Category Archives: Extraordinary Places

Walking the Southern Upland Way Days 7-9

 

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Lead mining in the Wanlockhead area, K. Manwaring, 7 July 2017

 

Day 7 – Sanquhar to Wanlockhead (7.4)

Today was a short ‘recovery’ walk after the 3 long days from Bargrennan and Chantelle joined for the first time for what turned out to be brief, but enjoyable hike.

 

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Chantelle joins me on the SUW, K. Manwaring 7 July 2017

The route was easy to follow, and apart from one big hill (one of the Lower Lowthers), it was easy-going too. It felt strange to stop after only 4 miles for lunch – but we had started later, which was a pleasant change to my early starts. So easy to forget we’re meant to be on holiday! Typically, I’ve turned my vacation into something to do with ‘work’ (with my Creative Writing PhD) – some experiential field research – although I wasn’t feeling remotely academic, away from computers and the internet. I made light notes, but it was mainly about experience the landscape of my characters and that was to come in the latter half of the walk. Today culminated in our arrival in Wanlockhead, with its well-preserved lead mining industrial heritage: slag heaps, mine shafts, miners’ cottages, and an old beam engine. It’s big claim to fame is for being the highest town in Britain (and also for being used as a location for the deeply weird SF film, Under the Skin. Chantelle re-enacted the ‘bus-stop scene’, sitting where Scarlett Johansson’s alien femme fatale sat).

 

 

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Film tourism: re-enacting the scene from Under the Skin, Wanlockhead, 7 July 2017

 

 

We treated ourselves to some sticky toffee pudding in the Lead Mine tea-rooms (living it up!), and got chatting to a lovely old lady, who kindly gave us a lift back to Sanquhar down the dramatic Mennock Pass, the ‘Glen Coe’ of the Lowlands.

Day 8 – Wanlockhead to Beattock (20.5)

 

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Comms station, Lowther Hill, K. Manwaring, 8 July 2017

 

This was a great day’s walking in the sun (although it left my arms red, as I hadn’t been expecting it to be quite so sunny). It was a long day, which meant an early start – but with Chantelle’s help I was on my way by 9.15am. Today had two significant ‘benchmarks’ – crossing Lowther Hill, at 2378ft the highest point on the SUW, and also crossing the halfway mark (around Daer Reservoir), an important psychological threshold. Achieving both, I knew the way would be easier from now on – but I savoured them while they lasted – two of the most satisfying moments on the walk. Leaving the glamour and grit of Wanlockhead behind, I hiked up to the landmark on the Lowther of the ‘golfball’ comms tower. It was a surreal contrast to the industrial mining heritage, now far below. The SUW skirted its perimeter and I took some photos, thinking if this was anywhere else I’d be arrested at this point. But there wasn’t a soul in sight, as I strode over the Lowthers that day – following the ridge as it traversed Cold Moss (2060ft), before plunging down into a col before Laught Hill (1663ft), a steep, tiring descent and ascent on very slippery ground. The way was hard going in places today to the point I thought of rechristening the walk the ‘Boggy Upland Way’. Reaching Daer Reservoir by 2ish, I stopped to have some lunch beneath the terns sporting over the water – letting my feet dry out and cool down.

 

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Daer Reservoir, K. Manwaring, 8 July 2017

 

From lead mining to satellite dishes, to hydro-electric dams and wind-farms – the human impact upon the landscape was very tangible today. Strange that I didn’t see a soul though as I crossed lonely moorland. I did see plenty of wildlife though – voles, kestrel, kite, falcon and a curlew (the latter, traditionally loathed by the locals, because according to folklore their cries gave away the location of the hiding Covenanters. Indeed, the one that harangued me was particularly vocal, so I was glad I wasn’t hiding from ‘Bloody Clavers’, their hated scourge). I arrived at the ‘Old Brig Inn’ an hour early and in high spirits – pleased with my progress.

