Southern Upland Way 2003

Author: George Tod

This walk is illustrated with photographs. Click on small photo to enlarge in situ, or click caption to enlarge into new window.
Part 6 - Longformacus to Cockburnspath, then Home

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Day 14 - Tuesday 10th June - Longformacus to Cockburnspath

Distance: 18.5 miles + 1 mile to B&B, Ascent: 1,700 ft

I had an 8 a.m. breakfast along with a couple who were taking a short break whilst their kids were away at camp. I had ordered a full breakfast last night, but had had a mind to cross out a few items, but Pat took the sheet away before I thought to do so. I was presented with bacon, egg, tomato, fried bread, mushrooms, beans and three large sausages, along with a large rack of toast. The couple had the same, and we were all struggling to eat it when Pam came in with another plate with yet more toast and some toasted teacakes. I had to leave one sausage and nearly all of the toast, as I was still full from last night's meal. The other chap left about the same as I, whilst his wife had to leave about half of hers.

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Whiteadder Water from Black Weil
Whiteadder Water

I set off at 9 a.m. It had rained overnight, but was now a little brighter, as I made my way down to the village, then up over grassy moorland. There are a number of fine country houses in this area, as it was obviously a popular retreat for the gentry in bygone days. The way gave good views over open country, with the red earth of a number of ploughed fields standing out from the greenery, and the walking was easy. The sun came out a little, although the weather was still unsettled, with heavy clouds from time to time. After a few miles of open moorland, the way entered some forest along a steep hillside above Whiteadder Water, and still afforded some views of the landscape through the trees. The sun came out again as I came out of the trees and dropped down by the river, so I took advantage of this to take a short break at 11.30 a.m. When I set off again, it was not long before I reached Abbey St. Bethans where, after crossing the river on a footbridge, the path follows the river bank for a while with colourful rhododendrons along the way. I must admit that I expected to see the ruins of an abbey somewhere, but there was nothing to be seen, and the route departed from the village up a wooded valley beside a burn before making for higher ground up a grassy hillside. There was a dogleg diversion to the path up the hill round some newly planted conifers, before it levelled out and headed for a large cairn with a weather vane on top. This was built to commemorate the land having been in the same family for 100 years from 1848 to 1948.

Another small diversion took the path around Whiteburn Farm, instead of through the farmyard, which is what has happened in many places around the country. At this point, it started to rain a little, so I made my way to the small plantation ahead to take shelter under some trees. It was only five minutes before the rain had passed over and I was able to continue a little further. The sky was not looking good, and half a mile further on the rain started again, but this time it looked as if were set in for longer. I was not far from another plantation, so I took shelter under a sycamore, where I decided to have some lunch, whilst waiting to see what the weather would do. The tree gave me reasonable shelter for a while, but it soon reached the point where there was a lot of water dripping down through the leaves, especially when they were caught by the wind. I was left with little option but to put on my waterproof jacket and continue along the way. The heaviest of the rain passed over, but there still seemed to be more to come, so I pressed on further, taking shelter under a conveniently placed tree from another heavy downpour a little later.

Before long, I turned round and found that the sky was clearing, with large patches of blue sky heading my way. The scenery around here was that of rolling grassy hills, none of them particularly high, punctuated by small plantations. It left me with the distinct impression that all the high hills and wild moorland had now been left behind and that the next thing to look forward to was the North Sea Coast. Having had rather a short, uncomfortable lunch break, I took advantage of the sunshine to take a longer break with my boots off, albeit very close to the busy A1 road and the main east coast railway line.

Suitably refreshed, I crossed the A1 and followed the way along the route of the old A1, between the new road and the railway line. This was not the most picturesque, as it had been used for fly tipping in places. Just where the way turned to cross over the railway line, there was a touring caravan that appeared to have taken up permanent residence, as it had a post erected in the ground with a letter box on it.

