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)
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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
Source: Sounding the Heights
Walking the Southern Upland Way
Over the last three years I have wound down from the academic year by walking a long distance footpath. In 2014, it was Hadrian’s Wall (84 miles), undertaken with my partner, Chantelle Smith, an archaeologist and folksinger; in 2015, I walked the West Highland Way (96 miles) solo; and last year, Offa’s Dyke (177 miles), with Chantelle joining me for a couple of days. And so I find myself in a bit of a self-imposed bind now – having to raise my game every year. But I like challenges, and so I opted for the Southern Upland Way (212 miles), which is described as the longest and ‘most challenging’ LDP (to adopt the acronym of the LDWA – sorry, Long Distance Walkers Association) north of the Border. This was suggested by a cycling couple I stayed with in Glasgow last year on my way south from Wester Ross (thank you, Peter and Amanda!) as an alternative to the very popular Pennine Way. As I have been researching the folk traditions of the Scottish Borders for my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester since 2014 (part-time) I felt already familiar with its psychogeography. I had explored the area on my Triumph Legend motorbike, visiting key folkloric sites, but nothing substitutes getting to know a place on foot. Apart from a visit in the early 90s, when I spent a windy night on the Trimontium of the Eildon Hills, I hadn’t walked the apparently ‘bleak’ hill-country so often the backdrop to a car or train journey crossing the Scottish Border en route to Glasgow, Edinburgh or beyond. And so I planned a two week walking holiday with my partner, who would provide ‘backup’ while spending the days recording folk ballads in situ (two bards with one song, so to speak). I had long ago decided that the backpacking experience over a long distance is not for me – I have nothing to prove except to myself and have no wish to make it a slog. A 25 litre daysac is sufficient for my needs – the rest can be dealt with by a luggage transfer company. In this case, we would be using three ‘base-camps’ over the fortnight from which I will be dropped off and picked up at the relevant section (on some occasions being able to walk from or to the campsite when it coincides with my day’s itinerary). This would mean the minimum of hassle and the maximum of comfort – a large tent, air bed, pillows, body heat, etc (as opposed to the small tent, thin mat, light sleeping bag and minimal kit I used in previous trips). After all, it was meant to be a holiday too. Not having to pitch the tent and take it down in the morning was a blessed relief after or before a long day – and alternating cooking helped too (some days we opted for take-aways or dining out). Nae bother. I went for the ‘sensible’ itinerary, which still required some hard-core slogs of twenty miles odd on some days (over 1000 ft plus hills and bog) – planning to complete it in 14 days, averaging 17 miles a day (with no rest days, but a couple of short sections). This felt saner than the 25-27 mile days which the guidebook cites! Each day I chose a ballad to keep me going (a habit I picked up from walking and warbling along the West Highland Way), although in practise I moved organically through my repertoire as the occasion, terrain, weather or mood compelled – anything to keep my spirits up and my legs moving. Each day, I added a song to my ‘current’ playlist – downloaded into my head from my walker’s songbook – so by the end of the walk I was able to sing 14 or more songs from memory. I took photos more as an aide memoire than to win any awards, but I did find the experience a very visual one this time as I slipped into a non-verbal space for most of the day (beyond the odd song, I didn’t really ‘think’ in words much at all). Working with words intensely throughout the year (teaching, writing, editing, performing, MCing, etc) means I value a space where I can savour long periods of silence and solitude – essential for my sanity. To leave behind the chattering world for a while was a real pleasure – I intentionally avoided the news and social media, a digital detox to augment my academic one. I wanted to be fully present and to have a visceral, embodied experience beyond words for once. By spending time in nature, in quietude, I hoped to be able to ‘hear myself think’ again, and to restore meaning and magic to language again. Without forcing anything, I let the natural balm of the hills work their charm. I walked for days sometimes without seeing a single soul – a dream-like experience when you’re traversing a moorland with people-less views for 10 miles in every direction. This suited me fine. As with the thoughts and words – I greeted warmly any kind-eyed stranger who happened to cross my path – but I did not go out of my way to seek them.
Just finished walking the Southern Upland Way where I created a similar ‘songline’ to keep myself going over the long miles. Until I blog about that here’s a wee reminder of last year’s trek.
Off by yourself you could sing those songs to bring yourself back.
Gary Snyder, ‘Good, Wild, Sacred’
Offa’s Dyke Path, descending southwards from the Jubilee Tower, 1821 ft (555 m) . K. Manwaring 2016
Inspired by my experience of walking the West Highland Way last year, when I found myself bursting spontaneously into song (see ‘Let the Mountain Sing its Own Song’, The London Magazine, Oct/Nov 2015) I decided to pack in my mental rucksack some ballads to warble as I hiked the Offa’s Dyke Path from north to south earlier this month (6-16 July). I chose a different ballad for each day of the walk, creating ‘A Walker’s Songbook’, which I printed off to help me learn the lyrics on the hoof. Every morning in my tent over porridge and a cuppa I would cram the lyrics into my skull, and…
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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***
- 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/
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.
14 June 2017