Southern Upland Way Day 17: Watch Water to Abbey St Bathans

Published 5 March 2012

Cartoon of a walker next to a sign saying "Abbey St Bathans", saying "Am I at the end yet?"

‘Four miles to Longformacus’ said the sign and who was I to argue with it? By doing a far greater distance than I’d intended the day before, I’d put my plans in a bit of a quandary. Originally I’d thought I might spend the night camping near Ellemford Bridge, further along the Watch Water river however that was now only eight miles away and I’d easily be there by lunch time.

Instead I decided to head for the village of Abbey St Bathans by which time the Watch Water would have joined the bigger river that is Whiteadder Water. Looking at the map it seemed like there were some possible sites to camp at, and as long as those places weren’t fields full of sheep and cows, I’d be all right.

But that was all for later in the day. First I had to head down a track alongside Watch Water Reservoir, built for Berwickshire County Council back in the 1950s. This soon became a quiet, tree-lined road which led me on to Longformacus. Just outside the village I came across a deserted playground with some handy, if uncomfortable, benches and decided to take a break. I had no great distance to do, no need to worry and I decided to rest my feet.

Watch Water Reservoir

Split in two by the Watch Water river, and linked by an old stone bridge, Longformacus was a tiny place. With a name like that you’d expect the village to have some sort of Roman connection or influence; maybe the remains of an old villa, a fort, or something. Anything at all would do. A glance at the map showed there were all manner of former Roman roads, forts and sites in the area however the village itself seemed to be more 17th century than anything else.

As I watched a group of council workers busily inspect the bridge for defects, I idly wondered who lived here and what they did for a living. It was miles from anywhere; no shops, no pub. Just a road, some houses and a batch of tarmac. And no sooner had I begun to contemplate the mystery, and the Southern Upland Way had led me out of the place. Blink and you’d miss it for sure.

Once more I was road walking and the hard surface was tiring my feet, although that worry was soon replaced by the problems of going up a small, unnamed hill instead. At 272m above sea level it was hardly major but, perversely, even as they got smaller and smaller, I seemed to be finding the climbs harder and harder as I went on.

At the top nearby Black Hill came into view, its flat top almost inevitably filled with a wind farm. The white turbines were everywhere. Even my campsite at Watch Water had been surrounded by the things. Sitting on the edge of Owl Wood I ate my lunch, hypnotically watching the giant turbines spin endlessly in the wind.

A Southern Upland Way waymark near a wind farm

At least the turbines were quiet, which is not a word that could be used to describe the Royal Air Force planes which zoomed across the landscape for much of the day, adding a different dimension to my walking sound track, and making a change from my humming. Ever since listening to the folk-jam session in Innerleithen I’d had I’ll Tell Me Ma (The Belle of Belfast City) stuck in my brain although every time I set off humming it, it seemed to morph gently into Boy George’s Bow Down Mister (specifically the chorus of “Bow down mister, Hare rama, hare krishna. Bow down mister, We say radha syam”) or, for reasons even less clear, a rousing rendition of Donald, Where’s Your Troosers?

Another small plantation was followed by another diminutive hill, its fields all ploughed up ready for the sowing. The landscape had got flatter and for the first time in ages I was looking at land where crops were grown, rather than where animals grazed. That didn’t stop there being yet more trees though. At Roughside Wood I found myself at a spot I’d pinpointed as a potential for wild camping. But once again, what looked good on the map was hopelessly inadequate in real life. It may have been named a wood, but this was certainly not some ancient woodland and the scars of logging were everywhere.

The trees were more densely packed than I’d thought they would be and a few scraps of land next to a logging road, or the odd gap in the trees where a tent could just about squeeze in just weren’t ideal and so I kept on going. I could always come back if desperate, but I wasn’t at that stage yet. Besides, I quite fancied a cup of tea and despite being barely more than a hamlet, the village had something of a rarity on this stretch of walking. It had a small restaurant.

