#63 FOURTEEN MILES / FOURTEEN YEARS

Welcome to Edinburgh in an unusual August: LEJoG Day 63

Day 63 pre-amble

Under normal circumstances I would never have considered arriving in Edinburgh for LEJoG during the month of August. Ever since 1947, Edinburgh and August have been synonymous with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As a result of coronavirus, the Fringe was cancelled for the first time in 2020. This presented the opportunity to experience an Edinburgh August weekend without the unmanageable crowds. And since I needed to catch up in time for my West Highland Way bookings in September, it was too good an opportunity to miss.

I first visited Edinburgh for the Fringe in 1995, with some of my friends from the Student Union arts group I joined the previous year. In 1996, dreaming of a career in arts admin, I went back for an interview as a volunteer with the Fringe. It wasn’t successful. This was probably a blessing, as the demands on my time would almost certainly have cost me a Distinction in my MA dissertation that summer. In 1998 I returned, again for the Fringe, this time with a couple of housemates and one of my oldest friends from university.

Before today, my most recent visits were in 2006. This was the year after my horrendous breakdown. In April I went up with family on a Pullman train. Sadly I don’t remember much about the day we spent there, and the photos serve only to remind me of the horrors eclipsing my once-proud mind. In August I went on a Festival weekend trip with this group. I shared a hotel room with a man I didn’t know, went out to a comedy night leaving him in the room, and realised the following morning that he’d stolen my iPod and digitial camera from my suitcase. Reported the theft, but there was nothing the group organisers could do (including give me his name).

I never took part in one of the group’s activities again. A few weeks later this shadow social life came to an abrupt halt when I was taken into residential care at a private hospital. Shortly after coming out I was sectioned for the second time in less than 12 months. I always blamed myself for being so feeble-minded and trusting that I thought I could leave these valuables in the room even though he’d clearly seen them. It was another example of the daily humiliation of living with a severely distressed mind: judgement of risk, vulnerability and character was all over the place.

Leaving 2006 aside, my memories of Edinburgh are overwhelmingly fond ones. And in common with many, I consider it the most aesthetically pleasing city centre in Britain. So today (and the Saturday set aside for tourism) was always going to be my weekend treat. The thought of Edinburgh kept me going on that hellish Tuesday, for one thing.

It had been almost exactly 14 years since my last visit, and it just so happened that today’s stage was 14 miles. Hence the title.

LEJoG Day 63 (Friday 7 August 2020)

Carlops to Edinburgh (14 miles)

Cumulative: 898 miles

Facts: Time on walk: 4 hours 25 minutes. Average speed: 3.17 mph. Weather: Cloudy, cool with breeze; becoming warmer only towards end of stage. Forecast temperstures above 30 degrees Celsius did not materialise until Saturday.

Practicalities: Socially-distanced breakfast at the Allan Ramsay. Earlier than usual to maximise time in Edinburgh. Smallest breakfast of the week: went for smoked salmon and scrambled egg instead of full cooked breakfast; also orange juice and tea were limited rather than self-service. With only wet tops to choose from, went for the one I’d worn at the start of the week.

The walk

Start: Allan Ramsay Hotel, Carlops, 9:55am. End: Junction of Water of Leith Walkway and Union Canal, near Slateford, SW Edinburgh, 3:05pm.

Today’s walk uses OS Explorer maps 344 (Pentland Hills, linked yesterday) and 350 (Edinburgh).

635 Finish Day 63

The Union Canal junction post, Slateford (finish point of Day 63)

The walk from Carlops to Edinburgh splits very neatly into three sections of roughly equal length.

  1. Footpaths over the Pentland Hills to a path junction NE of Listonshiels (grid reference NT136621).
  2. Footpaths, tracks and (mainly) minor roads to Balerno.
  3. The Water of Leith Walkway, taking you from Balerno to the junction with the Union Canal. Join the walkway at grid reference NT164668. The walk ends at grid reference NT221707.

I approached the first section with some trepidation for two reasons. First, the prospect of a long haul over serious hills, for the first time since Tuesday. Second, since leaving the Cross Borders Drove Road yesterday, the paths are no longer marked in green on the OS map. I was following the route used by Mark Moxon, but as he completed LEJoG in 2003, it was feasible to imagine significant erosion or deterioration in the 17 years since.

