Category Archives: Long-distance footpath

Hitting the Wall

 

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Sometimes you need a little help to make it through …

Anyone who has ever undertaken something difficult will know that there often comes a time when you really feel like you can’t go on. You’ve given it your best. You’ve done all the right things.

And you’ve got nothing left.

You hope you’ve reached the brow of the hill (one that has been one hell of a slog to get up), and can coast for a while – perhaps even race down to the finish line, euphoric at your accomplishment. But then, looming before you, is another summit, another hurdle, another bloody hoop to jump through. Obstacles bar your way, obstructing your line of desire – that wished-for completion — or maybe it’s just the realization of the sheer distance left to go, the gulf between your vision and the reality.

These reality checks, if they’ve been brought to your attention by allies (those with critical, constructive perspective, but ultimately rooting for you — rather than envious threshold guardians acting out their own issues) can be an essential part of the process.

Yet they’re still a pain in the arse.

Sometimes these critical slam-downs can even be devastating – completely knocking the wind from your sails, your confidence; your belief in your vision or craft; even your whole identity. If you’re feeling low anyway then the effect can be irredeemably crushing with sometimes catastrophic consequences. As this scenario is all too common in academe, there is major student support in place at universities these days – Wellbeing Services offering counselling and advice. Safety nets, tea and sympathy. I can sympathise as this week I experienced just this level of ‘knockback’ – I don’t want to go into the gory details, but suffice to say it was gutting. I was down and seriously considering some extreme options (in terms of my current PhD project). Things looked pretty bleak at the beginning of the week.

But a couple of things really helped me.

The first was running. Any physical exercise would be good – especially the cardio-vascular kind, as raising a sweat releases endorphins and blasts out any negativity. I found this to be exactly the case when I did a long training run – afterwards I felt in a far better place. More resilient, more able to cope with the ‘bad news’. Able to roll with the punch and come out fighting. Time and time again I’ve experienced the well-being effects of running, cycling or a good hike. And within these, if you’re undertaking a physical challenge like a half-marathon – then sooner or later you encounter ‘the wall’, as it’s referred to, familiar with marathon-runners all over the world. This is the moment when your body starts to shut down – you’re exhausted – and you really have to dig deep to keep going, sometimes running, cycling, hiking, etc, through the pain. I had to do just this mid-week, on my 13.5 mile training run. Those last 5 miles were tough, but I paused, refuelled, and girded my loins. It really all comes down to attitude, to mental stamina. Getting your head around what it is you’re facing, and soldiering on.

At the beginning of the week I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task ahead of me and I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel. Then I stepped back from it – went for the run – and looked at it all again.

What really helped me to ‘reframe’ the seemingly insurmountable challenge was talking about it – with my partner and with my supervisor.

After a thorough session at the end of the week with my supervisor I was willing to accept that I just have to knuckle down and get it finished. That the project wasn’t dead in the water – in fact, it is on track, and this ‘big push’ is merely the expected final stage, one that makes the difference between something being good and being excellent. I could accept the way my craft is now, or, keep going, and attempt to raise it to the next level.

To work through ‘the wall’. This is where the long-distance running has really helped me in facing this test of stamina and will. I will dig deep and I will keep going, and I will finish this thing.

Anything worth achieving is down to the difficulty involved. If it was easy, then accomplishing it would mean little (although of course we all have our own mountains to climb, and what is a minor hurdle for one person is a massive achievement for someone else). I have set myself a tough challenge – a creative and intellectual one – and I only have myself to blame! But while my heart and mind is set on this quest, then I shall endeavour to see it through properly to the end.

Whether I succeed or fail I shall at least I know that I gave it my very best shot, and didn’t give up at this critical stage.

Adjust your mental furniture and it’s amazing what you can achieve: you can even walk through walls.

