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Scotland's Watershed Part 1, Reiver March first 43km

Scotland's Watershed Part 1, Reiver March first 43km

Postby rohan » Sat Apr 01, 2017 10:26 pm

Date walked: 18/03/2017

Time taken: 3 days

Distance: 43 km

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Classified Hills covered in this section
Graham/Donald Cauldcleuch Head
Sub 2000' Greatmoor Hill, Wisp Hill, Pickethaw Hill

Towards the end of January I was feeling I needed a new challenge to throw off what for me had been a rather mixed year. A book sitting on my bookshelf caught my eye; "Ribbon of Wildness- Discovering the Watershed of Scotland" by Peter Wright. The back cover states "The next big wild walk...if you have bagged the Munros, done the Caledonian Challenge and walked the West Highland Way, this is your next conquest." I had done the Munros (and the Corbetts, well almost as I had still to take in Cnoc Coinnich , the recent addition) and walked the East Coast of Scotland from Edinburgh to Aberdeen. I have not been tempted by the WHW nor done the Caledonian Challenge but for various reasons the Watershed appealed. Peter had given a talk on his epic walk to the North East Scotland's Members group of the John Muir Trust so I knew that bogs and difficult terrain were not lacking but in a lot of ways that attracted me. I dropped an e-mail to Peter and his response with enthusiastic encouragement and advice spurred me on. The planning began.
The Watershed is a varied and meandering route following the divide between the waters that flow eastwards to the North Sea and the waters that flow westwards to the Atlantic. s . David Hewitt was the first person to walk the Watershed and write about it .He completed it in a single, 80 day journey, finishing at Cape Wrath in 1987. Other people have followed and a few have even done the whole of the UK mainland Watershed from Lands End (Mike Wylie doing it North to South). Peter Wright followed in 2005 but his view is that the Watershed turns Eastward and finishes at Duncansbyhead rather than Cape Wrath and this is the route I have chosen to follow. There is of course much debate about this and my opinion is either route is fine. Peter suggests that his route can be done it in a total of 8 weeks. I found out that just one other woman has completed it; Elspeth Luke who ran it in 34 days. Chris Townsend had completed it in one long trek. Others do it in smaller sections. I will not be setting any records (except possibly as the slowest journey!). I do intend to enjoy myself. Already thanks to Peter's book I have learnt a lot of interesting details about the history, culture and nature of the route.
I planned to complete the first section that Peter describes, The Reiver March from Peel Fell just over the English Border to Gawky Hill that sits on the edge of The Southern Upland Fault by 26th March. I mapped it out at home and reckoned on covering 12 miles per day, 14 on the easier sections but all along I knew that effectively I was going into the unknown with miles of forestry to cover. Peter solved the problem of getting to the start...it is advisable to have a friend who is willing to drive you to the best place to access Peel Fell which is just North of Keilder. Alternatively you could park at NT598029 at Note O The Gate amnd walk up the forestry track until it crosses the firebreak between Wheelrig Head and Hartshorn Pike. You would then need to walk to Peel Fell (4 miles from Note O the Gate) over Hartshorn and and then return along the watershed back to your car. Logistically you then have the problem of the onward journey and returning to retrieve your car ( or whatever method of transport chosen to get there). I was fortunate, Peter volunteered to drive me to the first alternative at NY622946.
We had originally planned to meet in Biggar on Friday. I had arranged to leave my van there and would pick it up at the end of my walk. Due to weather considerations we postponed the start day until Saturday. I was amused to read the MWIS report that for the Southern Uplands it would be "wet underfoot" No surprises there then. On the day road closures and other factors meant a delayed start at 11.55. Peter walked with me until shortly before the turn- off the built tracks just below the summit of Deadwater Fell. This is turn is marked by a gate and a fence.
Farewell Peter.jpg
A water logged photo due to condensation inside Gopro case!. Farewell to Peter.

Conditions had been dreich and the cloud was low enough to shroud the summits. However as I walked off across the moor following the fence to Mid Fell the cloud rose and the way to Peel Fell was clear. For short while the route is waymarked with signposts for the Keilder Stane trail. It was indeed "wet underfoot"
Mid Fell, Peel Fell.jpg
View to Mid Fell and Peel Fell

The weather was improving but unfortunately persistent low cloud obscured higher hills and I finally reached the summit of Peel Fell just over 4 miles and 3 hours from where I had set off with Peter. The views weren't the best but that didn't detract too much from the sense of occasion. A quick selfie at the cairn and I was off across the border and the inevitable peat hags on my way along the Scottish Watershed.
Selfie at start at Peel Fell.jpg
The Start at Peel Fell

Hartshorn Pike is next and as I was in no great hurry today I nipped out the the trig point at Carlin Tooth, 1km to the North of Hartshorn. Peter had told me of wild goats up on these fells but I saw nothing of them.
Another watery gopro photo Hartshorn Pike