No worries. The gradients are gentle almost throughout, with the only real test being a switchback slope very early on at Fairliehope. I met a couple about to tackle Mount Maw (to the SW) and think they would have had a much tougher climb. Also, the path is very easy to follow. It is signed from the main road in Carlops: “Buteland via the Bore Stane”.  The term ‘Bore Stane’ is explained here and the rock is marked on OS Explorer map 344 at grid reference NT143599. Although waymarking is less frequent than on St. Cuthbert’s Way, the Southern Upland Way or the Cross Borders Drove Road, it does the necessary every time you come to a junction.

631 North Esk Reservoir

North Esk Reservoir, approximately 2 miles north of Carlops

The reward for your first hour of walking on the Pentland Hills is quite spectacular. Assuming you are lucky enough to experience a clear day, that is. Upon reaching the Bore Stane and passing over the col, one of the great reveals in the whole of LEJoG is laid out before your eyes. Honestly, this is up there with Pen-y-ghent, Kinder, the top of Cheddar Gorge or the stunning visuals of the South West Coast Path. My iPhone SE won’t do justice to the sights – for this reason only I resisted using either of my photos for the header image. I hope some of you take a professional camera.

The view is of the Firth of Forth, stretching from the Forth Road Bridge(s) and rail bridge in the west, to Edinburgh, Portobello, Musselburgh and beyond in the east. And indeed of Fife beyond the waterway: you might just be able to make out some of the Lomond Hills.

632 Forth from Bore Stane

The Firth of Forth and Fife, from Bore Stane, Pentland Hills

(Queensferry Crossing visible ¾ of the way up, dominating and obscuring the original Forth Road Bridge and the more famous Forth (rail) Bridge)

633 Edinburgh from Bore Stane

Firth of Forth and Fife from Bore Stane, Pentland Hills

(Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat to the right of the picture, two thirds of the way up)

This is definitely the highlight of the walk. The view remains constant for the next two miles, a gentle downhill to the junction at Listonshiels. I stopped here for 20 minutes (11:40 – 12:00) to give my shoulders a rest. The map shows a footpath heading NE, eventually joining a minor road at NT149633. On the day this looked overgrown, and I decided to follow the signposted route to Balerno, which takes you due north to Temple House (NT133642) before following minor roads generally NE for around 3½ miles.

This, I’m afraid, is the lowlight of the walk. The roads are wide but lack verges, and there are plenty of awkward bends, especially around Buteland Farm. The stretch named on the map as Cockburnhill Road is a long drag. Your height above sea level is no longer sufficient (around 200m, Bore Stane being closer to 400m) to enjoy the views of the Forth. I appreciated yesterday’s rural walk even more after this section, as I was unpleasantly reminded of the over-reliance on roads earlier in the week, especially between Jedburgh and Melrose.

It was a relief to take lunch in Balerno (1:10 – 1:35), shortly before tackling the final section on the Water of Leith Walkway.

634 Water of Leith Walkway

Water of Leith Walkway sign, Balerno

This is a cycling and walking route which follows the Water of Leith from Balerno to the Port of Leith, where the river flows into the Firth of Forth. It is very heavily used, and was easily the busiest section of walking on my entire LEJoG so far. While usually wide enough to accommodate both walkers and cyclists comfortably, there were some sections where I had to stop for the latter.

Doubtless it makes for a nice, relaxed stroll in other circumstances, but today I was determined to finish as quickly as possible. The weight of the (still wet) backpack and the extra bag hanging from the chest straps was quite demoralising after six days. I’d already resolved to take just the one bag for the crossing of the Central Belt. The weather was starting to warm up in anticipation of one of the hottest spells in this country for many years. And, even when the walk was finished, I knew I had some travelling to do in order to reach my accommodation. Used any incentive I could to walk faster, including (sorry!) keeping an attractive, quicker female bottom in sight for as long as possible.

After the walk

The Union Canal will carry me along most of the Central Belt during Days 64-66, so the point where it meets the Water of Leith Walkway was the right spot to finish Day 63.

636 Union Canal junction

Signpost on the Union Canal, near the finish (left on Day 64, right to the train and my hotel)

My first task was to change clothes and re-pack my bags, as I had to use the train between Slateford and Edinburgh Waverley and really didn’t want to board in my sweaty, moist, overdressed state. This took quite a bit of time. Eventually I set out for Slateford station in a fresh T-shirt, shorts and trainers, but with very heavy bags. The walk was slow, especially on the canal aqueduct where I had to pass a cyclist. And it was over a mile, which was really not welcome. Then there was a 45-minute wait for the next local train – understandably ScotRail was running a reduced timetable due to COVID-19.