 

 

 

 

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Walking with a King

It is a dream I have…

(Merlin, Excalibur, Boorman, 1981)

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Tintagel at dusk, K. Manwaring, 1 September 2017

I have just returned from undertaking a 60-odd mile walk in Cornwall on the trail of King Arthur. As I sit here nursing my blisters and aching bones (carrying a full pack – camping along the way – can be punishing) I reflect upon why I embarked upon such an apparently foolhardy quest… At times it certainly felt so as I traipsed along B-roads in the rain, facing oncoming traffic when I was left with no other choice than to take the metalled backlanes. I experienced the worst rain ever on one of my long distance walks – beating even the Highlands – a day of perpetual heavy deluge that left everything soaked and my spirits sapped. And I had to negotiate the ridiculous fastnesses of large estates with ‘private roads’ which on the OS map look just like farm tracks (in Scotland the access laws are far more lenient).

Yet despite all of that there were breaks in the cloud – glorious mornings overlooking dramatic coves, the light sublime on silver and pewter seas, sun-dappled hollow lanes and secret paths, charming villages and harbours, and of course the legend-soaked landmarks. And yet even that may not have warranted such exertion – I had visited most of the ‘Arthur’ sites before (Tintagel; Castle Dore; Tristan stone) and there are certainly easier ways of getting to them, but that would have been missing the point – for my intent was to create a kind of ‘pilgrimage’ route. And as any pilgrim knows, the greater the effort, the greater the effect – the epiphany is direct relation to the ardour of the journey. To rock up on an air-con coach to a site, alight, take a few selfies, buy a bit of tourist tat, shove an ice-cream in your face and wobble on board again – bucket list item ticked, but not truly seen, heard, felt or savoured – is not the same experience as someone who has arrived at the site either on foot, on push-bike or on horse-back. Yes, there’s a place for all kinds of visitor – not everyone is mobile and these places are for all (as long as the tourism doesn’t destroy them).

But I know which one I prefer.

As an example, I have visited Avebury stone circle many times, but the instance that was most impactful was when I had walked there over 4 days along the Ridgeway – arriving with something analogous to the consciousness of a Neolithic pilgrim. The effect was euphoric (I’m sure those who have undertaken the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu feel the same). So, I’ve visited most of the sites on this trip recently (some this year) but this was qualitatively different. I was going it alone, under my own steam, working out the route as I went (rather than following an established trail). I like the creative challenge of finding links between places. There is a narrative there in the landscape waiting for us to notice it.

Yet, why King Arthur?

I was obsessed with all things Arthurian in my early twenties – and that compelled to go on pilgrimage to Glastonbury and other sites associated with his legend. And in my early thirties I co-created and performed in a 2 hour show called ‘Arthur’s Dream’ with Fire Springs. And in my early forties I wrote my Arthurian novel, a dystopian vision of an alternative Britain (This Fearful Tempest). But these waves of Arthurian fever are often followed by Arthurian fatigue. My reference books lay on their shelves neglected.

And now … all of that seems so remote, belonging to a more innocent time (remember the ‘New Age’ and the optimism that built up towards the Millennium?). Now we live in times which are far more overtly cynical, dangerous and wilfully antagonistic to intellectual discourse, liberal values, religious and ethnic tolerance, gender equality and human rights. Don’t we have a duty to engage with that, rather than running off physically or mentally, creating castles in the air, losing ourselves in fantasy or the nostalgia of the past? Perhaps, but burn out reduces the capacity to be effective in any capacity, so breaks, holidays, retreats, etc, are essential. Also, we are most effective when using our strengths and talents – in my case, and in the case of many of my friends, that’s creatively. The ‘war’ we’re embroiled – whether we like it or not – is a war of ideas that takes place in hearts and minds. That is where toxic or beneficial concepts flower or whither, take root, prosper or die.

Ideas, as they say, are bullet-proof.

One idea that has survived the centuries is that of Camelot (e.g. JFK’s use of it in the early 60s). I am not personally interested in whether King Arthur actually existed or not – trying to prove that he was this or that person, lived here or there … I think that’s missing the point.  If a 6th Century battle-chief existed called ‘Arthur’ (Arturo, Artus …) then he would have been a very different leader than the one rendered in the courtly romances, as would have been his ‘knights’. The Arthur of the early Celtic tales gives us a glimmer, perhaps – he’s far less sympathetic (Trystan and Isseult), more pro-active (The Spoils of Annwn), and often deep in gore (The Celtic Triads). Lorna Smithers listing of his ‘war-crimes’ (see her provocative poem, ‘Wanted’, on her blog Signposts in the Mists) is a sobering counter-spell to the Medieval glamour which has lingered ever since, the fairy dust that will not fade – but is perhaps one extreme of a spectrum, with the numerous awful movie versions at the other end (John Boorman’s Excalibur being the shining exception) ‘truth’ being somewhere in the middle.

