Distance: 33.8 miles (54.5km) Ascent/Descent: 1540m/1210m
Start/Finish: St. John's Town of Dalry to Wanlockhead
Terrain: 15% road, 75% rough single track (mostly but not always easy angled), 10% forest track
Transport: Good luck! There are limited buses to both start/end, but Sanquhar-Dalry better served via Dumfries. Bus travel will necessitate overnight before/after.
Route: Route Map | Garmin Course
Southern Upland Way Stages: Prev
Refreshingly desolate!? This is a great section to do if you were in the rat-race Monday to Friday. The way tends to keep to higher ground, giving lots of views, but bleak and exposed on the dull day I did it (for a nicer opinion check out this blog). Wind farms and forestry feature. Logistically tricky, Sanquhar (25 miles from Dalry) has reasonable bus service. Dalry and Wanlockhead have limited service.
We camped Friday night by the Ken Bridge hotel (just South of Dalry) so we could make the most of a brief weather window in what's been a very unsettled few weeks of strong S.Wly's and accompanying rain. It was a perfect night for camping by the river, no nasty midgies (being May) and the air was still, mild and the sky clear - when its like this I wouldn't swap a tent for a hotel room. That evening the bar and restuarant were buzzing, the staff friendly and the beer good. An early start meant we'd packed up and eaten porridge by 7am, and shortly we were up in Dalry ready to explore the Southern Upland Way.
The weather forecast had been for a bright start, with showers moving in followed by more persistent rain by late afternoon. But even whilst packing up the tents earlier, the sky had looked a little steely for my liking and the higher summits nearby were already draped in black cloud.
I started the run from the main junction in Dalry heading up the near-deserted main street and steadily gaining height from the outset. Once away from town the S.U.Way becomes little more than a sheep-trod through numerous rough-grazing fields and bogs therein, but the elevated position provides panoramic views of the Galloway countryside. Even within 3 miles of Dalry, the route already felt very lonely.
"I'm struggling" I told him.
"I know, I could see you coming along the road. You're leaning to one side and dragging your foot along".
I was also going much slower than usual - loss of fitness after nearly two months of resting/recovery, and the nagging ache that reminded me I couldn't risk bounding over bogs and burns in the manner I'm so used to enjoying.
Thankfully my dad was going to get his walk in after all - partly through concern for my health he decided to drive on to Sanquhar and start walking back towards me along the route of the way.
As the car drove off, the valley felt even more lonely than before, the clouds seemed more threatening (I could see rainfall in the not-too-far distance) and if I'm honest I had a sense of vulnerability that I'm just not used to.
The route took to the rough grassy hillside, gently climbing by stone walls, through a couple of bogs and gates, and I had to pay attention to where I was going because the way-marker posts weren't always obvious or indeed present! A feature of the "thistle-sign" posts along todays route is that they were all rather weather-beaten and sorry-looking, so I daresay I missed a few that had long been felled by the wind.
I recognised the hillside I was heading for from the blog I head read. (Of course the plantation pines were a little taller now than in 2003!). It was actually a relief to get onto steeper ground as my "disability" isn't so pronounced on the climbs.
At 421m, the grassy top of Manquhill Hill isn't too much higher than the valley beneath it (200m), but high enough to open up new aspects of the surrounding heavily forested area. The corbett "Cairnsmore of Carsphairn" (797m) dominates to the NW. Its hard not to use the word lonely again to describe this region - I still had 15 miles to get to the next hub of civilisation, and it was mostly going to be on similarly rounded hills divided by forested, uncultivated and barely-populated valleys. I only met two other people on "the way" today, one of them was my dad.
With Manquhill behind me I was now face-to-face with the bulk of Benbrack Hill. You can tell someone's been careful when planning the forest plantation around the route here, not to inhibit the views from the route, for which I was grateful. Shuffling up Benbrack Hill I took a breather and had a good look around, noticing the cloud was now skimming the summit above. The spits of rain that had been hitting me became harder to ignore and the wind picked up and cooled me down very quickly - time for the jacket.