 

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A welcome sign – not far to go now! K. Manwaring, 8 July 2017

 

Day 9 – Beattock to Tibbie Shiels Inn (20.5)

 

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Hogg inscription, Ettrick Valley, K. Manwaring, 9 July 2017

 

It was thrilling to reach the Ettrick Hills today, and enter the picturesque vale of Ettrick Water – where the ancestors of my main protagonist in my novel The Knowing: A Fantasy hail from. And with the ghosts of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer in the psychogeography, suddenly, the landscape became numinous (or more so for me, as my ‘folk radar’ vibrated). The shift in the ‘feel’ of the land was distinctive, and not just because I passed a sign saying ‘Welcome to the Scottish Borders’ – a debatable point, as indeed the ‘Debatable Lands’ were constantly being fought over, and the Borders stretch from coast-to-coast and from Hadrian’s Wall to Forth and the Clyde if you include all the tides of history that have swept back and forth over this region.  Practically, ‘The Scottish Borders’ seems to denote a county authority now – one that doesn’t like to put free leaflets in holders along the SUW (although most of the boxes were empty, back in Dumfries and Galloway).  Still, the signage seemed to be a tad better – perhaps because this stretch of the LDP was more frequented, being nearer the tourists honeypots of Moffat and Melrose. Today’s highlight was crossing over from the Ettrick to the Yarrow valleys – a tiring slog after the 15 miles I’d already done, but one made enjoyable by the presence of Hogg. One of his verses adorned the start of the stretch, and his spirit perhaps inspired me to come up with my own song of the hills as I crossed them. This was classic hill-walking – though yet again I didn’t see anybody after bumping into a father and son from Germany, walking the SUW in sections east to west at the lovingly maintained Over Phawhope Bothy a few miles back. It seemed almost sheer indulgence to have all this glory to myself. The last push from Earl’s Hill in the rain was hard – and it resulted in it being a ‘2-Tunnock walk’ today, as I needed the extra energy to get me to St Mary’s Loch. All day long I’d been looking forward to a pint at the historic Tibbie Shiels Inn, a famous hostelry run by the widow of a mole-catcher, Tibbie Shiels, who lived into her 90s and was carried, like Hogg over the corpse path from the Ettrick. The inn had once been frequented by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, and so it was sad to discover it was now closed – I chatted briefly to the owner, who explained it was no longer viable to run a pub. Surprising, since it should be on the tourist trail (and with a bit more effort could be a coach-friendly attraction along the lines of the popular Drovers Inn, above Loch Lomond). But the former landlord said he wasn’t getting enough footfall (so few walkers do the SUW) and, despite having a campsite, said he couldn’t compete with Airbnb, the cafe’ opposite, or the Gordons Arms down the road. I had to wait until Chantelle picked me up and got us back to Melrose – but then we enjoyed a dram over a meal celebrating the mid-way point. Slainte!

 

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Tibbie Shiels Inn, St Mary’s Loch, now sadly closed. 9 July 2017

 

 

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It all started here, Tibbie Shiels Inn, K. Manwaring 9 July 2017

 

 

Walking the Southern Upland Way – Days 4-6

 

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The wild hills await… K. Manwaring, 2017

 

And now for the section of the walk that looked the most intimidating – in my guidebook it broke it down into too insanely long sections: Bargrennan to St John’s of Dalry (24.3 miles) and St John’s to Sanquhar (26.7), but not being a complete masochist, I opted for the ‘more manageable to walk’ itinerary, which breaks the 50 plus miles of challenging walking (ranges of hills, bogs, no facilities) into three days. They were still tough, but not always for reasons expected.

Day 4 – Bargrennan to Clatteringshaw Loch (16.3 + 5)

This should have been a pleasant stroll from our fabulous campsite (so much nicer when I was able to set off in the morning without any driving involved) along the shores of the picturesque Glen Trool, but it turned into something of a nightmare. It didn’t help that it rained all day, sapping my spirits, tiring me out, and soaking everything (my back-up phone still hasn’t recovered).  It was very tempting to walk straight from ‘Expedition Base-Camp’ (an utterly lovely campsite despite the midges and stencilled military-style signage) to the Glen Trool visitor centre – intersecting the walk at the Twin Bridges – and skip the first section of the walk which made me go back on myself, and added a few winding miles – but I was feeling diligent. What’s  the point of doing a long-distance walk if you skip bits? Sometimes however the wendings are annoying diversions (a reroute caused by a bolshy landowner, or by a civic authority keen for the tourist dollar) and common sense should prevail. The quicker route from Glentrool was listed as an alternative in ‘wetter winter months’ and the only ‘safe and viable route’ when the River Cree and Waters of Minnoch (great names) overflow, and it was raining heavily when I set off. But … I dutifully trekked back to the bridge at Bargrennan and rejoined the route from yesterday’s end-point.