At one point the sun even made a brief, watery appearance. Back at Hartshorn Pike I turned to descend the SW shoulder and plunged down into the plantation of Sitka Spruce. There was a faint track along the side of the fence posts that marked the way. My target was Wheelrig Head but it is barely discernible , a slighty bump on the way so I stopped just beyond a point where a built forest track crosses the Watershed route probably just short of Wheelrig. There was plenty of flat ground but nothing dry. At least there was no wind and the rain stayed off whilst I pitched the tent. I went off down the forestry track to find water. Just to the North there was a large are of clear felled trees with views to the North. I could see not signs of built structures and the only sound was the gentle rustling of the light wind in the trees and what I think were chaffinches singing. ( My bird song i.d. is limited to the obvious ones but it was quite gratifying to hear some sounds of life in this large tract of commercial forestry). Tea was a packet of instant pasta (spicy tomato) augmented with paremsan cheese with nuts and apricots for pudding. I soon fell asleep.
I hoped that an early night would mean an early start but I was far too comfy, a good groundsheet and sleeping on what is basically sphagnum moss is not too bad. In the event I wasn't away until 8.30. There was a fine drizzly rain which meant packing away a wet tent. As left I remembered to take a photo back towards where I had camped, having totally forgotten to take one of my campsite.
looking back to camp site.jpg
Camp site

I speculated that the water I had gathered the previous night had been on the way to the North Sea, today should I return it to the Atlantic catchment. In all likelyhood it would be absorbed by the tree roots and transpired by them into the atmosphere and from there could end up anywhere. My little removals and returns would be unlikely to have any effect on the overall watersystem!
The ride I was travelling along had an amazing variety of mosses and lichens with the fence posts themselves being small colourful ecosystems. Unfortunately my cackhandedness with a gopro gives a blurry mess.
fence post garden.jpg
Fence Post ecosystem

I crossed and re crossed the ride trying to find the least soggy route. Route finding was about avoiding the worst of the bog. The rain continued but my progress wasn't too bad given the terrain and I was at Rushyrig by 10.10. Down below was the evocatively named "Note O the Gate", the highest point of the B6357 and I had an important phone call to make. Before I set off I had mentioned that I was going to be in Wauchope Forest at the weekend. A friend from Knoydart got in touch to say that his parents lived on the edge of the forest and as a result he put me in touch with them . His father told me to phone when I was approaching Note O the Gate so I did. He told me that he would be there in 2O minutes and was bringing soup! 20 minutes later I was sitting in Mac's warm car supping his delicious home made Parsnip and Apple soup. Not only that but Mac relieved me of my rucksack and whilst I walked up the steep gradient to Wigg Knowe he "magicked" it up to the top. I was now ahead of schedule. Mac was a delightful man and in our short meeting managed to cover subjects as diverse as The British Antartic Survey ( for whom he worked in the 1960s), Knoydart and The Archers.(we are both former Archers listeners who have become dissatisfied with it. Of course we also talked about the Watershed and Mac's many long distance walks,
Mac and Rita.jpg
Mac and Rita

I left Mac and civilisation and headed off in a S.W. direction along the tree edge. It felt good to be out of the trees and beyond Fanna Hill Trig Point there was clear felling on my right.
Fanna Hill TP.jpg
Fanna Hill

The weather improved as per Mac’s information. All felt good. It was fairly easy to see the line of the Watershed and although I had been concerned that I would miss the turn to Laidlehope Head it was obvious when it came. I was temporarily back in a ride with trees on either side but they were relatively young trees and less oppressive than a mature conifer plantation.
As I approached the forestry track at the base of the hill I stumbled on a tussock, pitched forward and ended up head first in a ditch with the sludgy water finding its way up my sleeves. I was pinned down by the weight of my rucksack and my legs were waving in the air. It must have been a funny sight. I struggled out of my rucksack and half crawled, half swam out of the ditch. So far the day had been excellent but this incident seemed to mark a turning point. I made a hash of Lime Kiln Edge amongst new plantings and failed to spot the obvious way down, leaving the ridge too soon and ending up amongst more new plantings, old brash and huge, steep sided drainage ditches that crossed my path. Clambering about in this on a warm sunny afternoon was draining to say the least and I made heavy weather down to the road (B6399) at a point about 100 metres North of the Watershed
rainbow Lime Kiln Edge.jpg
Rainbow on Lime Kilne Edge