Yet there is an Arthur for all of us – he is a malleable construct that changes through the decades. He epitomized one thing for the Victorians (the noble cuckold; the tragic martyr torn between lofty ideals and earthly desires, skeletons in the cupboard and Christian imperialism); another for the Post-War generation (a dream of unity, however flawed); another for the Counter-Culture (Merlin as the original Gandalf; Mordred as the rebellious anti-hero); another for the New Age (feminist revisionist treatments reappraising the role of women in the Arthuriad and problematizing the patriarchal hierarchy of it all). Arthur ‘exists’ as a cultural meme, as a literary figure, as an ideal – and it is the latter that most engages me at present.

For despite his questionable reputation and historical status, Arthur represents the archetype of Kingship. And we are living in an age suffering from the Shadow of that – we suffer under the yoke of so many bad leaders. I am not a Royalist, but I am no anarchist either. We need good leadership now more than ever – both from within and without. It would be naive to assume that if we just ‘sorted ourselves out’ the world would be okay – but it’s a place to start from. Self-actualisation can happen in many ways. Healthy communities are naturally ennobling and mutually empowering, so the process can begin on your doorstep.

But sometimes we need a more intense experience to ‘shift’ things.

My hope in creating a modern pilgrimage route (and this is only the very earliest stages of  long-term project) is that it could be used for rites-of-passage (for all  genders and ages), for leadership training, for the continuation of a living oral tradition (storytelling, poetry and singing along the route), the cultivation of art trails, the promoting of local businesses, rural regeneration, and so forth. Such an endeavour will only come about through collaboration, community involvement, fundraising and sponsorship. To accomplish such a dream will require inspired leadership. But for now – I’ve had the vision, taken the first step (in fact quite a few) and I’ve had a taste of what it feels like to walk along the mythways of Arthur.

 

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Coast to Coast: walking from North to South Cornwall. The view near Polperro, 5 September 2017

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 7 September 2017

 

Walking the Southern Upland Way – The End

 

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The lonely trek across the Lammermuir Hills, K. Manwaring, 13 July 2017

Day 13 – Lauder to Longformacus (15.4)

 

Crossing the bleak and lonely Lammermuir Hills today was a physical and psychological slog today. Clearly I was feeling the effects of the many days and miles (breaching 200 today), because normally this is the kind of hill walking I love. Having blistered, bruised and bunioned feet didn’t help and I felt my body shutting, wanting to stop – but as a long-distance walker you simply have to keep going, pushing through each wave of fatigue. To keep my spirits up I sang my growing repertoire (a dozen songs for this walk – adding ‘Ol’ Groundhog’ today). At least it stayed dry for the most part, as the Lammermuirs are not somewhere you want to get caught out in inclement weather.

 

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Twin Law, K. Manwaring 13 July 2017

The only shelter was provided by the remarkable Twin Cairns, a distinctive landmark of two ‘beehive’ stone-men, with little niches to sit in out of the wind. Here, I rested and ate my lunch – miles from anywhere and anyone, or so I thought until two heads popped up: a couple of walkers, having their lunch in a dip. They seemed to make a brisk exit from this spot, and talking to them I discovered they had been disturbed by an adder, so I had a look when they left, and sure enough, saw one slither into the undergrowth there – clearly instinctively wary of humans, even in such a remote spot. But a thrilling moment, the blessing of the wild. I quickly signed the log-book in the other niche, and left, feeling the temperature drop (not surprising as it’s 445.7 m above sea level). There is an interesting legend behind the place-name:

 

There was once an ancient Scottish chief named Edgar who had twin boys. When the twins were infants, Saxon assailants attacked Edgar’s village, killing many and capturing those not killed. The twin’s nurse was able to escape alongside the chief, but only managed to conceal one of the twins from the invaders.

