Southern Upland Way Day 16: Melrose to Watch Water

Published 1 March 2012

Cartoon in two parts.  Part 1 - time 3:30pm.  Caption "What a lovely campsite.  But too early!".  Panel 2: Time 6pm.  "Why csan't I find water?  Why?!"

The next morning I headed back to the banks of the Tweed to the bridge known as the Chain Link Bridge, where a sign proclaimed no more than eight people were to use it at once. Nor was loitering allowed, and the list of other acts that were prohibited and subject to imprisonment or a £2 fine was rather extensive.

Looking at the maps the Southern Upland Way seems to take quite a detour just to visit that bridge, and almost as soon as it’s crossed it, it double backs on itself to head back towards Galashiels. Probably about half a mile of walking could be saved just by using a nearby road bridge instead, and the decision seemed to make little sense unless you’re the kind of walker who likes using old suspension bridges. Which, to be fair, I was.

The Tweed was bathed in sunshine and its north bank was as lovely as its southern one, however it was only a brief interlude for the Southern Upland Way was about to head off into history.

The Romans made quite a few attempts at tackling the “problem” of the marauding Scots, or indeed at just trying to keep them out of England full stop, but in 79AD under Emperor Agricola the Roman army headed into the Scottish Borders conquering or pacifying the occupants as they went. As they progressed deeper into the country they established a network or roads and forts to help them control it. One of the roads came up from York and headed through Melrose and Lauder before reaching its destination in Tayside.

Waymark in some rocks

The route the Southern Upland Way takes may or may not be that same Roman road. Much of its route has been lost for years so no one really knows, however the Southern Upland Way does follow a road noted on maps in the 18th century which heads in a similar direction and is unnervingly straight. Coincidence? Well there’s a question.

Walking along the walled lanes – earth and gravel tracks – I found myself making excellent progress even taking into account the regular stops to look back and admire Melrose, Galashiels and the hills that sit behind them. Another Waymerk kist kept up the Roman theme, looking for all intents and purposes like some Roman sandals on a pair of feet and resulted in my seventh happily pocketed Waymerk coin. Shortly after I rounded a corner, the town of Lauder came into view and, for the first time in weeks, I was taken alongside a golf course.

It didn’t take me long to find myself amongst the town’s narrow backstreets. The morning sun had continued and the heat was making me want an ice cream but as usual the route shunned anything that might even look a little like a shop and before I knew it I was deposited at the eastern side of the town feeling like I’d blinked and missed it.

Coming in to Lauder

Although relatively small Lauder was a town of lasts for the Southern Upland Way. The last shop, the last campsite and even the last pub on the whole route. There wasn’t even anywhere to buy a celebratory pint at the end in Cockburnspath. All things considered I’d been tempted to stay the night but that would have meant walking fifteen miles the next day followed by nineteen on the last. I knew I wanted to cut down that last day of walking a little bit but with very few B&Bs (and the ones that did exist, being substantially off-route) and certainly no official campsites to pitch up on and no handy bothies to stay in, I’d have to wild camp.

The path from Launder took me on through woods and farmland before depositing me on sheep and cow-grazed hills. One summit gave a fantastic panoramic view taking in Lauderdale and the Eildon Hills, with a good dose of the mighty Cheviots in the background. It was so good I stopped for a rest and soon found myself dozing off in the afternoon sun.

Dragging myself awake, I prepared to set off once more. From careful studying of my map I’d identified four possible campsites, each with what looked like a good water source, and I wasn’t particularly far from the first two. It was time to get investigating.

As the Southern Upland Way crossed Snawdon Burn I came to the first which, to be honest, looked a trifle miserable thanks to copious amounts of mud and cowpats, but a short way on at Blythe Water I came to the second and it looked idyllic. It was just perfect. The water source was a fast flowing, beautifully crystal clear stream and whilst there were sheep and cows grazing on the banks of it, on the other side was a fence and a large, empty field to camp in with lovely soft grass, nicely sheltered against the slopes of a small hill. Next to the stream was even a little ledge in the ground where I could sit comfortably and dangle my feet in the water.

Blythe Water

It was just so wonderful. And I sighed as I looked at my watch. Half past three. I didn’t really want to stop just yet; it was only a couple of miles from Lauder and I knew I could easily get a bit further on. I stood up, crossed the bridge over the water and headed off once more.

I knew leaving Blythe Water would be a mistake. They say that the best wild camp spot is either the one you passed a mile ago or one that’s just a mile further on from where you have stopped. Here I was leaving the best wild camping spot I’d seen on the entire trip. And it could only turn out badly.

