Though the Southern Upland Way now leaves behind the highest hills, the Selkirkshire stretch is almost entirely across moorland, with the drove road above Traquair providing one of the best days of the entire walk. With the beautiful St Mary’s Loch another highlight, there is much to enjoy.
Saturday 14 May 2016. Over Phawhope bothy to Blake Muir, 19 miles.
Over Phawhope is the only bothy actually owned by the Mountain Bothies Association, and they have done an excellent job in renovating it, so I was rather surprised to spend a Friday night here on my own. The forests round about were now being harvested, giving a rather forlorn air to the surroundings, but there is plenty of access to hill tracks, including the local classic the Ettrick horseshoe.
The walk in to Over Phawhope via Croft Head is an SUW highlight; the walk out, by a mile of forestry track and then five miles of metalled road, is not. A path by the Ettrick Water surely cannot be impossible to negotiate. The scenery is all very nice, but a road is a road, and I got to reading the telephone pole markers to see if I could work out the sequence. It all ends at Scabcleugh, where a nice little track takes you up and over to St Mary’s Loch.
Arriving here must cause much hardship to walkers with old, or even new, guidebooks, looking forward to a pint and food at “one of Scotland’s most famous hostelries” (as Castle puts it), the Tibbie Shiels Inn. I’m hard bitten enough to check these things, and knew in advance that the owner had no plans to re-open it following its seasonal closure. There’s a cafe on the main road if you’re desperate, but a few yards further on the good folks of the Yacht Club were happy for me to sit at one of their picnic tables for a while – one of their number even came to keep me company, which I found very flattering of her. The memory kept me going for the three miles along the loch. Just beyond is Dryhope Tower, a 16th century fortified home typical of the area and its lawless past. It’s been partly restored with a new staircase to take you to the top – far too interesting to miss.
Now, just as last year I had planned one very long day which at the last minute I decided to scrap, so I had this year. I had intended to wild camp near the Tower, leaving 21 miles to Galashiels tomorrow. But stopping at 2.30 on a lovely sunny day (if a trifle chill for the time of year) is plain daft. The problem is where to wild camp further on. I’d decided, in late planning, to aim for the summit of Blake Muir, though it meant buying a water carrier, there being no water on the top. I filled it at the next stream after the Tower, the Douglas Burn, and hiked it up a lovely green corridor of forest track (not nearly as steep as it looked on the map) onto the heathery moor. I found a good place to stop just before the moor’s top, and settled in for the night.
Sunday 15 May 2016. Blake Muir to Galashiels, 17 miles.
Climbing out of Traquair I was conscious of a pair of runners coming up behind me. In these benign conditions I knew I was walking pretty fast but the fact that runners can, well, run up hills always gives people like me a reality check. Soon there were mountain bikers too – one stopped to ask me what had happened to Minch Moor bothy, something that I knew (demolished a few months earlier, before it fell down) – as well as day walkers, a party of three couples and a dog, the latter being keen to follow me when I went ahead. Sunday on the hills in May! Well why not, especially when the path, an ancient drove road that keeps high above the valleys of the Tweed and Yarrow, is as good as this. The path junction where the track to the summit of Minch Moor turns off is an important ‘turn point’, for it is here that the Eildon Hills above Melrose come into view, a marker for the route to come.
Around Brown Knowe two more figures appeared in front of me, and soon it was their turn for a chat. One, Phil (52 but I asked if he had a bus pass yet) was an SUW walker on a 30-mile-a-day schedule: his feet hurt. The other, Betty (67, trim) was a day walker, just walking along the ridge and back again because she could. Her other hobby was long-distance cycling. At the triple-cairned Three Brethren Betty and I let Phil hare forwards to Lauder while we shared a bit of food (OK, she gave me a tomato) before she headed back, and I dropped down to the Tweed.
In the valley at Yair young canoeists were training on the Tweed, its level rather low given the lack of recent rain. (Across the two years, I was now on my eighth consecutive rain-free day on the SUW!) From here there’s a low and easy track, initially through bluebell woods, to the outskirts of Galashiels, at 15,000 by some measure the biggest town on the Way. It’s quite tricky to follow the Way around its edge, but just beyond the metalled road leading east I soon located the path that would take me down to my B&B.
Monday 16 May 2016. Galashiels to Melrose, five miles (four on path).
I had booked in to the B&B for two nights in the expectation of needing an easy day after the 21-miler from Dryhope Tower. Yesterday’s 17 miles had gone very easily, but I didn’t see the need to cut a day from my schedule. Why get home a day early when having a good time? So today was set aside for a stroll, not a walk, with the luxury of no rucksack on the back.
The Way heads a little uphill before dropping down to the Tweed, the home built for Sir Walter Scott Abbotsford House dominating the scene, then crossing the river (and the Roxburghshire boundary) by the old, and now reinstated, railway bridge, and staying by the line to and just beyond Tweedbank station. From here it cuts back down to the river to give a pretty last mile into Melrose. It was not though being appreciated by the Mr Angry of trail walking who I met at the SUW information board by the river. He had just found a split in his new rucksack and was cross about that. Very cross. And he was cross, very cross, that he had got badly lost in the forest above Beehive bothy, so badly lost that he had put in a 37-mile day. He was hating the whole experience. He had a split in his brand-new £120 rucksack. He had got lost in the forest … I tried to step away, he advanced, lips chapped, shorts not hiding scabs on his legs from stumbles … oh, the poor man. I watched him go.I headed into Melrose proper. After the prettiest Rugby ground I have ever seen, the Eildon hills a perfect backdrop, the next thing I saw was its ‘harmony garden’ which I might have recommended Mr Angry had I known it was there. Though the town is one of the tourist gems of the Borders, principally for its Abbey, it would have been a very long afternoon for me on my own, so I took a bus back to Tweedbank station for a rail-assisted afternoon in Edinburgh, mostly at the National Museum of Scotland, where I took my fill of the Edinburgh Enlightenment and Scottish engineering.