Now it was time to enter a conifer plantation for the very last time on the walk. In fairness, it wasn't too bad, as there was a lovely grass track, which had recently been mown, the sun was streaming down through the trees, and there were some mixed broad leafed trees for part of the way. Patches of gorse and some foxgloves added a splash of colour, as the way took a large zigzag in order to climb the hillside. Eventually, at the top of the hill, an open scene suddenly appeared, with the sea and coast straight ahead, but with the huge building of Torness Power Station further up the coast somewhat detracting from the view. A pleasant track led down to the impressive Pease Bridge, a road bridge built in 1783, over 100 ft. above the gorge. A path led down through the Pease Dean Nature Reserve towards the sea, where the view opened out onto a huge caravan park by an otherwise beautiful bay, with red cliffs and a fine coastal view to the east.

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North Sea from top of Pease Dean, with Torness Power Station to left
North Sea from Pease Dean
Pease Sands westwards from Red Rock
Pease Sands

The route leads up the road, then onto a path on the cliff tops, making a lovely end to the walk in the bright sunshine but with a bracing wind. Here I took another short break, about a mile from the finish, before continuing and taking a look at Cove Harbour. For a coast to coast walk, this would seem to be the logical finishing point, and it is a lovely little place with a track leading round to one side of the harbour and a pedestrian tunnel through the cliffs leading to the other. However, the official finish is in Cockburnspath, about half a mile inland so, for the sake of completeness, I walked to the Southern Upland Way notice board next to the inn marked on my map. However, the inn has now closed and is a private house, so there was no chance of a pint to celebrate the end of the walk. Whilst I was there, I checked the times of the buses for the morning, and found that the 9.20 a.m. bus reached Dunbar at 9.55 a.m., just five minutes before my train departed. However, I had been offered a lift, if I needed it, by Evelyn, the farmer's wife at my B&B, so this seemed the safer option.

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Cove Harbour at low tide
Cove Harbour
End of Southern Upland Way at Cockburnspath
End of Way, Cockburnspath

I made my way back to Linhead Farm, half a mile out of Cockburnspath, and had a shower and a cup of tea before setting out to find a meal. I had been told that the only place to eat nearby was at the caravan park that I had passed on the way, so I made my way down there, resigned to the fact that I would not be able to get a drink. When I got there, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the place had a fully licensed bar, the only problem being that there were notices stating that it was only open to members, and that to obtain membership one had to apply to reception with two photographs. I went in there anyway and found that they weren't bothered about membership and were quite happy to serve me without any, presumably glad of the custom on a quiet evening. I had steak and kidney pie followed by sticky toffee pudding with ice cream, and a few pints of Belhaven Best.

The only problem with finishing a walk on a beautiful evening is that it is more of a pity for it to come to an end and to have to return to the real world. Ending a walk in the cold and wet is not such a disappointment but, on balance I was happier with it being so nice, as it enabled me to wander down to the beach and reflect on my memories of the walk. As the tide was still out, I decided to walk round to Cove Harbour along the shore. This involved a lot of hopping and clambering over rocks, but was an enjoyable way to spend the last evening. I was amazed at the variety of different colours in all the pebbles and stones on the beach, and at all the different rock formations. I came across a huge pile of bricks rounded off by the action of the sea and wondered what building they had come from.

Rather than going straight back to Linhead Farm, I decided to take another look at Cockburnspath, as I had a nagging doubt that I had missed the real finish at the market cross mentioned in my guidebook. However, there was nothing whatsoever mentioning the Southern Upland Way when I got there, so the official finish must have been moved to the notice board. In fact, Cockburnspath has nothing much to offer the walker, other than a small shop and a two hourly bus service between Berwick and Edinburgh. There is not even any accommodation there, as all the B&Bs listed are in farms some way from the village.

