Looking at a map of Southern Scotland there is a large area of hill country between Moffat and Peebles. Large rolling grass and heather hills rise above the 800 metre contour and continue for miles, only broken by a solitary minor mountain road. It is the sort of landscape that I love and a place where you can stride out for miles whilst remaining high above the valleys. For some reason it is not on many people’s hill walking radar which made it a good choice for the first May Bank holiday.
Day 1 – 5.6 miles with 430 metres ascent
A long drive from Nottingham took me through Moffat and up and over the spectacular road that passes the Devils Beef Tub. I found a parking space at the crossroads of the tiny hamlet of Tweedsmuir, an idyllic location next to the infant River Tweed. Due to a combination of having a bit of a lie-in and a slow drive to conserve diesel, it was gone 3.30pm by the time I shouldered my pack and set off towards the church.
The air was crystal clear with not a cloud in the sky. Being late April the sun was quite strong but the temperature kept pleasant by a keen north-easterly wind. The village was deserted as I left it to head along forestry tracks that contour above the Tweed, the views below being a pleasant contrast of bare hills, forestry and green pasture.
Quick progress was made and I soon found myself entering the lower stretches of the Polmood burn. Crossing the crystal clear burn with ease I found a rock to sit on whilst I had a snack. It was good to be heading into the hills for a few days, everything I needed to be self-sufficient on my back. It was tempting to simply pitch my tent on the green cropped grass next to the river, but I felt that civilisation was too close. A wild camp at the head of the valley should give me guaranteed seclusion.
Heading along the freshly upgraded track I turned to look at the view behind and something near the summit of Glenlood hill caught my eye. At first I though that there was a fire but after a while realised it was a plume of dust following a large vehicle. I stood and watched for a while as other vehicles came and went along the moorland ridge. What was going on? Hopefully I would get a better look when on the hills in the morning.
A 4wd vehicle briefly invaded the peace higher up the valley and I noticed that it has come down the hillside, where there was not a track marked on my map. A few minutes later I noticed with some dismay that the track I was on now continued high on the slopes of Hunt Law. Whoever had constructed it had done so without much care about its visual impact. It was wide enough to drive two vehicles side by side and the hillside either side had been ripped apart. All in all a bloody mess. This contrasted strangely with the thousands of new trees recently planted next to the burn, lovely little broad leaves that will look splendid in years to come.
I managed to find a pitch next to the river where the ugly track was out of sight, although aware of the wind gusting straight down the valley. Soon after the photo below was taken I decided to attach the Scarp’s crossing poles, as the gusts steadily increased.
The sun was soon lost in the bottom of the deep valley and I retired to my sleeping bag with a book after a curry for dinner. For some reason I dream a lot when wild camping, this nights theme was shark attacks………..
Day 2 – 11.6 miles with 1,070 metres ascent
I awoke to find mist streaming across the top of Broad law high above me, it was moving pretty quickly showing how strong the wind was up there. For all my disgust at the newly bulldozed track I soon found myself walking on it to the col below Hunt Law, much easier than heather bashing. A brief detour and I was standing on its summit to take in the views, unfortunately the unlimited visibility of the day before had disappeared and everything was lost in a hazy murk. I could make out the activity on the Glenlood hill ridge, a series of roads had been bulldozed and there was a massive crane at the end of one such track. It looked to me that a wind farm was in the process of being built, this was sadly confirmed when I got home and did a bit of Googling. Another fine hillside ridge fallen to the march of the spinning giants.
The slopes of Cramalt Craig went on for an eternity, whilst sitting down I was passed by a chap out bagging Donald summits. He was surprised to see someone as these hills do not get much traffic. He thought the idea of camping out whilst climbing hills a strange one!
The summit of Cramalt Crag was a featureless place but did give a great feeling of space and wide open vistas, even through the heavy haze. On my descent towards Broad Law and the climb to its summit I was reminded of the Cheviots.
Broad Law at 840 metres was to be the highest point on this trip and I found a wall to shelter behind to have lunch. Out of the wind it was very warm, but standing up plunged me immediately into the strong cold wind, the main feature of the weekend. There is an assortment of summit ‘furniture’ on the summit, a communications tower and some weird beacon of some sort.
