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The SUW backpacking all the way

The SUW backpacking all the way

Postby Anne Jan Pool » Fri Oct 23, 2015 6:26 pm

Route description: Southern Upland Way

Date walked: 07/08/2015

Time taken: 16 days

Distance: 338 km

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In the past years my son (19) and I (57), living in the Netherlands, had walked Offa’s Dyke Path, the Cleveland Way and Wainwright’s Coast-to-Coast path. After these three English/Welsh long distance walks we thought it was time for a Scottish adventure and after some deliberation we chose the Southern Upland Way. Not many people walk the SUW but the reports of those that have, gave us the idea that the SUW would be lonely, challenging as well as beautiful. We were not disappointed and thoroughly enjoyed this fantastic walk.

Because we were backpacking, sleeping in our tent and a couple of bothies, the long stretches between towns and the lack of facilities on these stretches were not really a problem. We were well prepared, knowing exactly where to find shops to buy food. Furthermore we were carrying six dried meals for our wild camping nights and for our stay in bothies and had purifying drops enabling us to drink water from the burns. Our preparation would pay off in the weeks to come.

We used the Cicerone guide, published in 2007, content of 2005, with its 1 : 40000 maps, a compass and had the whole route in GPX-format on our mobile phones, in case we would be walking through the mist (which we never did, but of course we didn’t know that in advance). Last year, walking the Coast-to-Coast we got lost in the Lake District in terrible weather and we did not want to let that happen again. It was not a nice experience at all. And of course we used the signposts of the SUW itself, though I would not recommend walking the SUW on fingerposts alone. You wouldn’t get far.

Our itinerary
Portpatrick - Castle Kennedy (24k, 15m, Chlenry Farmhouse)
Castle Kennedy - Beehive Bothy (21k, 13m, Beehive Bothy)
Beehive Bothy - Bargrennan (20k, 13m, Glentrool Camping & Caravan Site)
Bargrennan - Clatteringshaws Loch (25k, 16m, wild camping)
Clatteringshaws Loch – Stroanpatrick (26k, 16m, wild camping)
Stroanpatrick - Sanquhar (27k, 17m, Castle View Caravan/Camping Site)
Sanquhar - Wanlockhead/Leadhills (13k,8m, Hopetoun Arms)
Wanlockhead/Leadhills - Brattleburn Bothy (25k, 16m, Brattleburn Bothy)
Brattleburn Bothy - Moffat (10k, 6m, Moffat Camping & Caravanning Club)
Moffat - Rest day
Moffat - St Mary's Loch (34k, 21m, Tibbie Shiels Inn)
St Mary's Loch - Innerleithen (19m, 12k, Tweedside Caravan Park)
Innerleithen - Galashiels (20k, 13m, Kilnknowe Caravan Park)
Galashiels - Melrose (9k, 6m, Gibson Park Caravan Club Site)
Melrose - Rest day
Melrose - Blythe Water (23k, 14m, wild camping)
Blythe Water - Abbey St Bathans (29k, 18m, wild camping)
Abbey St. Bathans - Cockburnspath (17k, 10m)

At the start of our journey in Ede (the Netherlands)

We started on August 5th, leaving the Dutch town of Ede by train, then flew to Glasgow and found a campsite in the nearby town of Stepps. In Glasgow we bought gas canisters – not allowed to take on the plane –midge hats and midge repellent, because we were warned about the midges. Midge reality wasn’t as bad as the predictions in some reports of the SUW. Only at a few spots were some midges, but never really annoying. Next day we took the train to Stranraer, followed by a bus ride to Portpatrick, spent the night on the beautifully situated campsite there and were ready to start our walk the following morning.

Camping by the sea in Portpatrick

Ready to start our walk!

Day 1 Portpatrick – Chlenry Farm
When we set off on the morning of 7 August the weather was beautiful and we were really looking forward to the days ahead of us. After some 5km along the beautiful coastline we left the sea heading inland in the direction of Castle Kennedy.