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Day 15 - Wednesday 11th June - Cockburnspath to Home via Dunbar and Edinburgh

There had been a change of circumstances at my B&B, as Evelyn had changed jobs and had to set off at 8 a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays so she was no longer taking bookings for Tuesday or Thursday nights. However, as I had booked before she had changed jobs, she still honoured the booking. The only difference was that I had a 7.15 a.m. breakfast and had a lift to Dunbar, arriving a little after 8 a.m. with nearly two hours before my train was due.

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Harbour at Dunbar
Harbour at Dunbar
North from Dunbar towards Firth of Forth
with Bass Rock to right
N from Dunbar

It was a beautiful morning and already quite warm, so I walked down by the beach and round the interesting old harbour where a grey seal was swimming lazily around and causing some consternation to the seabirds. From the north of the town, the far side of the Firth of Forth could be clearly seen, as well as Bass Rock, with its lighthouse and the Isle of May, further away. As the time for my train approached, I made my way back through the town centre to the station. My ticket showed my first change was at Haymarket without any town being specified, and I had assumed that this was in Newcastle, as this was on the way south. Fortunately, however, I discovered that it was in Edinburgh, otherwise I could easily have gone off in the wrong direction, as the trains were only five minutes apart. I had about an hour and a half between trains in Edinburgh, so I got off at Waverley Station so that I could walk along Princes Street, then up by the castle, where they were erecting seating for the forthcoming festival, and through West Princes Street Gardens. Signposting doesn't seem to be a strong point around Edinburgh, but I kept on in the general direction of the railway line, which disappeared underground for some way, until I reached Haymarket Station and I just had enough time for a pint of McEwans 80/- on draught before catching the Virgin Aberdeen to Penzance train.

At some point, I must have crossed the Southern Upland Way, probably at Moffat, but it is difficult to see where you are when these inter-city trains speed through stations too quickly for the signs to be read. The rest of the journey was uneventful, but I felt that, with all my extra diversions that I had added another interesting day onto the walk rather than it just being devoted to travelling back. The only other interesting thing about my train journeys was that, of the six trains that I travelled on, I had a reserved seat shown on my ticket for five of them, but the only train that was operating a reserved seat system was the one for which I had no seat allocated. This was of no real consequence, only that it was a little annoying to hunt for the correct carriage and seat, only to find that it had not been reserved and that someone was sitting there.

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The Southern Upland Way proved to be a good long distance walk in parts but, as I had anticipated from the outset, there were considerable stretches of tedious walking through conifer plantations and along minor roads, particularly in the earlier part of the walk. Every long distance walk has some tedious sections, but this one had more than I felt happy with. I think that part of the problem lies in the fact that very few people walk the area to the west, so there are not many established footpaths. When putting the walk together, it was presumably easier to link up a number of forest tracks and roads with sections of footpath rather than to forge a completely new, more interesting route, through virgin territory. In fairness, many of the forest sections are not nearly as bad as they would appear on the map, and there are constant attempts to improve them further but, in some places, nothing short of a major change of route would do the trick.

I must, however, congratulate both Dumfries and Galloway Council and the Scottish Borders Council for the excellent job they have done in waymarking and maintaining the route, as it is one of the best long distance paths that I have come across from this point of view. Their idea of putting large information boards by each section of the walk, and having leaflet boxes at strategic points to distribute accommodation guides and interesting information is also excellent, as are the efforts of the rangers. The 'Waymerk' initiative adds an extra dimension for those who like to combine treasure hunting with their walking, and is another commendable idea to attract a wider range of people. Unfortunately, for all this good work, which should help to bring some much needed cash into the local economy, the number of walkers is still rather disappointing. Many more people are attracted to the more spectacular scenery of the West Highland Way than to the gentler Southern Upland Way scenery. Perhaps some people are put off by the apparent difficulty of breaking up some of the longer sections of the walk where there is no accommodation to hand, but this is not as much of a problem as it at first seems. Many B&Bs are prepared to arrange pickups and set downs at convenient points, so there is no need to take on excessive distances in one go. Others may be worried about walking in such remote areas, but they are not generally as remote as they seem. There may not be many towns or villages around, but there are farms scattered widely throughout even the most remote places, should anyone need help in an emergency. In fact, a lot of the walking in remote parts is on tracks or roads, where it is possible for vehicles to gain access.

