Waking from my slumber around 6am I could hear the sound of water and promptly pulled the sleeping bag over my head. Rain. Urgh. By the time I dragged myself out of bed at eight I was fearing the worse. With sleep filled eyes I looked out of the bothy’s grimy window to be confronted with the truth. The truth that somehow I’d been transported to another place; a land of blue skies and sunshine, with not a drop of rain to be seen. The sound of water? Oh, well, that would be the large, fast flowing steam a few metres away from the bothy.
Most of the morning went by in a blur as my feet squelched, sploshed and skidded on the rain drenched forest floor. Only when I saw an information shelter did I suddenly realise the track had got a lot firmer and that I’d soon be heading out of the trees towards the village of Beattock.
A lane of the finest tarmacadam led me on until, all of a sudden, civilisation was laid out below me, accompanied by the thundering noise of the West Coast mainline railway and the M74 motorway.
Even the most urban of people would have struggled to describe Beattock as pretty. Industrial units and railway sidings littered the landscape whilst lorries thundered along the busy roads. I’d almost forgotten what traffic looked like. For days I’d been blithely wandering around in the middle of quiet country lanes, often completely oblivious to the single car patiently hovering behind me. Eleven days away from normality and already I seemed to have lost my road sense, so I was more than glad that when I came to a large roundabout, there was not a road vehicle to be seen.
Picking my way on a footpath underneath the motorway, alongside a river that had similarly been subjugated and hidden from view, I sought the turn-off that would take me to the shops and facilities of Moffat. The mile and a half journey on the busy A701, with caravans, cars and trucks speeding past, could hardly claim to be a highlight of my walking. The clouds above chose this moment to unleash a mighty volley of rain and a lazy roll of thunder. I was being welcomed to Moffat in style.
Moffat’s town centre seemed, rather disappointingly, to prefer automobiles to anything else and the multitude of vehicles almost hid the town’s mighty centrepiece. A fountain topped with a giant statue of a ram, it celebrated the area’s importance to sheep breeding, whilst the cars sat around its base celebrated the area’s love of car parking.
It was lunch time and the whole place was bursting with school kids scoffing cones of chips. Shops advertised Moffat toffee and freshly made ice cream and the smells wafting out of the Indian restaurant made me consider having an early finish and staying the night. But my guidebook told me that the next ten miles would be fairly fast going and with that in mind I was sure I could polish it all off in an afternoon. Over Phawhope Bothy was where I would be staying the night and no amount of rain or curry could stop me.
The rain was now coming down in fits and starts; heavy then light, heavy then light once more but as I entered yet another forest, the path rising gently uphill, I could see blue skies across the valley. There was hope after all, but it was a shame it was taking so long to get to me.
My frustration with the weather came to a head a few miles on when a necessary change-over for my map was confounded by yet more rain, meaning the paper was changing from a map to a mushy soggy pulp of uselessness. It transpired though that it was just one last hurrah and the sun finally made its way out.
The hard gravel path gave way too, replaced by a gentle, well drained woodland-esque trail with a crystal clear burn gurgling away besides it. It looked like the kind of path that belonged to the Lord of the Rings, perhaps with some hobbits bouncing up and down it, but today there was just me. It even looked like it would provide a lovely wild camping spot and I would have been minded to pitch up had the grass not been so wet.
I had to work to get to the bothy though, as the path left the forest and headed on to a narrow ledge on the side of a steep hill. I was glad the bad weather had gone as the path was tricky enough to navigate, especially with a steep drop down to Selcoth Burn on one side. The surrounding hills were full of gravel and rock and it was clear I was no longer in the Shire but perhaps on my way to Mordor.
Crossing the burn the path became less precarious (although, ironically, I began to slip more frequently) and someone’s decision to “hide” another of the Southern Upland Way’s kists up a steep scramble wasn’t totally appreciated, even if it did now mean I’d upped by kist-finding success rate to 50%.
Made out of lots of stones placed on a pivot, the kist looked like some sort of wild creature, and was the very kist that adorned the cover of a leaflet about the Waymerks project that I’d picked up at one of the leaflet boxes a few days before. Despite its weight, the whole thing seemed to sway in the wind leaving the creature’s head and mouth at right angles. I gently corrected its position only for it to swing lazily back the way I’d found it so I scooped up my coin, shrugged and let it be.
Another steep hill led me up Ettrick Head. Footsore and increasingly tired, I left Dumfries and Galloway and entered into the Scottish Borders. If I’d hoped the Scottish Borders would see a major change in scenery I would be sorely disappointed as the path plunged back into forest straight away, however it was only short lived and a mile or so later I was walking into a large valley with the stone buildings of the bothy sat waiting for me in the distance.
Opening the door to a bothy was always a moment of trepidation. What state would it be in? Would there be anyone else there? But there was no need to fear here. The bothy was empty but in great condition, even with a bench outside where a tired walker could sit in the evening and watch the sun setting.
Inside I found that, despite being in the middle of absolutely nowhere, the bothy was holding an art installation with pictures painted on the wall, a “bench of poetry” and a solar powered torch and mobile phone charger dedicated to Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who lived in the 18th century. It was all impressive stuff; more so given how few people must have seen it. Once again I was the only visitor and the log book suggested not many had been passing by.
As I sat on the Bench of Poetry I thought how the Bothy’s art installation summed up much about the Southern Upland Way. With its striding arches, kists and now a bothy, this was a walk for art perhaps more than anything, but what a shame so few people walked the route and would ever see it. I’d seen just three women near Dalry and hadn’t seen anyone else on the trail. And frankly I was beginning to doubt I ever would.
Next time on Day 12, I see another walker! Yes that’s right! Someone else who is actually walking! No. They weren’t walking the Southern Upland Way but hey, another walker!
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