I re-joined the watershed on what appeared to be a new forestry road that ended abruptly at the end of the new plantings, shortly before the route takes a left turn into a ride through the mature plantation. Leap hill and The Maiden Paps had been in view since Fanna Hill and I continued to catch glimpses of the former through breaks in the trees. A large clearing coincides with where the route passes over an old railway tunnel and shortly after this I came across more clear-felled forest. Leap Hill looked tantalisingly close to my right. The route ahead was covered in brash but there appeared to be a track of sorts to my right. It looked like it went straight across to Leap Hill. I turned right. This was mistake number 2. Very shortly the track disappeared under brash and I was once again struggling over branches and tree stumps and wasn’t even on the watershed. It wasn’t a long stretch but again was tiring and slow. I stopped at a burn (a sure indicator that I was off the watershed), refilled my empty water bottle then clambered up the relatively clear edge of the burn to the old limit of the plantation.
I was glad that the wind had strengthened a bit as this cooled me off but I wasn’t that clear of the way to Leap Hill. It was only about 80 metres of a climb to the summit but all the brash battling had left me disinclined to tackle its steep sides. I thought that it may be easier going back on myself from the west were the gradient looked more inviting. In fact I could find no obvious route except one point where trees had fallen across a gap in the trees. Eventually as I realised that the wind was strengthening I decided that I would find a sheltered spot and have an early camp. The next day I could be up early and pop up Leap Hill first thing. I also reasoned that it would be better to camp before going up Scaw’d Law and Greatmoor Hill as my feeling was that I would be more exposed to the wind up there.
Camping on the watershed is a bit of a challenge. First find a flat spot, this isn’t too difficult but finding a dry, flat spot is. I was on grazed moorland but every flattish bit was soaking wet. I also wanted to try and be out of the wind. In fact, Greatmoor Hill was sheltering me from the worst of it and I eventually pitched on slightly raised flat area that was on the damp side. The soup was a distant memory and although I had been snacking on dried fruit and nuts, I was ravenously hungry. I made a big pot of couscous, ate 2 mouthfuls and felt instantly full. By now the wind was fair rattling through the trees the other side of the fence. My tent was pitched stern to the wind and as long as it didn’t change direction I was cosy enough. It was a noisy night so I slept fitfully and had some rather vivid dreams.
I woke at first light eager to get off but one look at the clouds whizzing overhead made me snuggle back into my sleeping bag. I ran through my choices. I couldn’t get a signal on my phone so couldn’t check the weather.
1) Set off and struggle into the wind - it was currently coming from my direction of travel for most of the day.
2) Wait in my tent and see if the weather improved. The previous 2 days had poor weather in the morning but fine afternoons. This would mean I would fall way behind schedule so would contemplate terminating this outing to the Watershed at Moffat.
3) If the weather didn’t improve I would make my way back down to the B6399 via Sundhope. There I would hitch to Hawick or if necessary call Mac who had offered to pick me up if I needed it.
I decided on option 2 with 3 as a backup if I found the wind impossible once I got up onto Greatmoor Hill. Leap Hill was abandoned. I ate some of the couscous for breakfast and rolled the rest into wraps for lunch. Would I ever see the end of it?
At around 09.00 I noticed that the wind was easing so I packed up the tent-totally dried off in the wind- and set off up Scaw’d Law. There were larks singing above me which was delightful. As soon as I got a signal I texted Peter for a weather report. He advised forecast was 18 mph winds, westerly but easing, sunshine light showers. Tuesday 18mph westerly winds one shower, It was getting cooler but that wasn't a problem. So not bad, game on.
TP and cairn Greatmoor Hill.jpg
Greatmoor Hill Trig Point

Initially I made good progress. I was heading into the wind and it did feel a bit stronger than 18 mph but didn;t impede my progress. This changed as I climbed up Windy Edge and onto the flat exposed summit of Cauldcleuch . The large flat summit is covered in peat hags and bogs which required careful negotiation, The wind was now threatening to shove me over into each and every peat bog . Progress was really slow. I no longer have an anemometer app but I felt that the wind was at least 25-30 with some stronger gusts. Still it was to ease so I battled on. A hail shower also passed over on Cauldcleuch and this set the pattern for the following hills.
I had noticed evidence of fox and at various points along the route there were more signs that a fox or foxes had been along this way. I imagined him/her running back and forth sniffing everything of interest. My path was similarly erratic as I found the least wet areas.
The watery summit Cauldcleuch Head.jpg
Boggy Cauldcleuch

The descents were sunny but exposed to the wind, the ascents were relatively sheltered but as I approached each summit there would be a short blasts of wintery weather along with some serious gusts. All the time I was battling the wind. The going under foot was, thankfully, easy with a quad bike track running beside the fence. At some point my water bottle ran dry and I missed the most obvious places to fill up. Still it wasn’t far to the A7 was it? The Comb hill mast was close by but of course the route twists and turns. Tudhope trig point came quite easily but with the inevitable snow squall on the summit rise, was this the wind finally easing?
Tudhope tp.jpg
Trig Point , Tudhope Hill


