I had been planning this adventure for weeks. I had been thinking about it for months. I was so very excited.
My self-imposed mission (which seemed realistic at the time) was to complete the first 92 miles of the SUW by walking from the start point at Portpatrick across to Sanquhar, with the target of doing it in under 80 hours. Oh, how funny and ridiculous that seems now! My planning consisted of ‘practicing’ the route over and over again on Google Earth and reading up every blog about the SUW that I could find. I was physically and mentally fit for this challenge. I believed completely and totally that I could do it – failure never once entered my mind.
As you may have gathered by now, I did fail in my challenge – pretty royally at that, but it doesn’t actually feel like a complete failure; many lessons were learnt and much fun was had (amongst the bits that were NOT fun). I now know the mistakes I made, both in my preparation and during the walk – next time I will fare better. I actually still think that I could achieve the 80 hour target, just evidently not on my first ever SUW attempt.
At 6 am on Monday I left my hotel room at the Waterside in Portpatrick, handily located just a stone’s throw from the official start point of the SUW. There was a light drizzle as I made my way up the cliff steps, but it wasn’t so bad. The early morning light was beautiful and as I said goodbye to the twinkling lights of Portpatrick, I was greeted by the beaches of Port Mora and Port Kale, all eerie and du Maurier-esque in the haunting dawn haze.
By 7.30 am I was up beside the lighthouse, passing by Killantrigan Bay and bidding farewell to the coast as the track turned inland. The rain was getting heavier now but I had no choice but to plod on, along the lanes which form a good proportion of this (quite boring) first section. The bit across the bright purple heather-covered moorland above Knockquhassen Reservoir was really quite lovely, despite the weather – although I did waste a stupid amount of time in the bog trying to find the first kist and coin of the New Hoard. I seem to remember swearing at the Ulteria post in frustration.
By 10 am I was looking down over Stranraer and soon after I was crossing the A77 in hardcore rain. By 11 am I was pretty wet and annoyed so I took shelter in some weird bunker which looked very much like the sort of place one would hide a body. I ate a veggi sausage roll and prayed to the weather gods to sort their shit out. I was not impressed.
13.6 miles in, at 12.30 the rain finally stopped, just as I was making my way down the drive to Castle Kennedy Gardens. I was behind schedule as I had planned on reaching this point by 11 am but I now realise that I hadn’t factored in that heavy backpack = slower walking speed. And soaking wet feet and the beginnings of what were to become mega blisters didn’t help the situation. I treated myself to a bowl of delicious butternut squash soup and two coffees in the Tearooms before getting back on track at 2 pm.
And from here on, for the next few hours I was as happy as can be. In complete contrast to the previous half of the day, the sun shone brightly; the grey clouds were replaced by bright blue sky and everything seemed to sparkle. And as a double blessing, this was the least boggiest stretch, giving me the opportunity to really enjoy the heather-lined paths and the wide, flat forest sections. To make things even better, at exactly 4 pm I actually found a kist and a coin! (I’m guessing this is maybe the easiest one to find along the whole route), so this lifted my spirits even more so. I was not only on a walk, I was on a treasure hunt!
I crossed bridges and fields, navigating my way cautiously past herds of cattle. Despite growing up in a small town in a rural area, I had never had any fear of cows before moving to Scotland. But since living here I have heard enough horror stories and been warned enough times of the potential danger of these big beasts to make me pretty wary. There were at least half a dozen signs along this part of the route warning that ‘Cows can be dangerous – Proceed at your own risk’, which was pretty unsettling. This recently installed fear of cows proved to be the undoing of this whole adventure, as I will come to explain.
Anyway, by 5.30 pm I was still blissfully happy. I was just past the farm of Cruise and had done about 20 miles by this point so treated myself to a break by a wall in a field of sheep with the warm sun on my face. I was pretty much on target by now – all I needed to ensure was that I made it to the forest past New Luce before nightfall. Just 6.5 little miles to go. A few moments later a daft sheep fell over in front of me and got stuck on its back and was thrashing around like a big woolly beetle but I managed to get it back upright. I figured it must have been fate that I had stopped at that exact spot at that exact time.
An hour later I found myself at the beautiful ruin of Kilhern Farm which I of course fell instantly in love with. And of course I ‘wasted’ far too much time exploring these ruins and didn’t leave enough time to check out the ‘Caves of Kilhern’ a little off route. As it turned out, there were loads of slightly off-route points of interest which I ended up missing out which I do regret. Therein lay one of the problems with my daft 80-hour target; by trying to rush it I didn’t end up seeing some of the things I had planned.
The sky was so beautiful as I passed through (literally right through) Balmurrie Farm. There was a pink swirling glow to the east and the picturesque moon shone as bright as the sun had done a few hours earlier. I was still crazy happy to be on this adventure, and blissfully unaware of the horror of what was to come…
Everything went from Wonderland to Horrorland in a matter of minutes. At the point where I knew I was about 3 miles from my destination for the night – The Beehive Bothy – I came to field across from a gate which would of lead me across a short stretch of moorland and then into the forest and to the bothy. The light was rapidly fading by this point, so I strapped on my head torch and looked up. And there, surrounding the gate, half a dozen pairs of eyes reflected back at me. Please be sheep, I whispered. On the realisation that they were not sheep, I dipped my torch and hastily retreated.
Oh shit. Now what?. It was too dark to actually make out the tree line of the forest and because of my ridiculous freak-out with the cows I was completely disorientated. Blindly I stumbled onwards, away from the evil killer cows as quickly as my blistered wet feet would take me. On and on I went. An hour passed by as I found myself traversing perhaps the worst terrain I have ever encountered. Every 5th step I would stumble, one leg knee-deep in thick bog and I would crawl out, only to fall again moments later with no clue as to where I was going. It was so tragic that it was actually a little bit funny. I’m thankful that at no point was I scared as such, just incredibly, incredibly annoyed at myself for getting into that situation.
By 10 pm I gave up. I had managed to find myself alongside a tall fence which separated this unholy bogland from a windfarm and I managed to find the least boggy patch big enough to pitch my tent. Even though I still couldn’t see the tress, in my heart I knew I wasn’t far from the forest and the bothy, but by this point I had had enough. Although I wasn’t tired as such, my feet just hurt too much to continue any longer. A couple of minutes later my tent was up and I was lying down at last. The weather gods were still working in my favour, even if the cows had been sent to test me – there was no rain or wind and the sky was a perfect blanket of silver stars. It wasn’t the ideal situation, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Taking my boots off was the final ordeal of the day, revealing what resembled two aborted mutant piglets. I knew then that my boots would be remaining wet for the rest of this journey and my poor dead piglet feet were only going to get worse. I guess maybe at this point I knew I wasn’t going to make my 80 hour target, but I was still quite sure I was going to make it to Sanquhar by the end of the week.
So, as I lay under the cover of a £20 single-skin festival tent and a child’s sleeping bag with the swooshing and creepy screeching noise of the wind turbines as company, my only hope was that I wasn’t going to get sucked into the bog overnight. The whole day had been such a day of contrasts, but I really hoped that the next day would be a little kinder.
The journey continues here: https://thescottishdream.com/2019/09/12/the-southern-upland-way-day-2-taking-refuge-in-the-beehive/