#60 HELLWALKING

Abandon hope all ye who enter… LEJoG Day 60

Day 60 pre-amble

Most of the time I just call it walking.

But yes, my hobby developed by scaling mountains and hills. So “hill walking” makes it sound slightly more challenging.

In the Lake District especially, those hills and mountains are often called “fells”. And I guess “fell walking” sounds more dramatic than “hill walking”.

And so what might you call it when you’re up in the hills and experience the most gruelling, nightmarish day of your long distance walking career so far? If, say, you mix up the f and the h, you may well come up with…

HELL WALKING.

Nothing personal you understand, Scotland. Just one of those days, in extremis.

LEJoG Day 60 (Tuesday 4 August 2020)

Melrose to Traquair (18½ miles)

Cumulative: 859½ miles

Facts: Time on walk: 7 hours. Average speed: 2.64mph. Weather:  Cool and cloudy, becoming wet and windy. The weather might just come up in the main text…

Practicalities: Breakfast at the Station Hotel. Shopping for drinks and Repel insect repellent. I’ve thankfully not come across the dreaded Scottish midges, but I have drawn the attention of swarms of flies, noticeably more often than in England. Checked out at 10:30am.

The walk

Start: Melrose Abbey, 10:45am. End (linear): The Cross, Traquair, 6:40pm. Extra 1½ miles to Corner House Hotel, Innerleithen, arrived 7:15pm.

Today’s walk uses OS Explorer maps 338 (linked yesterday) and 337 (Peebles and Innerleithen). It follows the Southern Upland Way from the banks of the Tweed in Melrose, all the way to Traquair. The Southern Upland Way merges with the Cross Borders Drove Road in Yair Hill Forest.

OK then. Here we go. Now, first of all I knew this was going to be the longest day of the week by quite a distance. 18½ miles just to the linear end point in Traquair, followed by an extra 1½ miles to my accommodation in Innerleithen. Secondly, I was aware that it would probably see the poorest weather of the week – indeed the rain had started to come down the previous evening. I was mentally preparing for this on Monday night and Tuesday morning. Well-stocked for water, soft drinks and food, I also renewed my blister plasters and resolved not to eat lunch until Yair Bridge, around 9 miles in to the walk and close to the halfway mark.

There’s no hint of difficulty to begin with. The Borders Abbey Way takes you north to the River Tweed, at which point it passes the baton to the Southern Upland Way. The bridge and signpost below mark the start of the SU Way, which is clearly marked on the OS maps and brilliantly waymarked throughout the day.

601 Bridge at start of SU Way

Bridge over the River Tweed, just after joining the Southern Upland Way

(doesn’t that cloud look ominous…)

602 SU Way sign

GRAFFITI MY SOUthern UpLand Way sign

So, the first mental test is finding your way back into the hills and fields. Because the Southern Upland Way seems boneheadedly determined to keep you trudging the tarmac for as long as humanly possible. First it leaves the river for a busy link road west of Melrose, and then follows a national cycle track west past Tweedbank railway station. After crossing the Tweed east to west, the Way heads SW (river on your left), staying with the road before ducking all too briefly into a wooded area. You could stay with the path here but it would mean descending to the river and climbing again, so I continued to follow the minor road. Finally you will come across a signpost marked ‘Gala Circuit’, which takes you past Netherbarns, across the A7 and (at last!) into the fields just south of Gala Hill.

603 Eildon Hills retro

Retrospective of the Eildon Hills, from the path to Gala Forest

This also means the first proper climb of the day and (for me) the first of any real note since Crookedshaws Hill early on Day 58. Stopped at a conveniently-located bench for water before tackling it. After taking a right at the gate, you can’t miss the forest surrounding Gala Hill, just SE of the town of Galashiels. On the edge of the forest is a three-way signpost. The Southern Upland Way is straight ahead. I urge you to ignore it, turn left and head into the Gala Forest. Andy Robinson does this in his End to End book, and so does Dave in his LEJoG walk. Mark Moxon doesn’t, and so he gets understandably pissed off with the SU Way’s nonsensical, drunken ramble around the outskirts of Galashiels town. The green markings on your OS map should be enough to convince you that, if you want to rejoin the SU Way at the minor road on the far (west) side of Gala Hill, the forest path is by far the most straightforward method of so doing.

