Standing by the cairn on the top of Peel Fell, almost on the border between Scotland and England, I looked westwards along the watershed; a jumble of rolling hills disappearing somewhere behind the last one on the horizon. And then south to the vast green sea of Kielder forest; wave upon wave of sitka. To the east of my vantage point at the start of this epic trek, the Cheviots rolled on to The Cheviot itself; a peak of note amongst the lesser hills around it. And the Tweed valley completed this great vista, on a sunny January morning; a wide fertile basin punctuated by the distinctive Eildon in its centre. I reveled in the views on all sides, as I brewed up and drank the first cup of tea – the first of many, on the Watershed of Scotland.
My thoughts then turned to what lay ahead in the first leg of the walk, a push westwards for over a hundred kilometers, along a range of hills which throughout history had been a barrier to travel between Scotland and England. The Romans had crossed the Watershed in their quest to conquer what is now Scotland, and the line of at least two roads is their legacy. The monks passed this way across the Middle March of the borders, as they established the great Abbeys in the Tweed valley and beyond. Successive feuds and raids saw armies and come and go as they plied their causes. More recently, the cattle drovers from all over the north and west of Scotland used the tracks, which crossed these hills, as they traveled to the lucrative English markets. The age of the railways came and went, with the route of the Waverley line clearly visible as it winds its way through to Liddesdale and the south. The Watershed was a boundary of one sort or another; estate, parish or county.
It’s a quiet place now, as I discovered. The population has ebbed away from the upper valleys which back onto the watershed; ruins and holiday homes are testament to what had been a purely sheep farming area. But trees, vast areas of commercial forest, which developed in this area some 40 years ago, offer a different type of employment, with long periods of growing interspersed with short bursts of activity at planting and felling time.
So I set off from Peel Fell with a great sense of purpose and anticipation. The fleeting thoughts that this was a mad errand for someone of my age, were quickly dispelled as I looked at the braw rolling hills around me, and the prospect of the challenge which lay ahead.
The first leg of the watershed; westwards as far as the Clyde Law, at the head of the Clyde Valley. The terrain was mainly rolling hills with few really steep slopes, and a mixture of open ground and forest. Wauchope and Criak forests presented a challenge or two, as navigation in dense commercial woodland has its difficulties. Along much of this first leg, I found a fence line even in the planted areas. This was useful as there is usually an unplanted strip about ten meters wide on either side of the fence, or what’s left of it. But it is ungrazed, so the vegetation is tall and rank, with knee high tussock of heather, moss, or rushes to be negotiated. In some places, the fence line is deceptively not on the watershed, and leads off in a confusing direction. In a few places, the watershed has been planted completely, and a detour is necessary. Self seeded or fallen trees add to the obstacles along the way.
So the first leg offered an immediate lesson on the trouble with forests. But that was more than compensated for by the views which opened up from time to time, both north and south; views into the upper reaches of burn and river valleys, and beyond. On one sunny slope a herd of wild goats sat munching or sleeping in their own domain. The time of year was not particularly good for bird life, but there were plenty of crows and grouse for company. The markers on the route were the successive tops climbed, and passing valleys to left and right.
The Rule and Slitrig Water son on the right matched the Liddel and Ewes Waters on the left, or South side. The first few hills in Wuchope forest are unremarkable, but give way beyond the line of the old railway, to tops with evocative names like Maiden Paps, Geatmoor Hill, Cauldcleuch Head and Carlin Tooth. I generally camped as near to the Watershed as possible in order to maintain height, but the need for decent drinking water had me drop off the line on a few occasions. My tent, a small lightweight job performed well, with only a minor condensation problem on the cold nights. The weather was generally good, sunny clear days with frosty nights.
The descent to the A7 at Mosspaul Hotel meant a loss of over 300m, which had to be climbed again on the other side on Comb Hill with its prominent mast. Wisp Hill, Pikethaw Hill, Ewesdown Fell and Craik Cross Hill took me well into Craik Forest. The Meggat and Esk Waters to the South gave great views towards the Solway Firth and the majestic peaks in the Lake District. Criffel stood out from the fairly flat area around Dumfries and the lower Nith valley. Whilst northwards, the River Teviot and Borthwick Water led down to the wide views of the Tweed Valley. Eildon stood out like a familiar friend along the way, and the Lammermuir Hills provided a flowing skyline all the way towards the North Sea.