The descent of its long slopes south is walking at its easiest on short-cropped dry grass, well it would have been if the wind had not been trying to blow me over. Then out of nowhere it started to rain, light at first but then with some urgency which had me pulling on my waterproofs. The smell in the air as rain hit parched ground was lovely.
A quick detour to the summit of Talla Cleuch head was made, the views were stunning even though visibility was lost in the haze.
I was now approaching my destination for the night, the exquisite glacial valley of Talla Water which carves its way deep into the hills south of the Megget Stone.
The minor road was crossed and I ascended through what would usually be bog, the ground was so dry that I managed to get through in my inov-8′s totally dry-shod. I entered the valley, a land of hummocks which I weaved in and out of on the way to its head, clear waters tinkling away to my left.
The ground got rougher the further up I got but I located a good spot for the Scarp and pitched. I really had the sense of being in the middle of nowhere now, my main reason for going out backpacking. It was just me, the hills and a few sheep and lambs dotted around the hillside.
I wanted to climb Lochcraig Head and Molls Cleuch Dodd but they would make an awkward round in the morning with too much there and back walking. So after a quick snack I set off with a nearly empty pack up the very steep slopes to the east of my tent. The sun had vanished from my campsite but after gaining height it put in an appearance over the other side of the valley.
Reaching Lochcraig Head the setting sun had turned the hazy sky a great shade of pink, the hills taking on a soft velvety texture. It was lovely, but hard to capture in a photograph.
I noticed a large cairn to the south away from the summit, so wandered over for a look. The view that awaited took me by surprise as the ground fell steeply away to Loch Skeen. The area around the loch is a little bit of the Highlands slipped into the south of the country.
Heading back down to the tent the setting sun put on a display for me, a fine end to a peaceful day in the hills.
Day 3 – 9.7 miles with 840 metres ascent
There was a different feel to the air when I got out of the tent, it felt less humid and the sky was a brilliant shade of blue. I had company to look forward to this morning as Pete and Fiona were travelling down from Glasgow to join me for part of the walk. They were going to meet me at 10am, so it gave me time to have a lazy start to the day. The sun was warm so after packing I lay down on the grass for a while, enjoying my surroundings. A couple of figures appeared further down the valley, a chocolate lab attached to them by an extending lead. Distant sheep were scattering up the hillside, sensing a hound in the vicinity. Getting closer, Dougal was unleashed and he bounded over to give me a friendly canine greeting.
After coffee and a catch up chat it was off up the steep grassy slopes alongside Tates grain, the views down to the valley opening up with every step.
The full force of the wind hit us when we reached the summit ridge and we staggered off in a drunken manner towards the summit of Molls Cleuch Dodd. The clarity of the air was exceptional, more akin to a crisp winters day than late spring. The strong easterly winds were doing a great job in clearing the muck out of the atmosphere.
As usual once up high the walking is extremely easy on these hills, it was just the incessant wind and lack of shelter that required us to put in more effort to keep in a straight line. Heading towards Great Hill Pete and Fiona decided that Dougal had probably been walked enough for one day, he is only six months old so care needs to be taken that his growing body is not over exerted. After the summit they would descend into Donalds Cleuch and then Gameshope, pictured snaking off into the distance below.
Great Hill showed the full extent and bulk of Hart Fell, my destination for the day. It looked very close but I knew that there were a few ups and downs to be conquered before its trig could be reached.
Just before leaving Pete pointed out a mass of people gathering on the horizon around the cairn on Lochcraig head. As they moved towards the edge of the hill it looked like a scene from the film Zulu, a mass hill invasion just about to start. I was keen not to be surrounded so moved off over Firthhope Rig where I failed to find shelter for a bite to eat. I thought that the nicely named rotten bottom may provide respite from the wind (I hope you did not miss my nicely crafted pun there). Thankfully I found a dry stone wall that provided plenty of shelter and spent a while enjoying the heat of the sun, eating and generally lazing around.