Witches Tooth at Cairn.jpg
Bone or is it a tooth at summit of Carlin Tooth

Carlin Tooth was short and steep and now I realised that either I would be camping down by the A7 with lorries thundering past or I would have to get up and over Comb Hill. Again I had made painfully slow progress which was dispiriting. This should have been a good day, relatively easy walking, good views and nothing but the wind to impede me. I decided to look for a suitable camp site in the lee of Dod Hill.
rainbow at the end of the day.jpg
Rainbow after the squall

Tomorrow was a new day.
My camp site was less than ideal. There was very little flat ground but I eventually found a spot that was dry and out of the wind if not very flat. I was a little way above a burn and finally filled my water bottle. I still had some of that couscous left but did not feel at all hungry. Later I realised that this was possibly due to dehydration. I am always bad at keeping hydrated and I should have been drinking lots more than I did. Dehydration can also make you feel exhausted. I did brew a cuppa and as I was drinking it a sudden squall hit the tent broadside on. I had pitched with the rear of the tent into what had been the wind direction but I was also out of the wind when I pitched so the squall was unexpected.. Now the wind was coming sideways on and I hoped it was just a last gasp of the day. Indstead the squalls started to come more frequently, I could hear the build-up roar, initially thinking it was a lorry ion the A7. Each time the wind threatened to flatten the tent. There was no way I wanted to risk finding a more sheltered pitch in by now darkening conditions unless I absolutely had to. As a precaution I packed up everything inside the tent just in case I had to evacuate
I didn’t sleep for hours, eventually falling asleep between 2-3 a.m. then waking again at 05.50. The wind was still battering the tent but whilst waiting for daylight I forced down some breakfast. I also spent some time trying to get a forecast but I was surrounded by hills with no clear view of any of the many masts in these parts and although I had a weak signal, it kept dropping as I accessed MWIS. The clouds overhead told me that the wind was still westerly (and strong) although the wind hitting my tent was south easterly so it must have been a vagary of the surrounding landform. Snow had also fallen overnight but it was just a dusting and would not present any difficulties.
I packed up noticing that I had painful hacks around my fingernails, another sign of being dehydrated. As I headed up the last few metres of Dod Hill, I was almost blown over twice and I wasn’t even into the full blast of the wind. I knew that it would be foolish to go on. Lack of sleep and another day of battling strong headwinds with no easy escape route for 20km once I was into the Craik Forest made my mind up. I dropped down to Elygrain to the North and from there out to the A7 (Linhope)and a bus eventually to Edinburgh, then Biggar for my van. I picked up that the weather was going to improve on Thursday and Friday so hung around visiting friends (and Peter) in the Central Belt.
Peter was wonderful. With just the right mix of encouragement and shared experience I did not feel that I had failed. I could return and with a real sense of the challenges ahead and how to cope with them. Thursday night saw me back at Mosspaul on the A7. I had an evening stroll up Dod Hill, then next day in wonderful conditions I had a walk out to Blackburn Head, then retraced my steps to Ewes Doors and out to catch the bus back to my van at Mosspaul meaning that I had completed approximately 33 % of the Reiver March plus the distance covered leaving and joining the route. Not what I had planned but it was a start. I also finally could see the hills of the Lake District, previously they had been lost in the murk of low cloud. Today their snow covered peaks were obvious.
Lake District just visible.jpg
Snowy Lakes Hills just visible in distance

Summit Comb Hill with the distant line of snow covered Moffat Hills.jpg
Comb Hill summit, Moffat Hills in far distance

Wisp Hill.jpg
Wisp Hill

Pickethaw and Wisp Hill.jpg
Pickethaw Cairn and Wisp Hill

Lessons Learnt
1)Keep hydrated.
2) My fitness has not yet fully returned to its level before I dislocated my hip last October.
3) I should use the Reiver (and Laich Marches) as training for the longer routes ahead, but do these sections in bite sized 2-3 day trips. This may mean a bit more walkking to access the Watershed but this would all h elpo to build my fitness.
4) My pre trip training on rough, trackless ground was spot on. Apart from the brash which should be avoided at all costs the most difficult section was Causewaygrain Head to Whitehope Edge but even there I found a faint track right next to the trees
5)My hip is not a problem!
6) My gear was fine but I need to sort a better, lightweight camera. My 1000 mile socks were well worth the money.

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Re: Scotland's Watershed Part 1, Reiver March first 43km

Postby Alteknacker » Wed Sep 12, 2018 10:28 pm

An incredible undertaking! And a great read. Once again, I'm impressed with your determination to keep going whatever the conditions! :clap: :clap: :clap: I grew up in the Dales, but I still dislike peat hags and bogs....

I'm just hoping that panos in later reports (which I haven't yet read) are in Flickr - I love looking at panos full screen!

On to the next installment....
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Location: Effete South (of WIgan, anyway)

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