There followed some lovely riverside woodland walking – it was wet, but the trees gave me some shelter. By the time I got to Twin Bridges of Trool, it was late morning and I had a coffee and a snack at an SUW shelter. Then feeling in fine fettle I carried on.

However, this is when I went wrong – though I wasn’t to notice it for a good hour or more. Along the SUW the thistle signs are intermittent and often not where you need them. There can be long stretches along a track when there are none at all – you just have to pray you took the right turning as you trudge on, hoping for … literally … a sign. I also had at the back of my mind another alternative route that was cited as a good option in poor weather. The rain had really set in by this point and my wax jacket had reached saturation point. Not nice. I had to sit on a stump in the rain to have my sandwiches, surrounded by the No Man’s Land of a deforested section. I seemed to be on a Sustrans bike trail – so hoped that would intersect at some point with the SUW. Alas, as I slogged along the horrible gravelly track my hopes diminished. The track eventually ran out and I thought I was on the wrong side of a ridge. Being soaked to the skin and tired isn’t conducive to making the best decisions – I decided to make a traverse over the ridge, hoping to reconnect with the route. This resulted in me getting lost in a forestry plantation – not very pleasant, I assure you. It is like trying to navigate around Milton Keynes – everything looks the same. I am not one for using GPS, but in extremis the situation called for it, as I had no visual bearing on my position (unable to see the woods for the trees). The map on my dying phone however just showed a dot in a featureless expanse of green. I had to rely upon my compass and common sense. I headed east and downwards, hoping I would reach a forestry track. I kept spotting strips of white plastic tied to trees, and taking these as some kind of sign I followed them. Eventually the led me to a track – blessed hardcore! I followed this, figuring it has to come out somewhere. I would find out where I was and hitch back, for time was getting on (and I was ready to give up at that point). Amazingly, the track came out at a junction I recognised, so cursing my incompetence, I painfully retraced my steps to my lunch point, up a very steep track. I kept going from there until I spotted a SUW sign. It had taken me 2 hours to get back to this point, after an hour of being lost. So now I was running 3 hours late. I was 8 miles into the walk, with 8 miles to go … and no signal. I’d arranged to meet my partner at an obscure location at 5pm. I decided to push on. Guzzling down the rest of my coffee, and stuffing my face with a Mars bar, I went into ‘turbo’ mode with both of my walking poles out. I was angry with myself as much as anything – that and the adrenalin kept me going as I trekked away from Glen Trool through a lonely glen associated with a famous victory by Robert the Bruce; and later, with the famous biplane chase sequence in The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan (a nearby hamlet shared his name). My whole day had been transmogrified into a minor crisis all because of the poor signage – at a critical turning (NB Caldons), I discovered, there was the catastrophic absence of a fingerpost (the actual tiny SUW sign was hidden along the turning by foliage…).  The Cicerone guidebook had failed to mention this when normally it had been reliable, flagging up important junctions. Sigh. I slogged on. Already exhausted by getting lost (which resulted in me being drenched in sweat beneath my already soaked clothes) I now had to draw upon inner reserves to keep going. Such experiences certainly test your stamina and morale, or ‘grit’ as they might call it up in Scotland. I passed a couple of teams of soggy students, enduring such delights for a Duke of Edinburgh award – later an ambulance had hurtled in their direction, so I wonder whether they came a-cropper. Some looked ill-prepared in thin jackets. The track through the lonely, exposed glen went on and on. It eventually passed Loch Dee, where I had to stop for replenishment in a midge-infested glade. Then I pushed on, aware that my partner was probably having kittens by this point. But there was nothing I could do about it (sans signal) except get there as soon as I could. This made the walking stressful as well as exhausting – but that point I had resigned myself to the whole clusterfuck of the experience. I’d never got seriously lost on a LDP before and I don’t recommend it (I normally have a good sense of direction and orienteering skills, but exhaustion doesn’t help). One upside to this – I never got lost again on the SUW, even through sections that were especially difficult to navigate. I was extra-attentive to the trail, (which is sometimes not much more than a slight indentation in the grass across miles of open moorland), taking my bearing often, and never being complacent. Other LDPs have been straight-forward to navigate, even across serious terrain (eg the West Highland Way, which crosses Rannoch Moor). Normally, it’s as plain as day, the direction you have to go in – but not the SUW! Clatteringshaws Loch seemed to take forever to reach – and my feet were killing me by then (1000 mile socks are not much use if they get wet), so I was euphorically glad to see my partner driving towards me along the last section of the trail. After 2 hours of waiting she had started to get seriously worried – and had set off in search for me. Never had I been so glad to see that metallic grey Peugot! It was certainly an adventure – but one that was easier to enjoy afterwards, thawing out in Lochinvar Inn over a hot meal and a drink.  Boy, did I need a shower when I got back! I slept well that night.

