The River Esk was in full spate as I drove over the bridge in Langholm, the brown turbulent water an impressive sight. Once past Bentpath and heading up the Meggat Water the road was a mess of stones and gravel washed down from the recent heavy rains. One long flooded section gave me cause for concern, but luckily the water was only a few inches deep.
I left the Doblo at the end of the road next to an information board at the deserted Jamestown. I was a bit nervous leaving our new van on its own and full of kit in such a remote spot. Reuben was saddled up with his panniers and I hoisted a full and heavy 80 litre pack onto my back. Much of the weight was a bag of coal, kindling and firelighters, you can’t head into a bothy in January without the means to have a warming fire.
It took less than an hour to walk to Greensykes bothy, first along a firm track and then a boggy slosh through the forest. Under a steely grey sky with a hint of drizzle in the air the scenery was hardly inspiring, but it was good to fill my lungs with fresh air and stretch my legs.
The bothy was hidden until the very last minute, the first glimpse being through a break in the conifers. I looked for signs of life and smoke from the chimney but all was quiet. I really wanted the place to myself, space to clear my head and relax.
The place was indeed empty, clean, well-kept and with a good supply of coal and dry logs. With dark falling I set about lighting the candles that I had carried in and got the fire going. The chimney drew very well, the fire filling the room with warmth and a friendly glow. I made a cosy nest on the sleeping platform, putting Reuben’s bed next to mine. It was one of the most pleasant bothy evenings that I have had. I sat reading in front of the fire whilst drinking the half a bottle of red wine I had brought along.
The warm room meant that the winter sleeping bag that I had brought along was not really needed, I didn’t zip it up until the early hours. For some reason Reuben did not settle down that night, he kept shifting around, sitting up and staring at something. I didn’t feel any ghostly presences, but perhaps he sensed something I could not.
In winter, bothy mornings are much more preferable to waking up in a tent. There is space to stretch out and make breakfast in comfort. There is always a good quality spade to make the morning walk of shame much easier. Before leaving I swept the bothy and left it as neat and tidy as I had found it. The bag of coal I had carried in was left with the existing pile of fuel.
The walk back to the van was much quicker, my rucksack a bag of coal lighter. Much of the snow that had been on the ground had now melted, leaving the track even wetter. A solitary shepherd with his collie passed on a quad bike as I neared the road head.
Before driving off I restocked my rucksack with another bag of coal and food for Reuben and I. The aim this time was Kershopehead bothy, just to the east of Newcastleton, deep in the forest to the south of Kielder. It was a very scenic drive over the moors between Langholm and Newcastleton, an area very worthy of returning to for a backpack. Newcastleton is a pleasant place and the village shop and bakery provided a boost to my supplies.
The van was once again left in a remote spot, this time at Kershopehead Bridge. The walk into the bothy this time was longer, taking a good couple of hours. The problem with forestry tracks marked on the map is that you don’t know if they are going to be wide roads or narrow grassy trods. I managed to pick one that started off promising but soon left me stuck in the middle of a bog. I had to re-trace my steps and start again.
Kershopehead is another well looked after bothy, although I was glad that I had carried in a big bag of coal as it was lacking in the dry fuel department (although it is in the middle of a huge forest!). The stove was soon roaring and another cosy night was spent staring into the flickering flames and reading Game of Thrones. I had carried in with me a huge brick of a book, weight not really being an issue when you are only walking a few miles a day.
The following morning we set off into low cloud and light drizzle to find a way to climb Glendhu Hill. This isolated moorland lump is defended almost to its summit on all sides by forestry. Height was quickly and easily gained on a series of forestry tracks until we got to Coal Grains and a convenient place to leave the track. Here the forestry had been felled and replanted. That meant that the conifers were only a couple of metres high and there were gaps between them. I hid my pack before climbing to the summit, relieved to get the weight off my shoulders. The going however was still very tough due to the rotting brush underfoot from when it had been felled a few years ago. There were many traps for the unwary hidden in the long grass and heather.
The summit itself was a desolate place in the wind, rain and mist and we did not hang around. We retraced our steps back to the ruckack for a quick snack break. Reuben was not enjoying the weather and did his best to build a nest in the heather by much kicking and turning round and round in circles. No sooner than he had got comfortable we were off again.
The trudge back to the car seemed to take ages, tracks through forestry plantations never being very exciting the second time round. I was glad when we rounded the last corner to see the van still where I had left it.
With it being late in the afternoon there was not enough daylight to walk to the next bothy on my list. Instead I drove to the end of a single track road and a gravel forest car park. A quiet night was spent in the van, owls hooting in the dark woods. The morning brought mild panic when I could not open either of the rear sliding doors. Climbing undignified over the front seat and exiting head first it was evident that they had frozen shut, a bit of a design flaw. The stove in the Doblo is designed to be used alfresco so I stood at the rear of the vehicle brewing up and cooking breakfast, my breath steaming in the sub-zero air. The forecast promised a bright and sunny morning with cloud building in the afternoon, followed by heavy snow during the evening and night. Once again I repacked my 80 litre pack with plenty of coal and kindling.