I clearly look as stupid as I am.
He was walking from Polskeoch (a bothy about 5 miles further into these hills) to Dalry (12 miles behind me), admist his 3 week backpacking hike along the way. I had a hunch that his beard was more than 3 weeks growth. As I continued up into the cloud I thought how I'd love to be doing the multi-day backpacking thing again (and possibly soon will be if my hip/glute issue is there to stay).
At the top of Benbrack stands one of the "Striding Arches", and as I jogged passed it I nearly started descending the wrong way off the hill. You're supposed to take a sharp left turn by the fence here and I probably missed an arrow on a post somewhere.
My running was a little smoother now and my mood lifted as I got back below the cloud and saw the way ahead over the next hills. I was back to enjoying doing what I enjoy, and feeling a little lucky that the rain had passed and hadn't just settled in for the day.
Surprisingly, running through forest was the exception rather than the rule today, and so it was quite a pleasant change to be routed into the trees along a heathery firebreak, arriving at Allan & Gracie's cairn (victims of the "killing-times" late 1600s). A peculiar spot, and yes, "lonely" again.
The way eventually drops down (through presently-felled forest) to the high watershed of several burns on which sits Polskeoch Bothy hidden by sitca spruce until the last few strides. I had a "nosey" inside, unsurprisingly empty and carrying the usual bothy smell, but in great condition. I leafed through the last couple of entries in the log, and couldn't help but feel the seclusion that S.U.W. hikers must feel here, especially if they'd covered the 17miles I'd just logged from Dalry (after numerous other days in remote places).
The bothy felt no less remote for being half-a-mile up the glen from Polskeoch Farm (B&B), proudly flying the Saltire. The farm sits at the terminus of a single-track tarmac road leading back down the Scaur Glen in search of civilisation. The way follows this road down for 2.5miles, and whereas in the past I'd have enjoyed striding out down the tarmac for a bit, today I was grateful to get back off onto the grassy hillside, enjoying a justifiably slower-pace as the trail gently climbs above the glen. Actually this was my favourite stretch of today's run, partly because the hillsides weren't cloaked in monotonous spruce, and also the grassy undefoot conditions were so pleasantly runnable, the way gaining height gradually and providing views both down the valley and back to where I'd been earlier.
I would soon be able to see down the otherside of "cloud hill" into upper Nithsdale and civilisation! As I noted from other's accounts of walking the way, you see Sanquhar a lot sooner than you reach it. My dad was on his way up from there, and we met about 3miles above town. I was glad he did get a walk in before the weather deteriorated as forecast.
I continued down into town, located the car as had been described (although I lost my Southern Upland Way by the river), and guzzled some water with half a nuun tablet. I felt great considering, and only had 7.4miles to go to Wanlockhead. Given the short distance remaining I decided to head off without the pack and really enjoyed the immediate feeling of lightness as I headed out of town and back up into the hills.
I was now entering the Lowther Hills, and what was particularly nice was being able to look back over town at the range I'd been running through earlier. I was really enjoying this now, even though the hills ahead were dark and the clouds upon themeven darker. I'd taken my jacket with me and was way-too-warm at first but knew that would change as I climbed back up above 400m. I stopped and took once last look behind me over Nithsdale before dropping down the remote side of the hill into a den with an abandoned farmhouse labelled "Cogshead" on the map. With only 3.5miles to go, and with my over-enthused pace, I "hit the wall" as marathoners know-it and started to struggle as the route climbed back out of the den almost summiting the 515m Glengaber Hill, the wind and light-rain really buffetting me now. I managed to keep the run going though, and was glad to be dropping down to the Wanlock Water beneath the scars of bygone lead-mining. The gusts of wind twice brought me to a standstill, and I was dizzy with low blood-sugar, but Wanlockhead was now in sight and soon I was enjoying a pot of tea and some soup with my dad in the Mining Museum Cafe.
Southern Upland Way Stages: Prev