Broad Moor

This first day was a combination of moorland walking and small tarmac roads. We met very few people during the day and that would not change for the rest of the walk. If you enjoy being on your own (well together actually) in an environment without people, houses, pubs etc. then the SUW is a very good choice. There were several days that we didn’t meet anyone during the whole day. We loved the tranquillity and the feeling of space and freedom that came with it.
After some 20km we reached Castle Kennedy, but that was not our final destination for the day, passed the entrance to the famous gardens – which we would visit the next day – and walked another 3 miles to Chlenry House - mentioned on the official site of the SUW as offering camping facilities – where, after being welcomed by the friendly owner, we pitched our tent in the back garden. When dusk came midges also came, but not in the numbers we had feared and read about. It was a very nice place for our first night on the SUW.

Camping in the garden of Chlenry House

Day 2 Chlenry Farm – Beehive Bothy
The weather was still very beautiful when we woke up next morning and around 9.30 we first walked to Castle Kennedy Gardens, highly recommended by the Cicerone guide. In the wonderful sunshine it was indeed a very nice place to spend a couple of hours. After lunch we set off for the second stage, leading us to the Beehive bothy, a distance of about 20km. More woodland walking than the first day but we did not find it as boring as we read in a SUW-report form a couple of years back. The route is varied and enjoyable.

Near Glenwhan Moor

Unfortunately it started raining a couple of kilometres before the bothy, so we were glad we could spend the night there. Very basic, but clean, and with a burn next door as water supply, it was a good place to spend the (wet) second night.

Beehive Bothy

Day 3 Beehive Bothy - Bargrennan
The following morning it was still raining, more a drizzle than real rain, but, clad in waterproofs, we set off heading for our next destination Bargrennan. We passed the mysterious Langaggarn Standing Stones (2000 b.C.), climbed our first (not so serious) hill (Craig Airie Fell, 325m), offering us a grey misty view of the land around us and finally descended to Bargrennan. The moorland stretches were more difficult than we had expected – never mentioned in the Cicerone guide – because of the often wet conditions underfoot. We were to have that experience many more times, especially during the first half of the SUW. Wet, muddy, uneven ground, sometimes with watery holes, making progress more difficult than we had expected. Still, with our waterproof walking boots, it was not a real problem, but tiring it sometimes was. On the campsite in Bargrennan – very friendly and helpful people there! – is a little shop, where we bought bread and cheese for the next two days, knowing that the next shop would be in St. Johns Town of Dalry, some 40km further along the SUW. Our evening meal was at the small hotel House o’ Hill in Bargrennan.

Day 4 Bargrennan – Clatteringshaws Loch
The fourth day started with a very beautiful walk along the River Cree, the Water of Minnoch and finally the Water of Trool, leading us to Loch Trool. Skies were grey with every now and then a shower.

Loch Trool

After Loch Dee, with its beautiful views, long stretches of wood plantations followed. Just before Clatteringshaws Loch the Forestry Commission had set up a sign, telling us to follow a diversion because of forestry work along the route. Obedient as we are, we followed the sign into shrubs, ferns, grassland but definitely not on anything resembling a path. What followed was the worst kilometre of the whole walk, going through very wet woodland, man high bracken, over fallen trees, taking us about an hour to find a proper path at the end of the diversion. I don’t think the Forestry Commission cares a lot about walkers, for sending people into such a diversion is almost criminal.

Diversion (idea of the Forestry Commission)

Still, at the end of the diversion we found a very nice wild camping spot where we pitched out tent. Our first dried meal tasted better than we expected, but maybe that was because of the hardships we had met just before. The evening was cold but the views from our tent really nice. Despite the terrible diversion we were enjoying this walk very much, especially when wild camping on such a nice spot.

Wildcamping near Clatteringshaw Loch

Day 5 Clatteringsshaws Loch – Stroanpatrick
The sun welcomed us with its warmth and light when we got out of the tent the next morning, ready to start a long desolate walk to somewhere near Manquhill Hill, where we planned to spend another night wild camping. The only inhabited place would be St. John’s Town of Dalry, where we intended to do our shopping for another two days. The walk to Dalry was not too difficult, though conditions underfoot were often wet. The only pub in Dalry served us a very nice lunch and the small grocery shop had everything we needed (which wasn’t very much, knowing you have to carry everything on your back).

Enjoying the loneliness of the Galloway Hills

Then followed a part of the walk that lead us through a very remote part of the Galloway Hills, highly enjoyable because of the feeling of total freedom with extensive views in all directions.

The Galloway Hills, near Stroanpatrick

We had intended to find ourselves a camping spot somewhere on Manquhill Hill, but a little beyond Stroanpatrick Farm we found the most beautiful knoll to pitch our tent on with a 360-degree view in sunny, though chilly, weather. After eating our second dried meal we spent the evening ‘listening’ to the silence surrounding us and knew that choosing the SUW had been a very good decision indeed.