A few stretches of forest track immediately on the south side of the watershed enabled me to detour round some planted parts, and a new cycle track on the watershed itself gave easy going for a mile or two. The tracks of deer and fox showed clearly on snow, which had fallen overnight. At Over Dalgleish on the B709, a modest farmhouse has been replaced by spectacular new `towerhouse`, a worthy interpretation of that distinctive Scottish architectural form. More forest, and them onto the ridge that curves in a great horseshoe round the head of the River Ettick. Its as if the rivers are competing here, as the Ettrick seems to push the watershed south by several miles, and the Moffat Water then pushes it north again toward Loch of the Lowes and St Mary`s Loch; a snake like movement.
Flurries of heavy snow reduced visibility at times in the late afternoon, but these were interspersed with brilliant clear spells with views of sunny snow covered hill upon hill in every direction. The areas of forest stood out dark against the whitened landscape and blue sky. But it was cold with a bitter wind, so I dropped down into the Ettrick Valley to find a sheltered spot for the night. The possibility of a barn or shed seemed appealing, so knocked on a farmhouse door. The long tradition of hospitality in the hills is alive, and I was given a warm welcome by Walter and Valerie. Food, a blazing log fire, talk of farming and Galloway, and yes, a bed for the night. These were the first people I had spoken to or seen for two days, and their generosity of spirit was inspiring.
Back on the horseshoe ridge, bright sunshine and a bitterly cold north wind, with stunning winter views every bit the equal of the day before. Ettrick gave way to the Grey Mare`s Tail, Loch Skeen and the hills beyond. Along the fenceline I found footprints in the snow, clearly two people had been this way the day before, but traveling in the opposite direction. And then a steep and somewhat hairy descent without crampons to Birkhill, about a mile north of the Grey Mare`s Tail car park.
The new boots I had bought the week before were proving to be a superb investment. Indeed all of the kit was showing its worth. The little one-person gas stove could produce a brew up in just a couple of minutes. The down sleeping bag and therma rest had ensured snug nights – and long nights at that, as it was dark from six in the evening until after seven the next morning. The walking poles were giving added support, balance, and had tested many`s a doubtful patch of bog. My efforts to carry the minimum and keep the weight in my ruc sac as low as possible were paying off, and no doubt as the walk progresses, I`ll get that down to a fine art.
The next outing brought milder, but mixed weather. Up into the mist from Birkhill on the A708, a mile or so north of the Grey Mare`s Tail car park, and another small group of wild goats showed little interest in this passing stranger. Beside Loch Skeen the mist cleared, and the hills around emerged into view. And so another roll-call of splendid hills with good firm going, came and went. Lochcraig Head as name implies, stands boldly above the North end of the loch. This was followed by White Coomb and Hart Fell – both offering great vistas in all directions. I was glad of the advice from Charles about the slightly confusing fence lines on the latter, and so reference to the compass kept me right.
The views down into the Devil`s Beef Tub should have been dramatic, but thick mist put paid to that. So I contented myself what was readily to hand; Chalk Rig Edge, at an exact 500m in height, and crossing between the upper reaches of the Tweed itself, and the valley of the River Annan. Across the A701 below Flecket Hill, and up onto the aptly named Bog Hill and Little Bog Hill. The final point on this East West leg was reached in weather that seemed to improve as the day progressed. A turning point though, as I looked back towards the Solway and the South one last time, and then headed North. 135km down, and over a thousand still to go. The Clyde Valley spread out to the West, sun glinting on the traffic on the distant M74, as it hurried on its way for the Easter weekend. My pace was perhaps more measured, but the sense of achievement was palpable.
And I’m doing OK psychologically too. True, some of the hills have been a wee bit of a slog with full kit on my back, but the reward on top is superb. My own company for a few days at a stretch is working out fine; it’s a real contrast to the busy bustle of the office and my work. Some would call this `quality time`, but I would prefer `a bit of solitude` to sum up the experience. I will meet people along the way, who will enrich this experience, and be an essential part of the story. The rendezvous arrangements are working well, and I’m indebted to those who are helping so willingly.