good, it’s soft and squelchy in places, but I still enjoyed it. The weather was on the turn, it was becoming more overcast and the temperature was dropping. I crossed a stile and sat on it for a while, ringing my wife and discussing my conflicting thoughts on whether to continue or stop. I also rang my good friend, Chris, for a walker’s perspective on the situation. His thoughts matched my own in many respects and I had no rational reason for quitting – I wasn’t injured, I was just feeling melancholy. I barely registered the long descent down the Whing, on a wide, soggy track, much abused by quad bikes. I knew there was an easy out in Sanquhar – they have a train station – the only one outside Stranraer and the only option for getting home, other than calling for a lift. I checked train times and prices and finally came to a decision, about 1/2 a mile from the footbridge at Shieling Knowe. I rang my B&B for the night and cancelled it. I rang my wife and told her. I felt immediately relieved!
The rest of the descent into Sanquhar is pretty dull, dropping through farmland, fields and roads into the town. I rang Chris again, but we kept getting cut off so gave up in the end. I went to the station, but it’s an unmanned stop, with just a bus shelter type waiting ‘room’. I wandered into town and bought an ice cream and sat in a colourful local pub drinking Diet Coke for an hour. I then headed back to the station and changed in the clear perspex waiting bubble – getting out of my smelly, sweaty walking gear into my less smelly evening clothes.
The journey home was also a blur, mainly because the train windows were covered in the rain that had begun to fall as I waited on the station, but also because I was lost in thought and the possible implications of a second consecutive withdrawal from a long distance path. A second Southern Upland Way failure and something that felt even more ominous: I wasn’t even slightly upset this time.