Day 5 – Clatt. Loch to Stroanpatrick (15.8)

 

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The lonely way. One of the several fallen signposts I re-erected. K. Manwaring, 5 July 2017

 

Fortunately, the next two days were far more enjoyable. It didn’t rain for a start  and despite the ‘path’ being poorly signed and little more than a slight indentation in the grass across wild moor-land I didn’t get lost. My compass-fu was fully functioning. I could see why so few people do the SUW – but it’s Catch 22: better signage and better maintained paths would surely result in more walkers; this would result in more tourist income for the region, warranting more investment.  Perhaps it is the length and difficulty that puts people off, for other LDPs seem popular.  Apparently 50,000 walkers do the West Highland Way every year – although when I did it, I only saw a half a dozen walkers a day. There were long stretches when I didn’t see anyone. The campsites weren’t that busy. On these trails you can also find solitude – it’s easy to adjust your pace to overtake some walkers if you don’t fancy chatting, although sometimes it’s nice to have a brief exchange. Today’s highlight was the lunch stop at St John’s of Dalry – a charming village with a very steep High Street and a churchyard featuring Covenanter graves. Named by the Templars (Dail Righ: ‘meadow of the king’), it was an important way-station for pilgrims en route to the Isle of Whithorn (apparently even the King would undertake this annually, as an act of atonement – which made me wonder, did walking the SUW shrive me of my ‘sins’? It certainly felt cathartic and good for the mind, body and soul). Like a pilgrim filled with enthusiasm (en theos: the god within) I sang as I went – today choosing ‘Crooked Jack’, and ‘Fathom the Bowl’ in addition to my usual walking repertoire which I dipped in and out of (‘Caledonia’; ‘Jerusalem’, etc).  The headspace of today I described in my journal as ‘a wildlife corridor for the imagination’. And I saw plenty of actual wildlife too – a barn owl in broad daylight, swooping amongst the trees and a red kite, on top of the usual curious or twitchy livestock .

Day 6 – Stroanpatrick to Sanquhar (18.9)

 

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Ben Brack (1902 ft), K. Manwaring, 6 July 2017

 

Today was the longest and toughest so far – officially anyway – crossing over 7 hills, all over a 1000 ft (including the 2nd highest on the SUW). It meant for any early start and an unnecessarily stressful car journey, which threatened to mar the whole morning, but I tried to put that behind me and focus on the ‘here and now’ of the walking, the most stunning and enjoyable so far. I found my walking legs today, striding across the miles with a spring in my step. Dividing the day into quarters helped – having a break every 5 miles or so; and rewarding myself with snacks and slurps of water or coffee now and then. Long distance walking, as with an ‘endurance’ activity, is  alot about the psychology, about mental as much as physical stamina.  You really have to draw upon inner reserves – so one’s frame of mind at the beginning of the day is critical. It is nice to start the day in quietude. Over the SUW I found myself waking early and enjoy the simple morning ritual of making the first brew, a bowl of porridge, and preparing my flask and sandwiches for the day (and increasingly, bandaging my feet). Having a decent breakfast inside you is also essential – otherwise you soon find yourself flagging.  And I needed the energy today – having to climb the following Galloway Hills: Manquhill (1381 ft); Benbrack (1902 ft); Cairn Hill & Black Hill (1863 ft); High Countam (1640 ft); Allan’s Cairn (1630 ft); Cloud Hill (1479 ft). It was good to get Benbrack out of the way in the morning – the 2nd highest summit on the SUW, it was a beast to climb, and harder than the highest (Lowther Hill, awaiting me tomorrow), as it was one continuous ‘full frontal’ slog. Once I had reached its summit, the rest became physically and psychologically easier, as I worked my way along the high country connecting them.  It was fine walking . Being high up is edifying – one enjoys the efforts of one’s toil. It’s as though you are a giant, striding over the land – wearing nine mile boots.