From my own point of view, I would have been a lot happier for this walk to take a higher level route in many places, in which case it would live up to the 'Upland' part of its name, rather than being a walk that goes through the Southern Uplands. This would probably entail much more negotiation with landowners regarding access, and would make the walk more strenuous, thus requiring extra time to complete, but I think the walk would be that much the better for it.

Overall, I did still enjoy the walk, and this was helped by favourable weather most of the way. On the whole walk, I only had my waterproofs on for perhaps four hours. There was quite a bit of rain, but most of it fell overnight, so didn't cause me any trouble. The problems that often occur with long, wet grass were not apparent because so much of the walk is on well made tracks and roads rather than on footpaths, and my feet never got particularly wet at any stage. I had also taken more cold weather clothing including a hat and gloves, than I do on most walks, anticipating more bleak exposed terrain and bad weather conditions than I actually found, so this never got used.

The other thing that I had been warned of, the midges, caused me very little trouble. A lot depends on weather conditions at the time, but early in the year they are very little trouble, whereas later on they can be a nightmare, and have caused a number of walkers to pack in and go home. I went prepared with insect repellent and bite relief, but used neither. I did find a few bites, particularly round the tops of my socks, but not enough to worry about.

Of all the walks that I have completed, some have been very sociable affairs with a considerable number of fellow walkers that I have kept bumping into along the way, and others have been lonely walks where I have hardly met a soul. This was very much of the latter case. I met nobody who was doing the whole walk, and only near the more populated areas in the east did I meet up with any walkers at all. It doesn't particularly trouble me if I have no company, as I often find that it can distract from enjoying the scenery if I am too busy talking to someone. However, where it is really advantageous to meet others, is in the evenings, to have a good chat over a pint in the pub.

The guidebook that I used suffered from a number of basic inaccuracies, but mainly from the fact that it was several years out of date and didn't take into account recent route changes. However, that was not really a problem, as the route is so well waymarked that it could almost be walked without a guidebook at all. There is another guidebook published by the Ordnance Survey, which has taken over as the official guide, and is probably more accurate and up to date. It costs a few pounds more, but it may be worth paying the extra to get a better book, especially as both books manage to fit the whole walk into one volume and, therefore, avoid both the cost and weight of the two volumes that some walks of a similar distance occupy.

On my walks, I spend quite a bit of time writing these diaries as I go along, as I could never trust to my memory to put them on paper later. When I got back home, together with a rather smelly pile of washing, I took off the rest of my clothes for Jean to put in the washing machine whilst I had a bath. When I had finished, I suddenly realised that, although I had emptied out the main pockets of my trousers, my diary was in another pocket down the leg. I rushed out to the washing machine and managed to retrieve a soggy mess, which looked more like papier mâché than a diary. However, a few hours of separating out and ironing managed to retrieve most of the information, although some of the outer layers had suffered quite badly and needed a bit of memory and guesswork to fill in the missing bits.

My feet, which had fared quite well in general on this walk, had been giving me some problems in the latter stages because the padding at the heels had been wearing away. I first noticed this about half way through the walk, and it continued to make my heels rather sore for the remainder of the way. It was a pity, because I had found the boots to be extremely comfortable in every other respect, and I was sorry that this defect spoiled them. When I got back home, I returned them to the shop together with the receipt showing that they had only been bought about five weeks earlier. I didn't like to point out that I had walked about 250 miles in them during that time, although the problem had first started after about 150 miles. There was no problem about returning them, and I was offered either some replacement boots or a refund. I opted for some more boots of the same make, but of a more conventional construction, without the GoreTex lining and the foam padding and, as they cost less, I also got a refund of £10.

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