Southern Upland Way Day 1: Portpatrick to Stranraer

Published 12 January 2012

Cartoon of someone walking on a road, with caption 'Bloomin road walking!'

Portpatrick is a pain to get to by train. Tucked away in a remote corner of Scotland, it’s just over a hundred miles from Carlisle, but to get there you have to go to Glasgow and head back down south again.

After that you’re on the bus. It’s about three and a half hours of travelling, including running across Stranraer at top speed to try to get to the bus stop from the railway station in about seven minutes because the two are half a mile apart.

Of course I’d have to get there from London. Nearly ten hours of travelling fun if all the connections worked out all right. Sounded awful to me, so instead I’d taken the London to Glasgow sleeper and snoozed my way through that journey before boarding a rickety train to Stranraer with faded seats and décor that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the 1990s.

This did of course mean that I’d arrived at Portpatrick at lunchtime. I mean, who starts walking a long distance footpath just before their midday meal?

To be fair I had considered staying the night in the village so that I could check out Portpatrick’s sights. The drawbacks of this plan became more than apparent on seeing the place. It was very nice looking – quaint, gaily painted buildings and a lovely harbour – but seeing the sights would probably take about fifteen minutes. And that would include the time taken to read the information board next to the cliffs.

The starting point of the Southern Upland Way

Either way, after so many hours on tubes, trains and buses, I was more than ready to get going and I headed to the North Harbour where a grandly named “Information Shelter” (so called for its ability to provide shelter to anyone wanting information presumably) marked the starting point of the Southern Upland Way.

The sea crashed around the rocks near the harbour as I stood silently looking out. Somewhere over there was Northern Ireland. I couldn’t get there. Not without a ferry anyway. And besides, I needed to go in the other direction. The sun was shining, the seagulls were squawking and my feet were itching to set off. Stay the day in Portpatrick? No way. Not even to check out the award-winning seafood restaurants.
Hang on. Award-winning seafood restaurants you say?

Port Mora and Port Kale

It doesn’t seem to be possible to create a coast to coast walking route without including a good, exhilarating cliff-side walk at either end, and the Southern Upland Way certainly did not disappoint as I climbed the rocky steps out of Portpatrick.

A little way on, the path came down to the first of two little coves: Port Mora and Port Kale. It was at Port Kale that the first telegraph cable was laid between Britain and Ireland in 1852. Amazingly lasting until 1983, the pole marking the cable end still stood, as did the small cable house now all boarded up.

Port Kale also provided the first true obstacle of the walk. Up in the cliffs was a staircase cut into the rock, with each step being uneven and unequal. Some required small steps, others huge strides. And still more came with an additional challenge, angled as they were at around 45 degrees. Several times I had to resort to hauling myself up using the chain handrail, doing my best not to slip as the waves crashed noisy on the pointed rocks below.

The path now bounced along sheep-filled fields, the sun shining down as the Killantringan Lighthouse came into view in its isolated spot high on the cliffs. Off in the distance, two ferries passed each other silently; one heading for Ireland, the other to Stranraer; and with a view of Killantringan Bay, the path seemed to take a decision. Enough dilly-dallying it declared! Enough of this aimless wandering around the Scottish coast line! We’ve got a job to do. A country to cross! Inland I say, inland!

Now if only inland had been quite as visually stunning as the coastline. Indeed, leaving those cliff-side views was enough of a wrench as it was, but became even more so as I was guided a long a plethora of tarmacked lanes linking a string of whitewashed houses and bungalows. Every so often the farm roads were replaced by such excitement as a main road which the Way would dutifully deposit me on for a short stretch, allowing me the chance to check out the variations in local council road paving, just in case I was getting a little bored.

The hunt is on

“Ultreia!” proclaimed a small plaque on a waymark post.

In a welcome break from the seemingly endless tarmac, I was on Broad Moor walking along a path surrounded by heather in all manner of hues: golden, red, burned to a cinder. And now I had to be on the lookout. The plaque was there to inform me that I should keep my eyes peeled. That I should be getting “on with my quest”. My quest to find a nearby kist.

The whole thing was started in 2002 when a series of 13 pieces of artwork know as “kists” were subtly hidden across the whole of the Way. Each kist was basically a little treasure chest, individually designed by a different artist. Find it, open it up and the walker would see a pile of coins known as Waymerks. Get yourself all 13 and you’d have yourself a hoard.

Over time the original Waymerks ran out, and the kists began to decay but in 2010 the concept was restarted. A new hoard had been minted, and all I had to do was find the first one. An explanatory leaflet had told me that the kist would be somewhere nearby; just a few paces from the route. You’d never need to dig, just keep your eyes peeled. The Ultreia plaque would let you know there was one nearby.

With eyes firmly glued to the ground I set off on the hunt, scanning all around the area trying to find something that looked out-of-place. I must have looked quite a sight to the three cross country runners who chose this moment to pass me, but my attention was all to no avail. Wherever the first kist was, who knows. I certainly couldn’t find it. My quest had been a failure. Disappointed at this setback, all I could hope was that this failure wouldn’t somehow be representative of my whole trip.

As I walked, small birds fluttered in and out of hedgerows, and at one point I turned a corner only to find a roe deer jump out in front of me. Casting a startled glance in my direction, it quickly bounded off, not to be seen again.

Stranraer, seen from the Southern Upland Way

Then, soon, Stranraer came in to view; its mixture of houses, factories and ferry terminals laid out in front of me. The Southern Upland Way skirts round the south of the town following a series of near empty minor roads; the combination of my large, heavy pack and the tarmac resulting in some seriously hard work for my legs.

I was planning to stay the night at the local campsite, accessible a few miles on by taking a turn off through the impressively named “Big Plantation”; a grand name for a enchanting piece of woodland. Light filtered through the leaves giving a lovely dappled effect and I would have been half tempted to wild camp there had it not been for the faintly sinister sounding signs proclaiming “Game Keeper at Large” and the fact that there was no water supply. A proper campsite it was, even if it would cost me £9 plus 50p for the shower.

After fixing some rice (quite easy – open packet, add water, simmer) I collapsed in my tent. It may only have been 8:30 but I was soon dozing away. All thoughts of an evening stroll and, perhaps, a swift pint or two were quickly abandoned. Dragging myself off to brush my teeth two hours later, I at least managed to see a beautiful sunset over the harbour. By the time I’d finished brushing, it was all over.

Next, the walk really get going with the delights of a ruined castle, some formal gardens and some forest. Oh, and haggis spring rolls for tea!

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