 

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Striding Arch, Ben Brack, Galloway Hills, K. Manwaring, 6 July 2017

At one point I came across a stone archway, unannounced, unsigned, on the summit of Ben Brack. This was quite a surreal thing to encounter unexpectedly – emerging from the mizzle that mantled the bleak hillside. It turned out to be one of Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Striding Arches’ – another distantly visible on a sister summit. The sculptor lives nearby, in the creative community of Moniaive, so his artworks adorn several of the summits along the SUW – these striking, bold statements stand in quiet power, holding subtle conversations with the surrounding landscape, one that has been in ‘dialogue’ with man for millennia.  The solitary walker joins this conversation for a while. Walking in silence one is able to discern the whispers of time that haunt it still.

 

 

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Allan’s Cairn – Covenanter Memorial to Margaret Gracie and George Allan – eerily situated in the middle of a forestry plantation

 

Walking the Southern Upland Way – Days 1-3

 

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Follow the thistle – waymarkers of the Southern Upland Way. Portpatrick, K. Manwaring

 

I am going to give a brief account of my long walk along the Southern Upland Way (212 miles coast-to-coast across the Scottish Border country), focusing on the highlights and insights. It took two weeks, so I’m going to break it up into 4×3-day and 1×2-day blog-friendly sections. Enjoy the walk!

Day 1 – Portpatrick to Castle Kennedy (13.4 miles)

 

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Blackhouse Lighthouse, K. Manwaring 2017

 

And so I set off after the obligatory snaps by the ‘official’ starting point looking out across the handsome harbour of Portpatrick. My gaze lingered on the Irish Sea – in a fortnight’s time, if all went well, I would be beholding the North Sea, reached under my own steam (or sweat and blisters) by Shank’s Pony. It was good to finally set off after all the preparation and the long journey north. Now, all the tedious traffic jams on the motorway melted away as I climbed the steps out of Portpatrick and struck out along the first section of the route – lovely cliff-top walking to the Blackhead lighthouse.  It had been glorious sunshine when I had left the campsite – so I was rather optimistically in my shorts and t-shirt. By the time I reached the lighthouse it had started raining. Turning inland as briskly as possible, away from the exposed coastal path, I trudged up the track passed an elderly couple smugly getting into their waterproofs. Looking at my bare limbs sceptically, they called ‘the weather is setting in!’ I agreed, but pushed on – realising I had not brought my jacket that day. I was hoping it was just a light shower, but by the time I had reached the open moorland (of Broad Moor) it had really set in. I was looking for some shelter to have my sandwiches – no such luck. Starting to feel my core body temperature drop, I realised that unless I did something quick I could get ‘exposure’. So I improvised with what I had (all part of the spirit of an adventure) – putting on my gloves, scarf and (thank goodness!) waterproof trousers, and fashioning a rain-poncho out of my emergency blanket (which I had been carrying around in my walking kit for years unused until this point). I looked ridiculous – an extra from a low-budget sci-fi movie (‘Space Rambler’) but I didn’t care. I was preserving my precious body heat, and was able to sit down and eat my sarnies in relative comfort.

 

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Space Rambler, C. Smith 2017

 

