Tuesday 17 May 2016. Melrose to Blythe Water, 14 miles.
Not Berwickshire yet: Melrose parish of the former Roxburghshire strays north of the Tweed, surprisingly, for a few miles. After a riverside mile the path turns north to pick up an old Roman road which takes you easily through rolling farmland, just shy of the 1000ft contour at its highest point, Woodheads Hill (just inside Berwickshire). It’s fast, uninhibited walking along here, meaning that the ten-mile Melrose-to-Lauder stretch, certainly in benign conditions like these, is no more than a half-day. Do remember to look round though, for views back to the Eildon hills.
The Way turns right just before the Market Place in Lauder, but it would be silly to miss this last little commercial hub on the path. There are several places for a bite, and I chose the Flat Cat art gallery, a bit of a cousin to the A’the Airts tearoom in Sanquhar the year before. I’d also picked up a tweaky knee on the Roman Road, so bought myself a precautionary magic bandage in the pharmacy, which seemed to do the trick. That’s what small towns are for. Out of the town, there’s a short stretch through the grounds of Thirlestane Castle, before a few miles of up-and-down led me to Blythe Water. Beside the footbridge here, there’s a half-acre or so of flattish grass that makes an excellent wild camp site.
Wednesday 18 May 2016. Blythe Water to Edgar’s Cleugh, 19 miles.
The last big day. You’re now on the southern Lammermuirs, a hill-group that I had crossed once before, at the start of my cross-Scotland walk. They are relatively low, heather-clad hills, popular for shooting parties and, since I was last here in 2007, wind farms. Back then I had searched out the highest of the group at 1745ft, Meikle Says Law: it has to be said that it’s one of the least-inspiring highest hills I have ever climbed.
Next target was the fishing reservoir of Watch Water. Research told me that there was a small cafe here, so I called in. It was hosted by Gavin, a retired plumber who loved the solitude – a dozen fishing boats were tied up alongside but none were in use today. The cafe sells tea, coffee, pot noodles and snacks; a cup of tea was what I had came for. We got to talking, and he told me that he spent a month in the Highlands every year, each day walking a little further, to stave off stiffness in his hips and back; he also told of an SUW walker who had called in an hour before, taking his dog with him on the trail, a dobermann-poodle cross – the dog had his own backpack. Shouldn’t be difficult to spot, I thought.
The village of Longformacus was an easy road walk down in the valley. “Is there a shop?” I asked a resident. “Not since 1972” came the reply. I didn’t really need one, and munched on some tablet by the village bridge. Next up was a last moorland crossing, rising above the Dye Water, on which I remembered going wrong in the other direction back in 2007. Coming from the west, all seemed straightforward, though I think I can see where the problem lay earlier (it’s noted in an amendment to the 2007 page). High on the hill, there’s a lovely line of beech trees, and a waymarker gives a 50-yard diversion to a noted viewpoint, which these days does little more than give an excellent view of the Black Hill wind farm. The Way then crosses a B road before staying high through Roughside Wood until its final descent into Abbey St Bathans.This is a tiny, bijou little village clustered around the little church. The cafe / gallery was, I knew, closed today, a shame as I’d had a nice little break there in 2007. Instead I lingered a while beside the church – a local history talk was being prepared inside, I saw – before heading off for my last mile of the day, a wild camp spot just beyond the end of a lane heading north. Quite incongrously, the other side of gorse bushes from my pitch, there was a hot tub awaiting the couple of days each year that were both warm and midge-free.
Thursday 19 May 2016. Edgar’s Cleugh to Cockburnspath, 10 miles.
The last couple of days before Beattock, I was part of quite a little community of Southern Upland Way walkers, sharing our frailties and our endeavours. This had not happened this time; I’d only met 30-miles-a-day man on the stage out of Traquair, and Mr Angry at Melrose.
But they were around. Just as I was striking camp, a 75ish-year-old woman came past. She’d found a wild camp spot near the B road above Abbey St Bathans, and had been on the move since 7.30 (it was now 9). She had a little moan about her sack, rather old school and heavy in comparison to mine, but clearly she was one to just get on with things. I’ve far more admiration for the likes of her than the 30-mile guys; I’ve put a mental note of 70 as the age when I’ll give all this up. I soon picked her up again, coping cautiously with a herd of cows, and helped see her safely across to the stile – “they give me panic attacks,” she said. Not far beyond the farm of Blackburn (where I’d joined the SUW in ’07), I came across the guy and dog that Gavin at Watch Water had told me about. It turns out that my pitch was only a few hundred metres short of his. I hope he was impressed by my successfully divining the heritage of his dog. We shared the road down to the A1 and saw ourselves safely across – though it’s far less busy, up here, than almost any Essex A road I’ve had to negotiate. So that would be at least three finishers today: whether that’s fairly typical or not at this time of year, I’ve no idea. Maybe there were others who had stayed overnight in Longformacus.
Penmanshiel woods, a haven for wild garlic and gorse, rise above the A1 to give a last taste of the uphill, before entering the Pease Dean nature reserve. This hugs the eponymous dean and the contorted path takes flights of chicken-wired steps up and down throughout its length; I wondered how Stanley (the dog) would cope. Pease Bay would be a lovely stretch of beach but it’s home to a massive caravan site – the long mile of coast to the village of Cove is wonderful however, despite a cement works and nuclear power station on the horizon. The trick is to look at the rocks. It was gazing at their striations that led, in 1787, local man James Hutton to publish his ‘Theory of the Earth’, a first scientific debunking of the Biblical myth of the Earth’s creation in 4004BC.
Alas with a bus timetable now to think about, I didn’t have time to drop down to Cove Harbour, purchased in 1990 to prevent Pease Bay-type development. Instead, I took the last short mile of the way, an anticlimax underneath the graffiti-strewn A1 bridge, into the official finish at Cockburnspath (don’t pronounce the burns, as one of the graffiti writers is aware). It’s a nicer village than I’d been led to expect, with a tiny square, unusual kirk, and functioning post office with a coffee machine and chocolate.
One minute before the bus came, it started to drizzle heavily: the first rain I had been out in for 170 miles. Other walkers be warned, this does not always happen.