Trails and trials of the writer who walks
For some reason, this well way-marked, scenic but not too challenging, trail fails to be popular. Fine by me. It’s an ideal route to practise safe self-reliance. The Scottish Southern Uplands have just the right amount of height to deliver long, open vistas of rolling hills. A one hour rail journey from Carlisle to Sanquhar gets me on the trail immediately and I’m heading for the west coast (91 miles) with the idea of returning home for a few days to change my underwear and then go back to Sanquhar to start walking to the east coast (122 miles).
The path itself is often indistinct or non-existent so it’s important to follow the posts. After a while they pass like motorway junctions, barely registering in my ‘walking trance’ consciousness (similar to my driving style). Then I ‘wake up’, wonder where I am, and realise I can’t see the next post. This is what smart phones and GPS are for.
The human species disappears between Friday lunchtime and Sunday afternoon, but I’m not alone. A midgy, crowd-funded ‘Just Eat’ app seems to exist which connects blood-hungry insects with walkers as soon as they stop moving. I think ‘Seek and Suck’ would be a good name for it but please don’t Google that. I’m awash with the highly recommended Avon Skin So Soft; wearing a midge-proof jacket; waterproof trousers tucked into gaiters (the midges here are small enough to climb through socks) and the jacket hood is zipped up to enclose my face. If I pretended to shoot you with my walking pole, you’d be genuinely alarmed. The hood reduces facial bites but makes eating a problem, so I take my arms out of the sleeves and pass the food under the elasticated waist band. Despite all these precautions, I find I have an irregular line of big itchy bites stretching from thighs to bum. Something larger than a midge has been dining indoors, possibly a cleg (horsefly). Then it comes to me. Those vulnerable moments when nature calls (female plumbing being what it is). I leave you to imagine, if I’d been unaware that you were spying on me from the next hill, the sight of an exposed pale backside trying to take off and fly through furious arm-flapping. No more clegs down my pants, thank you very much.
St John’s Town of Dalry (what a grand title!) offers a cosy pub opposite a small shop/post office both of which are open on a Sunday. The black clouds which were simply brooding in the morning, have been shedding bath-loads of tears since lunchtime, so it makes sense to settle in the pub for the afternoon. Meanwhile, I sort out 1 kg of ‘stuff’ to post home: dirty socks, a heavy hand-knitted snood that I should never have brought in July, the spare phone power pack, and a notebook that’s tripled its weight due to the rain. Food and beer at the Clachan Inn are so good I’m reluctant to leave, knowing that it will be at least two days before the next opportunity (what a rubbish pub crawl this is turning out to be!), but the skies have cleared and I can step out into a bright, warm evening with a pack 1 kg lighter and a mood immeasurably lighter.
The forest trails are hard work, boggy underfoot and frequently obstructed by large fallen trees. I have to keep removing my pack in order to climb over or under. I’ve always felt quite negative about forest walking, mainly due to the monotony of the scenery and the missed views. I have this fantasy where a giant epilator (ladies will know what this is) descends and cleanly plucks out each and every plantation tree. No more stumpy stubble looking like the aftermath of a tornado . My dislike of forest walking is compounded today by the huge wind farm construction taking place in it. Rock-laden trucks rumbling along aggregate roads have spoiled the one thing I do like about a forest, which is its sterile silence.
After the Sunday pub, my next one appears on Tuesday, close to Glentrool, where the visitor centre has a delightful café and there’s a Camping and Caravan Club campsite just down the road: wi-fi, washing machine, tumble dryer, sockets for phone chargers, kettle, microwave … as close to glamping as I’ll ever get. I can even buy some citronella joss sticks to create a midge-free zone in my tent porch.
But on Thursday, without bothering to thank me for my hospitality, the midges all disappear. Perhaps their Just-Eat app has crashed, or there’s no signal.
Much later in the day, after a difficult forest traverse, I’m feeling very tired. Hopes of a pub and pitch at Castle Kennedy have been dashed – nothing there save a Spar shop, Mid-evening finds me sitting on a bank in the woodland, drinking a can of Stella and eating a packet of Doritos, wondering how much further I’m going to have to walk before I can find a flat patch of grass with a bit of water nearby. Along come two gamekeepers with dogs (quickly hide Stella under my coat). They are exceptionally friendly and give me detailed directions to a footpath leading to a nice dry pitch next to ‘a wee loch’. This is Loch Culhorn, but it’s not visible from the trail. Here I enjoy peaceful midge-free bliss. The patch of grass at the loch-side is under a tree which keeps the worst of the rain off during the night, and in the morning I bathe and wash my hair.
At Portpatrick, in a campsite overlooking Dunskey Castle, another bliss transports me: could it be the romantic ruins, the sunset back-drop, the crashing sea soundtrack? Or could it be the first-class real ale I’ve been drinking in the Crown? Perhaps it was a good pub crawl after all … just don’t judge it by the distances in between.