As soon as I got moving, I warmed up – and started to enjoy myself in a slightly mad way, alarming cows in my shiny get-up and spindly appendages (poles I find essential, usually one suffices: for testing footing, and fending off frisky cattle – although two can be handy for steep bits and when ‘Nordic-walking’ is required to warm-up or to make progress). I was hoping I wouldn’t meet anyone. It’s okay looking ridiculous in the middle of nowhere, but not in built-up areas. Fortunately, the route skirted Stranraer, and I only passed a couple of hamlets. Typically though, I met the only two other hikers on the whole of the route that day – a German couple, wombled up in their full-length rain ponchos. They were lugging full packs and slogging up a steep lane in the heavy rain when I passed them. I may have looked a nob, but at least I wasn’t having to bear a full backpack for the long miles ahead. Not only does it make the whole experience less of a slog, there were times when being light on your feet was life-saving – when bog-trotting across lonely moorland for instance;  negotiating steep, slippery slopes; or balancing atop stiles over electric fences!  I was pleased with myself for reaching my first destination, Castle Kennedy, ahead of time (I find an average walking speed of 2 miles an hour across tricky terrain about right – which allows time for stops; on good paths this can pick up to 2.5 or even 3). I was relieved to find my partner waiting in the layby (the hotel we had arranged to meet at had closed down), and glad to get back for a hot shower, and a change of clothes. A long day’s walk certainly gives you a good appetite, but you find yourself nodding off very early.

Day 2 – Castle Kennedy to New Luce (8.9)

 

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Remains of Castle Kennedy, gutted by a fire ‘started by a servant’, in 1716 K. Manwaring 2017

 

The next day, according to my journal was ‘a most agreeable day of walking.’ The shorter route meant there was time in the morning to explore the lovely Castle Kennedy Gardens with Chantelle. When I spotted four white swans on the ‘Black Loch’ I suggested to her she sang ‘White Wings’ – her song about the Children of Lir created for our new show Brighid’s Flame (premiered a week before the start of the walk). I recorded her on my phone, and thus jumpstarted her ‘Ballads of the Borders’ project which she would entertain herself with while I was off gallivanting every day: her plan was to record herself singing a selection of Border Ballads in situ. Her Lir song was clearly not one in the literal sense, although in terms of liminality and littorality it was. Anyway, it was a nice way of responding to the genius loci. After we parted I didn’t see a single soul all day. As I crossed the Glenwhan Moor I was overcome with a deep sense of peace – dropping down into a place of still and silent contentment.  The peace was so tangible it was not an absence, but a presence – and it stayed with me (I captured it in my poem ‘Deep Peace’). The view across the moor was quietly beautiful, for and of itself. Apart from the occasional percussion of a Stonechat, there was hardly any sound at all. The sussuration of the wind, the squelch of my boot, or tap of my stick. Now and then I sang. Today I warbled Woody Guthrie’s classic ‘This Land is Our Land’, as well as ‘The Wind and the Rain’ from Twelfth Night. Apart from surprising grazing cattle with my crooning, my small voice was absorbed into the silence of the moor as though soaking into peat.

Day 3 – New Luce to Bargrennan (17.8)

 

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the day of wind turbines … K. Manwaring, 2017

 

Today was my first long stretch, and it was glorious walking – sunny, but not too hot. I was slowly heading for the high country, the Galloway Hills looming before me as the day progressed. It was pretty wild in places, bog-trotting across lonely moorland with not a soul in sight within a 10 mile radius.  The morning was dominated by a massive wind-farm – it was a surreal, slightly disquieting experience to walk amongst these giants that towered over me like malevolent tripods from some HG Wells reboot. 65 metre high, with 30 metre long blades, each one generates power for a 1000 homes – and although I think they are a generally good thing, I could see for the first time why there is often fierce opposition to them locally, as they have massive impact on the landscape, dominating the skyline for miles around (obviously such an impact is miniscule compared to that of a nuclear power station). From afar, they can seem quite ‘pretty’, but not up close and personal. The thrum of the blades and the screech as they turned was a bit oppressive after a while, as was the dreary infrastructure of gravelly roads, signage and fencing that gave the landscape a militiarised feel. I also experienced the ‘joy’ of forestry plantations – which are very tedious to walk through (especially when the path across one of the windfarms roads was completely decimated – sans footbridge and signs). This was offset by reaching the lovely Beehive Bothy, the first of six quirky dwellings along the route. Bothies are a fine institution – free and open for all respectful walkers to use, either for a respite from the rain, a spot of lunch, or to spend the night. There maybe a fireplace, a chair or two, and a space for a sleeping mat – but not much else. Logbooks record the visitors and guests. I added my name and comment, before pushing on.