My third option had always been one that seemed a bit dubious. A few miles on, it had an excellent water supply but on the map it looked like it would be too near the farm buildings at Bradshaw Rig, but I’d not discounted it as there was a chance that the lie of the land would make it work. As I got there though it was clear that this wasn’t going to be the case. The farm buildings were too exposed with wide panoramic views all around. Sheep and cows grazed everywhere and there was a kennel of loud, barking dogs who probably wouldn’t have taken kindly to my presence even if I’d knocked on the farm door and got permission to camp from their owners.

And that just left one option, a further two miles on at Craggie Sile. And deep down I just knew it was going to be a disaster.

After the farm I’d left the grassy moorland and stepped into a world of heather and peaty ground. The path was substantial and solid but there was one major problem. With the exception of a few peaty puddles in the track, there was no water at all. The ground was good but at the point where my map showed a substantial stream, all I could find was a stagnant drainage ditch.

The next obvious water source was another four miles further on, near the Watch Water Reservoir. It had only just gone five but I’d walked a lot longer than I’d intended and the thought of not even pitching up until after seven at least, didn’t make me happy, but there was little I could do. I just had to press on.

One of the Twins at Twin Law

Those four miles would take me past Twin Law; two giant stone cairns supposedly commemorating a battle between Saxon and Scottish armies where each sent out their champion to do battle. The pair fought long and hard until the bitter end and both died doing so, not knowing that they were brothers who had been parted in childhood.

Whether the two cairns actually have anything to do with that tale is another matter although both were created in the Bronze Age and lasted for centuries until 1944 when they were destroyed by Polish tanks whilst they were on training exercises in the area.

Of course the good thing about cairns is that they’re essentially just a pile of rocks stacked on top of each other and both were substantially rebuilt with the addition of a stone seat in each one. As I popped up to take a closer look I saw that one of the seats had a metal biscuit tin on it and inside it held a visitor book.

The two giant cairns known as Twin Law, with a white trig point in between
Two giant cairns, and a trig point too

The idea of trogging up a hill and then excitedly signing your name on a tatty paper notebook has always seemed a slightly curious one to me, but from it I could tell that two people and their dog had been up to the Laws for lunch and the day before, an ultra rare east to west Southern Upland Way walker had passed by. Presumably they’d walked all the way to Melrose in one day as I’d seen no one bar an elderly gentleman who had been doing the route in day hikes for years.

In the right conditions it’s possible to see the North Sea from Twin Law but my mind was on other matters. Even having picked up my second Waymerk of the day hadn’t resonated much with me. Pitching up for the night was far more important and a mile or so on would be Watch Water where hopefully I could do it. The map showed a nice stream and if I could just find some flattish land next to it, well I’d be all right. Sure enough, there was some and whilst it wasn’t anywhere near as attractive a spot as Blythe Water, it would do.

My tent pitched up on grassy moorland on the Southern Upland Way

Tired and weary I got the tent up, somehow managing to position it such that a large thistle sat right in the middle of the door, whilst one of the pegs ended up basically knotted around some heather. Inside wasn’t much better as I discovered that rather than the nice flat spot I’d thought I’d picked, the ground was full of large mounds and rucks. Still, at least there were no midges. For the whole of about five minutes anyway. But even as they descended on me en masse, nothing could persuade me to move. I was tired, and I just wanted to eat and sleep.

I hid in my tent, doing my best to avoid the plague of midges, and attempted to tot up what I’d walked, realising that my foolishness of leaving an excellent wild camp spot had led me to doing 21 miles in one day. I collapsed on my air bed, noting how worryingly sloped my bed was. As I did so, grouse clucked and muttered away to themselves whilst a passing troupe of seagulls seemed to be laughing hysterically at where I’d pitched my tent. But it would have to do. I’d gone far enough. Sloped bed or no, it was time to rest.

Next time it’s the penultimate day as I head to the small village of Abbey St Bathans.


Alistair Macdonald

12 February 2018 at 1:26 pm

Very much enjoyed your ramble through the Southern Uplands and would love to buy the paperback. But I won’t buy via Amazon whose values are absolutely not those that hillwalkers like us usually espouse. If I can buy direct from you I would be happy to do so. Do let me know.

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

12 February 2018 at 1:59 pm

Hi Alistair – buying direct from me may not help. The paperback is self-published, and printed on demand using an Amazon subsidiary. Obviously I could supply books direct myself, however I’d still need to source them via the Amazon subsidiary.

Digital versions of my books are available in all major book stores to give people the option of where to purchase from. This includes major retailers, and also an independent operation named Smashwords. But when it comes to print versions, the most viable option for me is to publish them the way I have. There is an alternative, Amazon-free publishing option that works in the same way, however at this point there are no particular benefits to moving my publishing over to them at this time.

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