Many years later, old Edgar and his men again came up against invading Saxons, this time upon the hilltop of the Lammermuirs. As the two sides prepared to fight, the Saxon leader challenged one mighty Scottish warrior to a one-on-one battle. Edgar sent forth his son and an epic battle ensued between the two champions who were matched physically. Steel clashed and blood flowed from the Saxon and Scot, but they fought on until finally the Scot set the final blow upon the Saxon.

Lamenting the death of his leader, an aged Saxon let slip the true identity of the fallen Saxon warrior. He was in fact the lost twin brother, captured in infancy then raised Saxon. Frantic with remorse, and suffering heavily from the battle, the Scot tore the bandages from his wounds and died on the body of his long lost brother.

The two armies, aghast at what had happened, worked side by side to raise two large piles of stones. They stood in a line from the burn to the hilltop, and hand by hand passed stones up the hill to build a lasting memorial to the fallen twins.

Sadly the cairns were used for tank and artillery practice in the Second World War (!) – which says it all about what the war machine makes of brotherly love – but were lovingly restored, and the trig point bears this verse from a ballad about the legend:

“And they biggit twa cairns on the heather
And they biggit them round and high
And they stand on the Twinlaw Hill
Where they twa brithers lie.”

Day 14 – Longformacus to Cocksburnpath (10)

 

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The Route. K. Manwaring, 14 July 2017

 

Some blessedly easy walking today on my last day – which was just as well, as my poor old feet had had enough. But dosed up with painkillers and ‘brassing it out’ (as Peachy says to Danny in The Man Who Wold Be King) I set off, singing my final song of the walk, the beautiful Irish love-song ‘My Lagan Love’ – the remarkable ups-and-downs of its melody seemed to mirror the peaks and troughs of the last two weeks. Perhaps it was just as well no one was there to hear me, but it kept me going. Having got used to seeing no-one I was somewhat surprised when a man appeared behind me, mid-warble, with a little Scottish Terrier. I caught him up eventually and we exchanged pleasant walker banter. He was an early retiree, filling his days with rambling. He was attempting the Southern Upland Way in day walks. When we came to a field of cows, he didn’t want to risk it (his dog was on a lead, but even so, they can make cattle nervous). I suggested he walked with me, and I would ‘ride shotgun’, so to speak – not having a problem seeing off a herd of cows. All you have to do is wave a stick, or make a loud noise. Show them whose boss, and all that. But he didn’t fancy it. So I walked through the field – at first the frisky heifers bolted, but then cut me off before I got to the far gate. So I sang at them and this set them all off lowing. I could hear their song across the fields for quite a distance. Eventually the man and his little dog did reappear, having plucked up the courage – emboldened by my passage through the herd. But the highlight of today was seeing the North Sea for the first time – a sight I had worked hard for. Such a change of landscape (west coast to east) we take for granted today – it’s a journey that could be completed in three to four hours by car – but on foot, by one’s own sweat, it’s another thing entirely. Every landmark, every view, is earned. Changes in geology, in terrain, happen slowly. Step by step. So, beholding the distant glimmer of sea was a euphoric moment – made more so by a collie dog which intercepted as I passed through its farm.

 

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The pleasant Abbey of St Bathans, by Whiteadder water, K. Manwaring, 14 July 2017

As with a black lab I met at St Bathans, it licked me to death (perhaps it was the salt on my skin, although I do tend to attract animals). This canine greeting at my journey’s end made me think of Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, being recognised by his old dog, Argus, who had waited for him, spending his days pining on a dung-heap, until, seeing his master return, he finally expired. This collie, however, trotted off, having seen me through its property. Reaching Pease Bay was a most satisfying moment – and even the unsightly holiday park, with its sardine tins of trailers, didn’t dampen my delight at walking onto that beach, whipping off my boots and socks, and bathing my hot feet in that cool sea. I had made it! #the last couple of miles along the coast to Cockburnspath seemed like a formality really, and the official end point, an anti-climax. There was no fanfare, and no pub to buy a celebratory pint – just the warm glow of having achieved something I had set out to do.