 

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Laggangarn Stones, K. Manwaring 2017

The other highlight in the forest was the Laggangarn (or ‘gairn’) Stones – two megaliths (possibly the remains of a stone circle, Christianised with crosses (as the way intersects with a pilgrimage route to the Isle of Whithorn, where St Ninian made landfall and first brought Christianity to pagan Scotland). In the late afternoon, feeling fatigued, I had an epiphany – I felt (and not for the first time) that walking in this big country expands your soul – you feel ‘bigger’, but not in an egotistical way. It just makes you realise how much we ‘shrink’ ourselves to fit into our lives. We limit ourselves when we can be so much more. Our true glory awaits, ennobled by the hills.

 

 

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Galloway Hills, K. Manwaring 2017

 

Sounding the Heights

Walking the Southern Upland Way

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Summit of Ochiltree Hill, Day 3 (New Luce to Bargrennan), K. Manwaring, 3 July 2017

 

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.

 

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Starting Point, Portpatrick, Photograph by Chantelle Smith, 1st July 2017

 

 

Lighting Bríghíd’s Flame

 

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In the Old Chapel, St Briavel’s, Midsummer 2017. Photography by 2017

The inspiration for our new show – Bríghd’s Flame (we pronounce it ‘breed’) – came when Chantelle and I explored Ireland back in the summer of 2015. Our 2500 mile road trip (much of it on the back of my Triumph Legend motorcycle) took us to many places associated with Irish myths and legends: Croagh-patrick, Tara, Knocknarea, Carrowmore, Uisneach, Newgrange and Kildare. The latter inspired the spark of our show – to visit a site associated with the blacksmith goddess Brighid and the sacred flame of St Brigid was thrilling. As was the extra-ordinary ‘Cave of the Cat’, accessed via a small hole beneath a hawthorn tree, this intense, visceral place is associated with the Morrighan and boasts an ogham inscription in its lintel stone claiming it to be the burial place of the son of Medb, the great queen who haunted WB Yeats and whose mighty mound can be found dominating the coastline of his beloved Sligo. By the time we left Ireland we knew we’d create one of our distinctive ‘ballad and tale’ shows around the sites and their mythos. It would take a couple of years and alot of effort (far more than perhaps some realize), but we finally achieved this dream – on Saturday 24th June with the premiere of our show at ‘Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder’, a launch event organised by Inkubus Sukkubus for their new album, Belas Knapp, as the atmospheric setting of St Briavel’s, a haunted Norman castle deep in the Forest of Dean.  We started seriously discussing the show around Samhain, but it was at Yuletide that I came up with the post-apocalyptic framing narrative that would provide the ‘spine’ of the show, with its 4 main tales (Finn and the Salmon of Wisdom; Cuchullain and the Warrior Women; Oisín and Niamh; the Children of Lir – told uniquely in my way, with my words); 5 beautiful new songs and arrangements by Chantelle; new poems by yours truly; and incidental music on harp, bodhran and shruti box (once again by the talented Ms Smith). Both of us really pulled out the stops, creatively. Then there were the rehearsals, the costumes, the poster, the promotional copy … and the logistics of getting bookings and so forth. If it was all for one event it would have been too much really – insanity, even – but we have a small tour lined up and hopefully other dates that will materialize. St Briavel’s was the start – but what a start! It was great to finally share the show – and with such a well-informed, attentive, and appreciative audience. The Old Chapel looked fantastic – low lighting, candles, fairy lights draped from ancient beams … Atmosphere like that does half the work in a performance. But midsummer day was hot and there was no real seating in the hall until I gently insisted on some. Benches were brought in from the banquet room, but still it was standing room only for some. Yet the amazing Inkie audience stuck with us (and perhaps literally to each other)! Afterwards we got lots of great comments – such as ‘utterly amazing’; and ‘thank you – your stories unlocked the symbolism and wisdom for me’ – people had clearly ‘got’ the show and lapped up its magickal imagery, music, narrative and verse. We look forward to bringing Bríghíd’s Flame to more audience this summer and beyond.