A fantastic wild camping spot!

Day 6 Stroanpatrick – Sanquhar
Some tough climbs (Manquhill Hill, Benbrack, Black Hill) were awaiting us on this new day but we had slept very well in our tent on this remote silent ‘campsite’ and felt strong and healthy. The weather was fine again, some clouds, but certainly no rain.

On the top of Benbrack

Having conquered the hills we descended to Polskeoch Bothy, a good place for a little rest and with a burn to fill our waterbags. The second part was a long walk over desolate moorland. Sanquhar could be seen from very far ahead already and the descent into the town was long but very gradual. As we entered the town a great number of horses with riders all dressed up were going through the town, the traditional ‘Riding of the Marches’. After 4 days without a shower we hoped that the campsite in Sanquhar would have proper facilities, but alas, it was more like a parking place for unused caravans with a few small patches of grass. A toilet and a cold water tap was all with regards to sanitary facilities. The night was unusually cold, but luckily not a problem for our down sleeping bags.

Day 7 Sanquhar – Wanlockhead (Leadhills)
A short walk today as the afternoon is reserved for a visit of the Mining Museum in Wanlockhead. The walk from Sanquhar to Wanlockhead is not too difficult though with quite some climbing passing land of the Duke of Buccleuch, Europe’s biggest landowner. It is another sunny day and as we get closer to Wanlockhead, with 425m the highest village in Great-Britain, the traces of centuries of lead mining are still very visible.

Lead mining history in Wanlockhead

After visiting the interesting small museum we went on a guided tour into a mine – cold, damp, dark – and visited some of the old miners cottages. It made us realize how very difficult circumstances were for people in those days and how lucky we are that we can live in so much luxury (even our small tent seems luxurious). From Wanlockhead (no camping facilities) we went to nearby Leadhills where we camped in the backgarden of the Hopetoun Arms Hotel. Of course we had a couple of drinks and a fine meal in the hotel.

Day 8 Leadhills – Brattleburn Bothy
On this day we went over Lowther Hill, with 725m the highest point of the walk. It was a little misty but not so much that it gave a problems finding our way. Lots of up and down walking today. The final kilometres were very hard. For many kilometres no SUW-signposts, but there really was only one path, or something that looked like a path going through the woods and the high grass and thus we decided to follow that. A very wet path, often through high bracken, finally brought us to a little wooden sign indicating to turn right for the bothy. The bothy was absolutely wonderful. Separate ‘bedrooms’ and a living room with a woodstove and wood in all sizes ready for us to be used. Thanks to the volunteers who did all this! We used only a little wood – others after us would also like to use some – but had a warm evening and were able to dry our socks again.

Brattleburn Bothy

Day 9 Brattleburn Bothy - Moffat
A short walk through woodland and over moorland (often wet) brought us first into Beattock and then into Moffat, a very nice little town. It was another sunny day and we were looking forward to a stay at a proper campsite with good facilities. We found it very near the town centre and for the first time in 6 days we were able to get a shower, put on a clean set of clothes and wash the dirty set. It made us feel fresh and invigorated again. The rest of the afternoon we spent discovering this very nice little town, enjoyed good English scones with clotted cream and jam and had our evening meal in the Star Hotel, the narrowest detached hotel in the world, as officially recorded in the Guinness Book of Records.

Moffat Dale and Moffat Water

Day 10 Moffat (Grey Mare’s Tail)
In the Cicerone guidebook Moffat is recommended as thé place to stay a little longer, because of the town itself and the surrounding area which has so much to offer. Staying a whole day in Moffat itself didn’t seem very attractive as it is only small and most of it we had already seen the day before. The recommended beauty spots however are all too far away to reach on foot and therefore we decided to take a taxi (£20,= one way) from Moffat to Grey Mare’s Tail, the fifth highest waterfall in the UK with beautiful Loch Skeen and the hills beyond.

Grey Mare's Tail

We were dropped at the foot of the climb at 2pm and asked the friendly taxi driver to pick us up again at 6pm. It was very much worth the 40 pounds. The climb along the waterfall is very nice, Loch Skeen is beautiful and, being well trained and fit, the walk around the Loch, going up to Lochcraig Head at 800m was great. The views were magnificent.

