Walking the Southern Upland Way
Over the last three years I have wound down from the academic year by walking a long distance footpath. In 2014, it was Hadrian’s Wall (84 miles), undertaken with my partner, Chantelle Smith, an archaeologist and folksinger; in 2015, I walked the West Highland Way (96 miles) solo; and last year, Offa’s Dyke (177 miles), with Chantelle joining me for a couple of days. And so I find myself in a bit of a self-imposed bind now – having to raise my game every year. But I like challenges, and so I opted for the Southern Upland Way (212 miles), which is described as the longest and ‘most challenging’ LDP (to adopt the acronym of the LDWA – sorry, Long Distance Walkers Association) north of the Border. This was suggested by a cycling couple I stayed with in Glasgow last year on my way south from Wester Ross (thank you, Peter and Amanda!) as an alternative to the very popular Pennine Way. As I have been researching the folk traditions of the Scottish Borders for my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester since 2014 (part-time) I felt already familiar with its psychogeography. I had explored the area on my Triumph Legend motorbike, visiting key folkloric sites, but nothing substitutes getting to know a place on foot. Apart from a visit in the early 90s, when I spent a windy night on the Trimontium of the Eildon Hills, I hadn’t walked the apparently ‘bleak’ hill-country so often the backdrop to a car or train journey crossing the Scottish Border en route to Glasgow, Edinburgh or beyond. And so I planned a two week walking holiday with my partner, who would provide ‘backup’ while spending the days recording folk ballads in situ (two bards with one song, so to speak). I had long ago decided that the backpacking experience over a long distance is not for me – I have nothing to prove except to myself and have no wish to make it a slog. A 25 litre daysac is sufficient for my needs – the rest can be dealt with by a luggage transfer company. In this case, we would be using three ‘base-camps’ over the fortnight from which I will be dropped off and picked up at the relevant section (on some occasions being able to walk from or to the campsite when it coincides with my day’s itinerary). This would mean the minimum of hassle and the maximum of comfort – a large tent, air bed, pillows, body heat, etc (as opposed to the small tent, thin mat, light sleeping bag and minimal kit I used in previous trips). After all, it was meant to be a holiday too. Not having to pitch the tent and take it down in the morning was a blessed relief after or before a long day – and alternating cooking helped too (some days we opted for take-aways or dining out). Nae bother. I went for the ‘sensible’ itinerary, which still required some hard-core slogs of twenty miles odd on some days (over 1000 ft plus hills and bog) – planning to complete it in 14 days, averaging 17 miles a day (with no rest days, but a couple of short sections). This felt saner than the 25-27 mile days which the guidebook cites! Each day I chose a ballad to keep me going (a habit I picked up from walking and warbling along the West Highland Way), although in practise I moved organically through my repertoire as the occasion, terrain, weather or mood compelled – anything to keep my spirits up and my legs moving. Each day, I added a song to my ‘current’ playlist – downloaded into my head from my walker’s songbook – so by the end of the walk I was able to sing 14 or more songs from memory. I took photos more as an aide memoire than to win any awards, but I did find the experience a very visual one this time as I slipped into a non-verbal space for most of the day (beyond the odd song, I didn’t really ‘think’ in words much at all). Working with words intensely throughout the year (teaching, writing, editing, performing, MCing, etc) means I value a space where I can savour long periods of silence and solitude – essential for my sanity. To leave behind the chattering world for a while was a real pleasure – I intentionally avoided the news and social media, a digital detox to augment my academic one. I wanted to be fully present and to have a visceral, embodied experience beyond words for once. By spending time in nature, in quietude, I hoped to be able to ‘hear myself think’ again, and to restore meaning and magic to language again. Without forcing anything, I let the natural balm of the hills work their charm. I walked for days sometimes without seeing a single soul – a dream-like experience when you’re traversing a moorland with people-less views for 10 miles in every direction. This suited me fine. As with the thoughts and words – I greeted warmly any kind-eyed stranger who happened to cross my path – but I did not go out of my way to seek them.