From here you head due SW to Yair Bridge. Firstly along a grassy bank and sheep farm, then through a plantation and on via a long, winding, exposed path through fields and the occasional clump of trees. This section tried my patience, and there was no consolation in heading southwards again for so many miles. However I was still determined not to stop for lunch until I’d crossed the bridge and reached the brink of Yair Hill Forest.

604 Cairn between Gala and Yair

Lone cairn, in the moors between Gala Hill and Yair Bridge

Having crossed Yair Bridge (bloody-mindedly ignoring the picnic benches about ½ mile before) and found no benches, I walked a bit further (west) before perching on a wall for lunch. The time was 1:55pm. Yair Bridge is 107m above sea level. I would soon be venturing on to much higher ground: the major landmark of the Three Brethren is at 464m. Although the sky had been grey all day, I’d experienced nothing worse than a bit of drizzle approaching Gala Hill. However, I expected worse in the hills and donned my waterproof trousers for the first time this week. Restarted my journey at 2:30pm.

Thus far the walk had been no fun at all, particularly the gradual escape from the urban maze. But it had been a useful exercise in mentally preparing for the more difficult second half. Keep crossing off the miles, keep thinking about the end, keep safe, keep hydrated. There was very little else occupying my mind – I never once put any music on, for example.

And so to the fateful signpost taking you off the road through the Yair Estate and into Yair Hill Forest. Once you’re in, there’s no going back. No settlements whatsoever until Traquair. Nothing but you, your surroundings and the elements. The climb was reasonably steady to begin with. The worst thing was knowing you were heading SW again, and wanting to reach the point where the route heads due west for an uninterrupted 7½ miles to Traquair. That point would come at the Three Brethren. By then the only constant was me: the surroundings and elements were unrecognisable from only 20 minutes earlier.

The initial path follows the edge of the forest for maybe 1 mile. The day began to transform around me when I joined the path heading directly south, climbing through the trees as far as Red Score Nick. It was considerably steeper. Well, I expected that. Initially I saw it as on a par with the climb from Bicknoller to Wills Neck on Day 18. That was also a very grey day. But it was very disconcerting how quickly the rain became heavier and wind stronger. The changing weather seemed to defy my gradient in a way that simply hadn’t applied in the Quantocks. By the time I reached Red Score Nick my hood, coat and trousers were flapping constantly, and the rain was hitting me horizontally. At Little Crib I turned to head W then NW to the Three Brethren. The contour here is 360m: I’d gained over 200m and had only 100m to go, so I knew the gradient would be easing off…

What I hadn’t bargained for – at all – was how much stronger the wind was in this section, and how little visbility there was even though I’d emerged from the forest. This 100m climb, over just half a mile, transformed the afternoon from a nasty one into something virtually unprecedented. The rain was still coming in horizontally from my left (the west), the wind now surely bordering on Force 7, and the cloud thick enough to restrict visibility to about 50 metres. I didn’t see the Three Brethren, not even in outline, until I was virtually there.

I’d always intended to use the three cairns for the header photo, and took my mobile phone out for a picture. To my horror the battery, which had been at 60% over lunch, was down to zero and it was not possible to take a photograph. Thus I’ve ended up using the photo with the greyest sky I could find. It doesn’t quite capture the total bleakness of this moment, but it’s close enough as an approximation.

So let’s recap. I’m at the Three Brethren. It’s 3:30pm. There’s a signpost telling me it’s 7½ miles to Traquair. I estimate from the map that the descent from the hills doesn’t commence until just over 1 mile from Traquair. Thus I’m up here, in high winds, driving rain and terrible visibility, for at least 2 hours. There are no trees to my left, and the weather is coming from that direction (south or south-west as I walk towards Traquair). Thus I’m steeling myself to be exposed throughout. And my mobile phone isn’t working. If I’m injured, I’m in big trouble. I can hope for the wind and rain to subside, but it isn;t looking good.

The first couple of miles, to the map change at Four Lords Lands, were every bit as dreadful as I’ve made it sound there. The word “relentless” can be overused in situations far less onerous than this one. Here it applies in full. Several times I was knocked off course by a gust. Never did I feel able to remove my hood. At no point did any natural feature or building protect me from the elements. It was the most mentally taxing hour of walking I’ve done, certainly since Day 5 of the Coast to Coast in 2017. Only when I descended to a convenient stopping point and partial shelter before the climb to Lucken Head, below the tree line of a small plantation, did the wind subside.