View from Lochcraig Head (800m)

A little before 6pm we were back at the parking place and soon we were dropped off at the entrance of the campsite, where we spent a quiet evening.

Day 11 Moffat – St. Mary’s Loch
This was to be the longest stage in our SUW (34km) and so we made an early start. We decided to take the high level route to Croft Head. Scrambling over layers of wood, going steeply up across wet moorlands, it was a really tiring start of this long walk and once on the top we were almost exhausted and needed some rest. After a long descent we reached Over Phawhope Bothy where we took a long rest, made ourselves some soup and filled our waterbags. At Potburn started a 10km stretch of tarmac road, certainly not the most entertaining part of the SUW. It does have one advantage though: progress is fast. Near Scabcleuch the tarmac could at last be left behind and a very nice walk across some hills began leading us finally to a point where we could see St. Mary’s Loch. Already we were looking forward to a pint of bitter and a good meal in Tibbie Shiels Inn. It was around 6.30pm that we arrived at the Inn, but, alas, it was closed! Just imagine our disappointment. The campsite was almost completely empty, so we found a beautiful spot near the lake and the friendly owner, having seen our disappointment, even brought us some chips (!).
In the evening we walked to the statue of James Hogg, the 'Ettrick Shepherd', and saw the night fall over the very quiet lake.

Camping at Tibbie Shiels Inn

Day 12 St. Mary’s Loch – Innerleithen
The first 5km were easy walking along the shore of St. Mary’s Loch. After a short visit to Dryhope tower, we followed the SUW going up and down but never really hard. From afar we could already see Traquair, though it took us over an hour to really get there. It had started raining, which we hadn’t experienced for quite some time. We took a little detour to Traquair House, very much worth a visit. It is said to be the longest continually inhabited house in Scotland and it has strong connections to the Stewart dynasty. After this visit (with scones in the nice café) we walked to Innerleithen, to the campsite nicely situated near the River Tweed. The rain had become a very slight drizzle and after a while stopped altogether. Innerleithen has everything you need (shops, pubs, restaurants) and so we had a nice evening in this otherwise not very attractive town.

Day 13 Innerleithen – Galashiels
From the campsite in Innerleithen we first had to walk back to the SUW, picking it up again in Traquair. A steep climb followed up to Minch Moor – the short detour all the way to the top is worth the effort – offering us grand views in the direction of Melrose and the famous Eildon Hills. Then followed a very nice walk through heather clad landscape, passing The Three Brethren and finally descending into Galashiels, a busy most depressing town with lots of traffic.

Heather clad hills near Galashiels

We had to add another 3km to the walk as the campsite is far outside the town centre. The campsite itself was one of the worst we have ever stayed at (for 10 pounds!) with a very dirty sanitary block offering only a filthy toilet and a tap. The rain that had started to fall once we entered Galashiels, didn’t add much to our wellbeing either. We were already looking forward to the next day when we would be able to leave this depressing place.

Day 14 Galashiels - Melrose
The weather was much better when we woke up and we did not regret our leaving Galashiels and hoped Melrose would be better. And indeed it was. After a nice walk along the bank of the Tweed – Walter Scott’s house Abbotsford can be seen at the other side of the river – we reached Melrose, a very nice little town – do visit the beautiful abbey! - with a perfect campsite very near the town. After some days with hardly any facilities we enjoyed the shower, the laundry room and the clean clothes.
By coincidence we found out that a tour was to be held in the afternoon going around the former Roman army camp of Trimontium (tea included). After some hesitation we decided to participate, and though nothing can be seen any more of the camp itself it was very interesting and we enjoyed it a lot, not in the least because of the tea we received in the town hall of Newstead. In the evening we treated ourselves on a double fish-and-chips in the town centre.

Day 15 Melrose (Abbotsford, Eildon Hills)
Though not in our original itinerary, we decided to stay another day in Melrose, giving us time to visit Abbotsford, house of Sir Walter Scott, and to climb one of the Eildon Hills. We took the bus to Abbotsford and visited this beautiful house. The experience was greatly enhanced by the very nice audio tour in which Sir Walter Scott himself tells about the house and his life. The gardens are very nice as is the walk to the River Tweed.