Having finished at 3:05, it was after 5pm when I reached Waverley. The hotel (Cityroomz) is just in the West End, so now there was a half hour plod along Princes Street. Which was busy, but nowhere near as crazy as it would have been on a typical August Friday between 5pm and 6pm. Some 2½ hours after reaching the Union Canal, I finally checked in and got to dump my bag. The two-night stay was “free” as my original three-night booking in May was non-refundable.

Postscript: My Listening Pleasure

About an hour of the Leadmill playlist, to relieve the boredom of road walking between Listonshiels and Balerno.

Longer postscript: Friday and Saturday in Edinburgh

I always planned to spend a full weekend in Edinburgh, for obvious touristy reasons. My original plan had been to spend Saturday night dancing here. This was obviously out of the question as nightclubs are yet to re-open anywhere: it had been 22 weeks since I’d even been able to go to the Leadmill. Didn’t do much this evening: had a short wander around Princes Street and the West End and eventually ate an unusual but tasty lamb and aubergine pizza at Foundry 39. Watched an episode of Better Call Saul on Netflix in my room.

Saturday was absolutely glorious all day. I could not have been luckier with the weather. Made an early start and, rather than fall into the trap of the Royal Mile, decided to visit two places I’d not seen in any previous trip. First, Portobello Beach and second, the Forth Bridge.

Portobello Beach, which I reached via a walk from Brunstane railway station, exceeded my highest expectations. Well over a mile of proper, clean, sandy beaches fit to grace any of the better known seaside resorts in this country. Walked up and down the promenade a couple of times before spending about an hour reading my Breaking Bad book on Kindle. Left around noon, intending to come back for food after visiting the Forth Bridge.

630 Portobello Beach 1

First view of Portobello Beach, Saturday 8 August, looking across to Fife

630 Portobello Beach 2

The promenade at Portobello Beach, looking west

In and out of Waverley again, this time heading for North Queensferry station. The train takes you over the Forth Bridge, with views to the Forth Road Bridge and Queensferry Crossing from the west-facing windows. North Queensferry station is a short (but steep) walk up from the Forth Bridge. I spent about 45 minutes walking round trying to find the best viewpoints. I don’t think this is enough time to get a good photo of the road bridges, particularly Queensferry Crossing.  However there is a nice little spot, and obvious photo opportunity, beneath and just to the west of the original Forth Bridge. There’s also an information panel.

630 Forth NQ sign

Forth Bridge information panel, at North Queensferry South Bay

630 Forth rail bridge

The Forth Bridge, from North Queensferry South Bay

630 Forth road bridges

The Forth Road Bridge (foreground) and Queensferry Crossing (background)

Left at 3:25, went back to Waverley, Brunstane and Portobello Beach. Social distancing was very well maintained on the beach itself, if not so much the promenade. Some of the photos in the national press over the weekend, insinuating that “sun-worshippers” were flagrantly ignoring the virus, weren’t really a fair reflection of the efforts being made. Anyway, I had an outdoor meal from the Beach House at 6pm. I’d looked forward to it since lunchtime, but the weather turned cool surprisingly quickly after the sun went into partial shade. Good food and drink though. Didn’t get back to Waverley until 8pm. Thought about looking for an outdoor drink closer to the hotel, but everywhere else closed at 10pm and I ended up at Foundry 39 again.

Questioning postscript: What about Arthur’s Seat?

Oh yes. Way back at the start of the blog, I mentioned in the Pre-Amble that one of my reasons for including Edinburgh in my LEJoG route was that I’d never walked Arthur’s Seat. And here I am not using it in the main route, and apparently ignoring it over the weekend. Well fear not… I returned to Edinburgh with the family two weeks later, spending another weekend there before re-starting LEJoG. You can read about our  morning walk up Arthur’s Seat in Sidetracks.

Picture (taken 7 August 2020) shows Edinburgh Castle and Princes Street Gardens, from Princes Street. Well, I may not have done the obvious touristy things this weekend, but the nostalgic pre-amble compelled me to go for the obvious touristy header image.

Next: Day 64 (24 August 2020)… in which Ben starts putting a few notches in the Central Belt.

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