My peace was finally shattered by an invading army of ramblers, one popped over the wall wearing a fluorescent tabard. He greeted me and waited for the next in line to appear. They simply kept on coming and coming and coming and coming. I sat there with images of them doing the conga across the hills, the line of walkers was staggeringly huge. I counted 26 of them in all until finally another chap in a fluorescent tabard brought up the rear, looking slightly the worse for wear. Maybe I am grumpy but I cannot see the point in hiking with that amount of people, what if you fancy a wee, a snack, a nice little sit down, a photo break? Do you want to be led by men wearing safety vests?
I watched them conga up across Rotten Bottom which made me change my route a little bit, I headed straight across the nice dry bogs, skirted Stirk crag and popped onto the summit of Cape Law. Hart Fell looked even bigger now, blocking out the whole horizon. I thought about contouring round it but decided that it would probably be more hard work than simply climbing to its summit. Descending from Cape Law, I chose a line of ascent and put my head down and got it over and done with. I tried to do this accompanied by music but the noise of the wind drowned out the tunes from my headphones.
Hart Fell summit itself holds not a huge amount of interest but the views are extensive. The wind here was screaming at me whilst I hid behind the shelter, whistling through the surrounding wire fences. On a hill ridge a couple of valleys away I could see that a large wind farm was being constructed. Huge bladeless towers had been erected among a mass of access roads. Looking at the internet when I got home I found out that this is part of the massive Clyde wind farm scheme which when it is completed will be the biggest in Europe. In all 152 turbines will blanket the surrounding area dominating the scenery for miles around.
I staggered from the summit and followed a fence in a northerly direction before striking off towards the west, high above a beautiful empty landscape. When researching this walk I typed in Earlshaugh as I considered camping near the abandoned farm. Once again I was dismayed to find that yet another wind farm is being planned. This is a lovely open landscape of gently rolling hills, it would be a real pity to lose it under miles of bulldozed roads and 500 foot turbines.
My last peak of the day was now in sight, a grassy whaleback that reminded me a bit of the Howgills. I spotted a sheepfold situated in a patch of green and decided to head towards it to seek shelter for a camp out of the wind.
It turned out to be a magnificent spot, sheltered from the worst of the gusts. I unpacked and made coffee and a quick snack.
I decided that a quick ascent of Whitehope heights would be in order, my pack left at the tent. A short ascent followed by a high contouring line using a sheep track brought me easily to the col below its summit. Here the wind really hit me and I found it difficult to stand, the gusts were terrifyingly ferocious and nearly lifted me off my feet. As I set off for the summit I had to lay-down a few times to avoid being blown over. I used a combination of crawling on my hands and knees and quick staggering, interspersed with sitting down. Only a few metres from the top I considered turning back, the wind was making it difficult to breathe. I finally made it and sought shelter behind a small rise, marvelling at the extensive views. The photo below shows a scene of calm and serenity, but believe me it was bedlam up there!
Day 4 – 11.3 miles with 660 metres ascent
Wandering around camp barefoot in the morning it struck me that this bit of Scotland had been tick free on my walk so far. Strange considering how many sheep there are about. I would not even consider walking through grass barefoot in the Highlands! Anyway it was very pleasant feeling the cold damp grass beneath my feet.
My next destination was Din Law which involved contouring around the slopes of Hart Fell, to avoid climbing back over its summit. This was actually fairly easy due to the nature of the terrain and I was soon at the head of the stream just before it plunges down to become Fruid water.
From Din Law it was a simple case of following the easy wide grassy ridge north to the trig point on Garelet Hill, a good yomp with excellent views throughout. Only the incessant wind spoilt things a bit.
My time on the hill tops came to an end shortly after Garelet Hill and I made the steep plunge down Lairds Cleuch into the forest where I would pick up the Silver Jubilee forest track.
Reaching the track I was both hungry and tired and feeling a little battered by the wind and constant sun. I had developed a bit of a cold and the combination of sun burn and the blowing of my nose meant that it was now very sore. I really wanted a good sit down in some shade and out of the wind. Luck would have it there was a hide in the forest a few hundred metres away where I duly deposited myself. Coffee and couscous was made and I lounged on one of the chairs with my shoes and socks off.
Duly refreshed it was head down, headphones on whilst I bashed out the final few miles of the day. The lower I got the hotter the temperature and the wind dropped as well. It was a sweaty final half hour back to Tweedsmuir where a baking hot van was waiting for me.