The Riverside, Abbey St Bathans

The Riverside Restaurant and Art Gallery was only open during the day but that was good enough for me and I’d spent several hours dreaming of a pot of Earl Grey and maybe some cake. Unfortunately cake was one thing they didn’t do, however the proprietor suggested a homemade raspberry pavlova instead which I greedily munched on whilst reducing my thirst with a pint of orange juice and lemonade.

“Are you doing the whole thing?” asked the owner and I replied that I was indeed. “We don’t see many people doing it any more. Not since Foot and Mouth. There used to be lots of Southern Upland Way walkers but it never really recovered after that. People mostly do day walks or small sections now.”

How sad, I thought, that a farming catastrophe in 2001 should have stopped people walking this lovely route. At the time many analysts and experts had cropped up on the news predicting that by closing off huge swathes of the countryside in order to stop the spread of the Foot and Mouth disease in cattle, the rural tourist economy would be decimated, and that the financial damage to tourism would be far, far greater than that to the farming economy.

“Thankfully we don’t rely on it for our trade,” she went on. “Anything we get from walkers is a bonus, but a lot of tourist businesses round here closed down at that time.”

Earlier in the day I’d passed by a Southern Upland Way information board and pinned up on it was a very old looking page from the official accommodation guide, showing where people could stay locally. Comparing it to the 2011 version I’d picked up earlier in my trip, the difference was startling. Where once there were many B&Bs and even the odd pub mentioned, now there was very little. Just two bed and breakfasts and the Riverside were listed, which made for sparse reading. Most noticeable was at Cockburnspath itself. Where once a pub and four B&Bs were listed, was now just an empty space. And as for Abbey St Bathans, well it couldn’t even support a single place to stay, despite it being ideally sited for the final push.

And it was certainly true that there were few through walkers on the Southern Upland Way. I hadn’t seen many people on it at all. And that seemed a shame indeed.

Wild Camping outside Abbey St Bathans

As I paid up, the lady at the restaurant told me about some good wild camping spots a little further on from the village and I spent the next mile scrutinising every patch of tent-sized ground; assessing it on such criteria as space, flatness and likelihood that if a tent peg pinged off into the distance, I’d be able to find it again. After finding a suitable spot next to a busy stream, I pitched up.

Gusts of wind had blown clouds over the sun, cooling the weather down a little, so much so that I hid inside the relatively draught-free warmth of my tent. As I lay, relaxing, there was an almighty sound of thunder which turned out to be the hooves of a small group of sheep who had run down a track to the river I’d pitched near.

The sheep had come down from a nearby hill, and although I’d picked a spot on what I presumed to be just a farm track, the hill presumably led to some moorland where the sheep grazed. It was all rather unexpected but the sheep quietly drank their fill and headed off once again, barely batting an eyelid at the sudden presence of a bright red tent.

Later that evening, after a brief but heavy rain shower and after the sheep had returned for their second drink, I lay in the tent, the door tied open, and looked out at the evening sky.

The bright summer sun was heading down, dazzling my eyes as it slowly made its way to the horizon. A few insects danced away above the stream, but there was not a midge in sight.

“This is the life,” I thought, as I settled down to read my book; a hefty 900 page fantasy novel that I’d taken with me in the belief it would easily last me the entire trip. This was what I had dreamt every evening would be like. Lovely sunsets, a stream gurgling away, sheep bleating. Wonderful.

It had taken until the final night but that perfect evening was here. And just in time. The next day I’d be done. I’d get to the end, potter around for a few minutes and then catch a bus back to England and begin the journey home. It would all be over. But at least I’d end it in style.

Next time, the end is nigh as the Southern Upland Way delivers me safely to the end at Cockburnspath


Mark Smith

29 July 2018 at 8:06 pm

Excellent read, we will be doing the suw may 2019, thanks for the very helpful descriptions! What was the 900 page novel??

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

13 August 2018 at 10:33 am

Hello Mark – good question. I can’t remember which one exactly but it was definitely one of Tad Williams’s novels.

Mark Smith

19 August 2018 at 8:45 am

Good choice, I’ve just started ‘otherland’ having finished the dragonbone chair trilogy. Happy trails. Mark

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