 

 

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‘That was the River, This is the Sea…’ Pease Bay, C. Smith, 14 July 2017

 

I left the Borders with not only an immense sense of satisfaction (combined with blisters and fatigue) but also a deeper knowledge of this fascinating area – I had walked it from coast-to-coast, and its history, geology and psychogeography had been brought to life to me in a visceral, embodied way. I had been inspired, visually, to pick up paint-brush and pencil again; as well in a literary way – writing poems, ideas and this journal and blog. I had a couple of brainwaves on the walk for big creative projects and one I pitched to a publisher (who had asked me for ideas) upon my return. I returned home with a lingering sense of inner peace and quiet determination. Those wild, lonely moors and hills will stay with me. Cultivating your physical stamina translates, I find, into mental stamina; fortitude – against whatever life throws at you; and staying power – to achieve your goals.

 

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End point of the Southern Upland Way, C. Smith, 14 July 2017

 

***Thanks to Chantelle for all her support along the Way***

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 26 July 2016

Walking the Southern Upland Way: Days 10-12

 

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The ‘dappled vale of Heaven…’ The sublime Loch of the Lowes, K. Manwaring 10 July 2017

Day 10: Tibbie Shiels Inn to Traquair

A mercifully shorter walk today. Just as well as I was starting to feel the culminative effects of fatigue – forcing every mile out of my legs and poor, battered feet. After a pleasant drive along the Yarrow valley to St Mary’s Loch, I was dropped off by my balladeer and went to pay my respects at the James Hogg memorial, a handsome statue overlooking Tibbie Shiels Inn and the two lochs, which looked sublime in the soft morning light, mirroring the epitaph beneath Hogg’s feet:

Oft had he viewed as morning rose
the bosom of the lonely Lowes:
oft thrilled his heart at close of even
to see the dappled vales of heaven,
with many a mountain moon and tree
asleep upon saint Mary.

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The handsome James Hogg memorial, K. Manwaring, 10 July 2017

The midges were out in force at the Hogg memorial, making it hard to linger, but I did stop at the loch side to savour the view – which inspired me to have a go at some watercolours when I got home.  It was soothing to be in a purely visual space. After an academic year of teaching, marking and PhD research my brain needed a reboot. Walking long-distances makes me drop down into a zen-like state, my ‘mind in my feet’. I focus upon my breath, on my temperature, my dryness or wetness, energy levels and mood. I have a clear goal for the day – the tangible reward for my efforts – a hill, a view, a landmark. If I get hungry, I eat. If I thirst, I drink. If I tire, I stop. Simple core needs, very little stress, and a whole sky of head-space. Blessed solitude (which makes it possible for me to appreciate people when I see them). Today, as I crossed Blake Muir, I stopped to savour the silence – a peace so deep, so profound, that it was almost a presence. I tried to capture it in my poem, ‘Deep Peace’:

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Deep Peace, by Kevan Manwaring 10 July 2017

It made me realize how content I could be, living somewhere rural and remote, far away from the chattering world – dropping down into a place of spiritual quietude, finding my centre and hearing clearly the inner voice that would guide my pen, the inner vision that would guide my brush. Perhaps one day. For now, I was simply content to be walking in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle, who visited Hogg (fêted for a while by Edinburgh society, whose fripperies he rejected, for ‘He held worldly pomp in high derision’) at the isolated farm of Blackhouse, with its ruinous 14th Century Reivers tower. The Shepherd Ettrick dwelled here between 1790 and 1800, and I can imagine it being conducive to his muse, as it was to mine.