Dave clearly had a much better day than me on this section. I’m particularly struck by the line: “But standing on Lucken Head all I could see, in every direction, were hills.” Well, after my 10-minute stop, I made my way to Lucken Head. Within less than a hundred metres of my shelter, I was thrust back into the heavy rain and strong wind. And by the time I reached the peak (c. 500m), all I could see in every direction was grey cloud and rain. No visible hills whatsoever. Nothing. No discernible features. Not even a clear path to Brown Knowe, Hare Law or Minch Moor, the next landmarks on the map.

You might remember that “some rain” had been forecast for today. Whatever mental preparation I’d done, it was not sufficient to deal with what I faced today. In August. After two bright and warm days in the border towns and villages. I certainly regretted having the “monk on” for Day 59, because this was next level grim. However, where my mood yesterday was snappy and irritable, today it was stoical, resigned and determined. No option but to carry on, no point moaning.

But my god, it just refused to stop. My backpack was properly wet by now. I had a waterproof cover in my other bag, but to be honest the wind was strong enough to blow it off so I didn’t bother. There was more protection from the wind as I entered the trees of Minch Moor, although the price for this was a wetter, more uneven path. The rain seemed to ease off for a short time, but as I approached the high point, it was coming down at its heaviest since Three Brethren. Stopped for a can of Coke at the foot of the path which leads to the peak at 567m. It was 5:45pm and the descent was about to begin at last.

I was still over 2 miles from Traquair though. The first mile was horrible, with some very uneven, stony paths and sharp descents which slowed me down a lot. The second mile, after emerging from forestry land, is easier on both feet and morale, as you finally see Innerleithen in the distance and can discern buildings and farms again. I remember removing my hood as I approached a bridle gate, only for the rain to laugh in my face by coming down hard again almost immediately. It really was one of those days, and there would be no let up just because you could see the end.

After exactly 7 hours of route walking, and more than 8 hours after leaving my hotel, I arrived in the hamlet of Traquair. Stopped at the cross marking the junction of the B709 to Innerleithen and the B7062 to Peebles. There was a very welcome bench on a small green opposite, where I drank most of my last bottle of water.

After the walk

I’m afraid the torment was not yet over. With the rain still coming down, I had to walk to Innerleithen. Most of this was on the B709, at the far side of a road with no verge. It was a dismal trudge which seemed even further than 1½ miles. Without a working mobile phone, I couldn’t check where the hotel was, and headed right along the high street (A72) keeping my eyes out for the Corner House. Found it at the corner of a street (not surprisingly) after an extra ¼ mile.

There was a sign on the window saying that the bar and restaurant would not be re-opening until tomorrow (5th August). So already I had to look elsewhere for my evening meal. Both doors were locked. I found a small notice on another window asking hotel residents to call Lynda, the proprietor, on arrival. And I had no mobile battery… Tried switching the phone on as a Hail Mary. Incredibly I now had 20% battery. Presumably the height at Three Brethren had something to do with losing power, although that doesn’t sound especially scientific. Anyway, who am I to question the first bit of good fortune in five hours? Managed to get through to Lynda and, ten minutes later, she arrived to let me in.

I was soaked to the skin, hair like the proverbial drowned rat in spite of wearing a hood for hours. Everything in my bag was wet, including all casual clothes and my week of blog notes. The shower took several minutes to warm up as well. Tried the Indian restaurant down the road – the waitress said I would normally be able to dine without a booking, but it was unusually busy this evening. Doubtless the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme, which started on Monday 3rd, was the reason. I had a takeaway pepperoni pizza instead.

Also bought some chocolate from the convenience store. Got into conversation with the man at the checkout, who was telling me about Edinburgh and the micro-climates in the Borders region. He didn’t have enough change so was happy to give me the chocolate for free – I insisted on buying an extra box of Quality Street just so he wasn’t ripped off. Wouldn’t normally scoff Quality Street and Ritter Sport during a walking week (indeed most weeks), but I needed cheering up after today. Lovely bloke anyway.

No listening pleasure today.

Picture of the Three Brethren, Yair Hill Forest, from commons.wikimedia.org.

Next: Day 61 (5 August 2020)… in which the wounds of Day 60 run… pretty deep.

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