 

***Thank you to Candia and Tony McKormack of Inkubus Sukkubus & our fellow Fire Springs Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis for providing support & a space to glow***

 

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Chantelle ready for action, St Briavel’s Midsummer 2017. Photo by K. Manwaring 2017

 

BRIGHIDS FLAME POSTER new

Forthcoming dates:

  • Druid Camp 27-29 July
  • New Forest Fairy Fest, 12-13 August
  • Everybody’s Reading Festival, Leicester, 30 September
  • Dorset Earth Mysteries, 7 December

For updates, see website: http://brighidsflame.co.uk/

 

Walled Garden, Hawkwood

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So soon now the midsummer
builds like a migraine,
a pressure in the head.
The sun rucks the sky,
stuns us into submission.

Drunken bees tumble
dark poppy heads ~
with their forgetful secrets.
Under the nets the strawberries
quietly bloom to fullness.

How sweet the seed
that from the bitter earth
erupts, clamouring for
the spell of light and
the kiss of rain.

Each thorn snags
a bud of dew,
sap swims up
the hidden rivers
of roots and stream.

Green blood pulses
and pushes life up
and out with a broken
cry of yes. And the trees
nurse us asleepwake

with their beards of birds.

 

Kevan Manwaring

14 June 2017

 

 

Bard of Hawkwood 2017

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Centre – Madeleine Harwood, Bard of Hawkwood 2017

3 years ago I set up the Bard of Hawkwood contest to promote community creativity. This, along with Stroud Out Loud! – the monthly spoken word showcase I founded – offers a way for budding bards to hone their fledgling talents in an inclusive, supportive way. It is not the only way of doing things but it works here in Stroud and the Five Valleys, where there is a wealth of local talent and traditions of artistic heritage, alternative lifestyles, radical thinking, and grassroots activity. The Bardic Chair tradition and revival is something I have explored in my book, The Bardic Chair: inspiration, invention, innovation (1st published by RJ Stewart Books in 200, a new edition of the book is forthcoming).

RJ Stewart Books, 2008

The revival of English Bardic Chairs is largely down to one man, Tim Sebastian. The Arch-Druid of Wiltshire and the Secular Order of Druids. I had the pleasure to know Tim during my time in the city of Bath. I won the Bardic Chair he set up in 1996 (becoming Bard of Bath in 1998). He died in 2007 and the book is dedicated to him. This book, and the others I have written about the Bardic Tradition (Speak Like Rain: letters to a young bard, Awen, 2004; The Bardic Handbook, Gothic Image 2006; The Way of Awen, O Books 2010), as well as my training and experience in Arts in Community Development, inform my endeavours – providing platforms for creativity that celebrate local distinctiveness, diversity, and transcultural empathy. Now more than ever we need to hear one another’s stories and sing the songs of soil and soul.

 

Here’s the Press Release announcing the new Bard of Hawkwood – feel free to reblog, tweet or share….

The New Bard of Hawkwood Announced

After a gripping contest at the Hawkwood College May Day festival Monday 1st May, the new Bard of Hawkwood has been announced: Madeleine Harwood, who won with her original song, ‘Right Way Up’.

Madeleine said afterwards: ‘I shared the room with some extremely talented individuals and so I am very humbled to have been chosen as this year’s Bard. I look forward to working hard over the coming months to really promote everything the the Bardic Chair stands for.’

The Bard of Hawkwood contest – an annual competition for the best poet, singer or storyteller in the Five Valleys area – was founded in 2014 by Stroud-based writer Kevan Manwaring (a previous winner of the Bard of Bath contest). The theme, chosen by the outgoing bard, Anthony Hentschel, was: Contentment (or Resistance). Each entrant also had to read out a ‘bardic statement’ describing their plans if they were to win. The role lasts for a year and a day.

Madeleine will get to sit in the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood – an original Eisteddfod chair, dating from 1882, kindly loaned by Frampton-based solicitor Richard Maisey, in whose family it has been for generations. It is on permanent display at Hawkwood College. The new bard will get to set the theme for next year’s contest, announced in the winter. Future contestants then have until 23 April to enter an original story, song or poem, and must be able to perform at next year’s Hawkwood May Day Festival.

Kevan says: ‘The Bard of Hawkwood becomes the ambassador for the Bardic Chair, Hawkwood College, and their area. Having been a winner myself I know how empowering it can be – not only for the individual recipient, but also for their respective community. It is about celebrating local distinctiveness, fostering civic pride, and loving where you live.’

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If you would like to be involved in the Bard of Hawkwood contest, Stroud Out Loud! or creative community in the Stroud area, get in touch.