Abbotsford, home of Sir Walter Scott

In the afternoon we climbed the middle of the three Eildon Hills, going steeply up in a very hard wind, but worth every step because of the rewarding views from the top.

One of the three Eildon Hills near Melrose

Day 16 Melrose – Blythe Water
Another long stage was awaiting us as we set off from Melrose crossing the Tweed by the suspension bridge, built in 1826. After a climb out of the valley we followed an old Roman road and through kilometres of moorland we reached Lauder in the beginning of the afternoon. The little supermarket had everything we needed for the last part of the SUW where we would not find any other shop any more. We passed Thirlstane Castle (closed) and entered the desolate but very beautiful Lammermuir Hills, undulating moorland whereever you look with hardly any people in it.

The Lammermuirs

It finally brought us to our wild camping spot near Blythe Water – recommended by ‘The Rambling Man’ as the most beautiful wild camping spot on the whole SUW. It was indeed very nice to camp there, despite the heavy thunderstorm we experienced during the night. Luckily our tent held out.

Day 17 Blythe Water – Abbey St. Bathans
We continued our walk through the Lammermuirs, climbing the last serious hill of the SUW, Twin Law, through magnificent heather landscape, to reach the beautiful, very quiet little village of Longformacus, where we rested for a while and enjoyed our lunch. Then on we went to Abbey St. Bathans, altogether quite a long walk for one day. About a kilometre north of Abbey St. Bathans we found a good wild camping spot near Edgar’s Cleugh, again recommended by ‘The Rambling Man’.

Day 18 Abbey St. Bathans - Cockburnspath
Though fit and well trained we were looking forward to reaching the end of the walk. Somehow one gets a little tired (mentally) of all these consecutive days of walking. After crossing the A1 and the railway – for a short while walking in between them – a long climb through woodland followed and finally we saw the North Sea, 17 days after leaving the Irish sea behind us. It gave us new energy for the last part to Cockburnspath. A very nice walk through Pease Dean Wildlife Reserve brought us to Cove Harbour and then – leaving the sea again (why?) – to the end of the walk in Cockburnspath. We have done a couple of long distance walks and all had a logical endpoint with a proper sign indicating the very end – the end of Offa’s Dyke on the beach of Prestatyn e.g. – but why the SUW goes into Cockburnspath, ending very abruptly at an insignificant crossroads I don’t understand. Why not let it end in Cove Harbour e.g., a nice spot at the sea?

We made it to the end of the SUW!

Still, after 341km we had reached the end and that gave us a great amount of satisfaction. It had been a beautiful walk in very good weather through a surprisingly varied landscape. Few people walk the SUW and that is a shame, though on the other hand it gives the walk the feeling of loneliness and freedom which other, frequently walked, routes probably lack.
Last edited by Anne Jan Pool on Wed Nov 04, 2015 8:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The SUW backpacking all the way

Postby Guinessman » Wed Oct 28, 2015 11:36 am

Looking to do the SUW at some stage, probably 2017, thanks for posting.
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Re: The SUW backpacking all the way

Postby LDPWalker » Thu Oct 29, 2015 5:47 pm

A splendid report and very nice pictures. Thank you for that, as it reminded me of when I walked the SUW a few years ago. I think I saw one other person on the route in 10 days.......
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Re: The SUW backpacking all the way

Postby Gordie12 » Fri Nov 06, 2015 7:26 pm

Thanks for posting this, I'm also looking to do the SUW at some point in the next couple of years so found this really useful.

I don't think I would have been impressed with that diversion either!!
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Re: The SUW backpacking all the way

Postby Ross deWalk » Fri May 06, 2016 12:43 am

Great read, brought back a lot of memories from May last year. One of the few people I met on the walk was a Dutch guy who advised me to ignore the diversion from the loch, which I'm glad I did. I quite after Wanlochhead much to my regret now, I was behind schedule and needed a rest before returning to my job! I'm going to give another go soon hopefully.
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Re: The SUW backpacking all the way

Postby vixana » Fri Feb 03, 2017 11:50 am

Great report. Can you remember if there were many styles on the way? I am doing it this year, but have a dog who can't do styles
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Re: The SUW backpacking all the way

Postby Anne Jan Pool » Fri Feb 03, 2017 1:57 pm

As far as I can remember there weren't many styles along this route.
I think there were a few - though I can't remember any of them - but certainly not many.
Unfortunately this is not something one remembers very well after a long time.
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