Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Melrose to Traquair

The starting point - Melrose Abbey
I travelled back up to Melrose yesterday. It was a crowded train to Berwick-upon-Tweed, and then a bus to Melrose. Heavy and overcast all day, with a spell of rain just before Newcastle. And the heavens opened once I was safely installed in the King’s Arms. I was fortunate in that I had experienced only a light shower when strolling through the town soon after arriving. The heat wave is officially over. It was still pretty warm, and very humid, but nothing like the 30C plus of the last two weeks.

This part of the trip was to be entirely along a stretch of the Southern Upland Way, which is Scotland’s Coast to Coast path from Portpatrick to the Firth of Forth. This is a path we encounter near Balnahoin, our fishing lodge in Southern Ayrshire. Today’s stretch runs pretty well due East to West.

It started with a stroll across the recreation grounds to reach the River Tweed, which I then followed for a couple of miles. Now it’s summer flowers: blue geraniums, which I had never seen before as a wildflower, foxgloves, scabious, and ubiquitous Scottish thistles. On the higher ground there is still a lot of tormentil, large areas of purple lustrife where the trees have been felled, and in the more open areas the heather is coming out. The bell heather is well in flower; ling is just beginning. It doesn’t yet give great tracts of purple, but is a lot more colourful than earlier in the year on the Pennine Way.

The Tweed at Yair Bridge
The track leaves the Tweed after the initial two miles to skirt the suburbs of Galashiels. Then it’s back along the river before striking off across country to the West. I followed the suggestion of the guide for the End to End Walk, which follows this section, and skirted Gala Hill rather than dropping down into Galashiels itself, which is the official course of the Southern Upland Way. It was much more pleasant this way, though quite muddy and churned up by horses in places. Then it was a three mile cross country stretch, climbing to nearly 300m, before dropping down again to cross the Tweed again at Yair Bridge. This was pleasant walking, and well waymarked.

After Yair Bridge it was a steady climb, largely through woodland, to reach the Three Brethren – three large cairns dwarfing the trig point at 464m. I encountered one couple walking in the opposite direction, and then followed a couple of chaps on the final bit up to the Three Brethren. They were from Selkirk, and are regular walkers in these hills. It was very gratifying actually to be walking faster than them, particularly as they were clearly a lot younger than me!  They had walked up from Yair Bridge, and were simply going back down afterwards.

The Three Brethren - and me
The views from the top were fantastic. There are hills in every direction, with the three peaks of the Eildon Hills back to the East, and higher ground to the West as well as significant hills in every other direction. It wasn’t actually the highest point during the day, but it was certainly the one with the most dramatic views.

After that it was a long high level walk along the old drove road that passes across three miles of open moorland and then the same distance through forestry. Pleasant enough, but not as good as the earlier bit up to the Three Bethren. In the forest, in particular, the views are compromised by trees, and there are great scars of recent clear felling. I encountered only one other person – on a mountain bike – on the whole of the rest of the trip into Traquair. It seems astonishing to me that there aren’t more people on these major trails at the height of the season in good weather.

Wallace's Ditch on the hills above Traquair
The forest above Traquair is obviously mountain bike country. There are extensive, well-marked, bike trails, and I heard later that it’s a major area for mountain biking, but it seems that it’s a weekend sport rather than something that takes place all the time.

The last bit down to Traquair drops steadily down through the last of the forest before reaching a fine grass trail between fields, and then a metalled road. My B&B was right at the centre of the tiny village. After a shower and change, Pat and Brian Hudson ran me in to Innerleithen by way of Traquair House, the “oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland”, which was being readied for the Traquair Fair due to take place that coming weekend.

A profusion of Harebells
A brief explration of alternatives produced no more attractive options, so I decided to eat at the Traquair Arms in Innerleithen. It was now a lovely evening, so I elected to sit at a table in the garden. There I found myself sitting at the next table to a couple who were also walking. Real serious walkers! I never discovered their names, but they were walking more or less continuously from John O’Groats to Land’s End – a day off only every 7 to 10 days. They have houses in the Turks and Caicos Islands and in Norway (she is Norwegian); the UK is now no more than a destination for serious walking. Last year it had been the Pembrokeshire Coast; this year, in celebration of their 70th birthdays, was the big one. They were beginning to wonder what challenge would be appropriate for 2014. I felt a little humbled by their project.

Back by taxi to Traquair itself, and a chat about salmon fishing with Brian, who is a member of a local syndicate. No fish landed yet this year, though he had hooked and played two for a few minutes. Apparently the recent rains have raised water levels a few inches, and there are fish – though I thought it still looked incredibly low. It also turned out that Brian knows our Galloway area quite well: he was a heavy equipment operator, and had worked in Glentrool and Barr as well as other parts of Southern Scotland.

So, as well as a good walk, it was a day of conincidences.

Largely bright and sunny. Up to 23C. About 10% on roads; otherwise 50/50 on tracks and grassland. Dry underfoot. Maximum height 521m above Traquair, though the most prominent peak, the Three Brethren, was only 464m. 30.08km; 944m of ascents, 870m of descents.  

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