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Blackhouse Tower, former residence of James Hogg, K. Manwaring, 10 July 2017

Day 11: Traquair to Melrose (17.3)

A tiring day. I did pretty fine up to Yair Bridge, the 10 mile point, but seemed to hit a wall after then – slogging up Gala hill and down into the town. I certainly didn’t appreciate the SUW’s reroute into the urban nastiness of Galashiels, a shock to the senses after days and miles of rural quietude. The walk planners clearly wanted us to savour it’s, ahem, delights, but I’d wish they’d given it a wide berth – for those needing facilities and accommodation, lovely Melrose was only a couple of miles up the river. Signs were vandalised, making it unpleasant to navigate through. Losing my patience, I just headed to the Tweed and followed it along. Crazily though, the SUW insists you walk along the side of a housing estate at one point, instead of the sparkling waters of the Tweed. Nevertheless, the last stretch into Melrose along its bonny banks was lovely. The highlight of the day was coming across the Three Brethren cairns (1522 ft), expertly made in a dry-stone wall way (another Goldsworthy?), rhyming with the Trimontium of the Eildon Hills, which now excitingly swing into view: Thomas the Rhymer country! Mythopoetically, I felt like I was coming home – the distinctive three peaks of the Eildons (the remains of a volcanic activity) was the first place I made pilgrimage to, as a young poet, visiting Scotland for the first time back in the early 90s. I had spent a night on them, hoping to meet the Queen of Elfland – instead, my tent nearly blew away. Perhaps she was giving me the brush-off. Today, by the Brethrens I thought of my brothers though – my male friends, who I was beginning to miss. Whenever I spend time in cis-gendered company (male or female) I find I end up craving the opposite after a while. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to have bi/trans/fill-in-the-blanks-yourself company then that shouldn’t be a problem!

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The Three Brethren with the 3 peaks of the Eildon Hills in the distance, K. Manwaring 11 July 2017

Day 12: Melrose to Lauder (10)

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‘The Meetings’ – confluence of the Yarrow and the Ettrick, K. Manwaring 12 July 2017

A mercifully short walk today – a morning’s ramble really. I was able to walk straight from the campsite (one of those ‘Camping & Caravanning Club’ type places, where campers are marginalized – in a sports field, furthest away from the toilet block), crossing over the Chain Bridge, where, the previous night I had sung ‘Both Sides o’ Tweed’, Dick Gaughan’s classic song calling for equality:

Let the love of the lands sacred rites
to the love of the people succeed,
let honour and friendship unite,
and flourish on both sides o’ Tweed.

I had learnt this from my friend Marko Gallaidhe, and I singing it makes me think of that man you don’t meet every day!

For the first time on the SUW today, I bumped into a (day) walker, whom I ended up walking and chatting with for a pleasant half hour – a retired northerner, now living in the Borders, the chap was agreeable company. Perhaps the Three Brethren had heard me after all. I also found time to stop and write an eco-poem, inspired by the news that a massive part of the Carson C ice-shelf had split off. It might seem strange to be composing a poem about climate change in such an idyllic spot, but of course such apparent environmental harmony is an illusion – the world is out of kilter.

 

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Tam Lane’s Well, K. Manwaring, 12 July 2017

Meeting up with Chantelle after lunch, we enjoyed an afternoon of ‘folkloring’. We drove to the Rhymer’s Stone, at the foot of the Eildons, where I performed my version of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’. Then I guided us onto The Meetings, the confluence of the Yarrow and the Ettrick – where a small river island is thought to have been the site of Carterhaugh, dwelling of Tam Lin. Here, at this numinous spot I had first discovered in 2014, I recorded an extract of my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, my PhD novel based upon my research into the folk traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians. It was special to read out a relevant section in situ. The next day, Chantelle returned to record herself singing the ballad of ‘Tam Lin’ – all 40 verses of it by heart! We then went on to find ‘Tam Lane’s Well’ by Carterhaugh Farm. Here I had set a picnic scene, which I read out before the camera died. A couple of years ago we had created a show inspired by the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – ‘The Bonnie Road’, so it felt special to be experiencing this inspiring, ensouled landscape together.

Where wild waters weave
their plaid of shade and light
and ballads tangles in the brier,
two worlds meet, of clay and fey
and passion collides with desire.

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2017

 

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, curlew and peewit (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.

But that’s where I went wrong — and resulted in a 3 hour detour which I won’t bore you with here! Glen Trool was pretty though…

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