Southern Upland Way Day 8: Poleskeoch to Sanquhar

Published 2 February 2012

Cartoon of a walker sat on a hillside saying "Half past 11 and the end is in sight.  Ahhh..."

Packing up in the morning was always a bit of a chore. In an ideal world I would have done most of it the night before but sensible rucksack packing sees the heaviest items go at the bottom of the pack and they were the sleeping bag and my inflatable sleeping mat. So every morning spent in the tent or in a bothy seemed to take forever as I repacked everything from scratch.

Eight days in and I had at least got a strategy; which bits went at the bottom, which in the middle and which at the top but it could still take me 90 minutes to get on my way in the morning.

Naively I’d expected that without the hassles of waiting for someone to cook my breakfast and having to settle bills, I’d be up and away in no time. Staying in bed and breakfasts in the past I’d always wake up far too early for breakfast and on this trip I’d expected I’d be out of bed at six and on my way by seven. Instead it was a rare day that I managed to drag myself out of the warmth of my sleeping bag before 7:30. But by fluke or design I managed that illusive feat at the Chalk Memorial Bothy and I was on my way by half eight.

Stepping outside it looked like a glorious, bright, sunny day and within minutes of setting off I had my sunglasses on as I basked in the sun. Five minutes later and they were off again thanks to the sun going behind a cloud and plunging the area into a much darker state.

The landscape near Polgown

The forest track soon became a farm road as the Southern Upland Way headed out of the trees and into a deep, but mostly empty valley. The route twisted and turned on the valley floor, before diverting off and heading up Cloud Hill. On my map this looked a steep climb but in reality it was simple and straightforward. Without the heather and bog that had plagued my previous days of walking, the route was even enjoyable.

The grassy paths were never particularly wet and what mud was around was little to worry about and easily avoided. As I passed another Ultreia plaque I boomed out an excited “On with your quest!” to no one in particular and five minutes later could be seen scooping out a coin from a discreet bowl covered in what looked like a sandstone slab that was actually made of plastic. Holding my prize aloft I realised my kist-finding success rate had now risen from 25% to 40%. I was getting better at this and no mistake.

My map showed few features other than the path on the couple of miles between Cloud Hill to Sanquhar. No fences. No trees. No particular land conditions. So looking around me it was difficult to work out quite where I was and how far I’d come. Only when I came over a brow and saw the town of Sanquhar in the distance was I able to work out my location. I knew the day would never be the most taxing distance to cover. I’d estimated the day’s walk to be about nine or ten miles, but it was only half past eleven when I peered at the town in the distance, with perhaps only another ninety minutes walking to go.

I’d planned to stop at Sanquhar for the night, but looking at my watch it was clear I had more than enough time to do the next eight miles to Wanlockhead as well. As I lay on the grass, I pondered the options. If I did leave Wanlockhead until the next day I’d be able to fit in a visit to the Museum of Lead Mining that my guide book raved about so much, and there were things to see and do in Sanquhar as well, including its own museum. That sounded good. I made my call. A half day it would be.

Checking it on my mobile, the weather forecast proclaimed there would be heavy rain from 4pm, continuing through the night. I decided against staying in the town’s campsite, but being too early to check into a B&B or hotel I went off to explore Sanquhar’s ruined castle. Built in the 13th century it was abandoned in the 17th century and, with the exception of a brief attempt to restore it around 1900, had been quietly crumbling away ever since. Munching on a sandwich I lay back on the grass and watched a little more masonry fall to the ground.

Sanquhar Castle

It was just after two when I enquired about a room at the Nithsdale Arms, working on the assumption that a pub/hotel might be a bit more geared up towards earlier arrivals than a small B&B whose landlady had probably popped out to go shopping. Well that was the theory. They had a room but it was still being cleaned, so I left my rucksack and headed out again to check out the town’s museum which was just opposite the pub.

Based in the old toll-house in the middle of Sanquhar, I’d heard it was well worth a visit to find out more about local history and the community, with an interesting and engaging audio/visual tour. Great I’m sure it was, excellent even, but it was Monday and therefore closed.

I felt vaguely cheated. I’d squandered a half day of walking on a museum that wouldn’t even reveal its secrets to me, leaving me to aimlessly wander the town’s small high street and back streets instead.

On the high street I walked past the world’s oldest operational Post Office, dating back to 1763 when a “post boy” service was started between the town and Edinburgh. However many of the other nearby shops seemed to be empty and outlying buildings dilapidated. Near the train station a sign outside the ruins of a once grand building proclaimed that new houses would be available in three months time but it was hard to reconcile that statement with the weed covered, overgrown and deserted land in front of me. Opposite that, a large marquee which proclaimed it was a “Gospel Tent” was flanked by two caravans. Dangling against the white canvas, an old wooden sign listed details of services should anyone wish to worship..

My tour didn’t take me long and I arrived back at the pub at three to find the room still wasn’t quite ready. I sat, listlessly, in the bar with a cup of tea whilst the pub’s small white dog tried to lick all the sweat off my arms and hands. Resting in my room later, sorting out washing and other oddments, I looked at the time. Six o’clock, and still no sign of that promised heavy rain. When, several hours later, I re-checked the forecast it had changed again. There would be no rain at all; just clear skies all night.

Next time it’s off to lead mining territory as the Southern Upland Way goes off to Wanlockhead.

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