A runners perspective

I hope this blog is of use/interest to walkers, runners and cyclists living in or intending to visit Scotland. Most of my entries below are described as long-distance runs - just because that's currently what I enjoy doing...

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Southern Upland Way - Bargrennan to Portpatrick

Distance: 40.1 miles (64.5km) Ascent/Descent: 750m/700m
Start/Finish: Bargrennan to Portpatrick
Terrain: 40% gravel/surfaced road, 35% boggy track/trail, 25% easy trail
Transport: Buses
Route: Route Map | Garmin Course [Coming soon]

Southern Upland Way Stages: Prev [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] 6

Port Kale, near Portpatrick

There's quite a lot of road walking/running on this section, but there's also a lot of bog to make up for it. In spite of the area being heavily forested, I was pleasantly surprised how open the route was. The first 20 miles does feel very remote, even when "on-road". Towards the end its very different - farmland and country lanes. The best is left to last though - 2 miles of coastal path between the lighthouse and Portpatrick are possibly the best 2 miles of the entire way (in my opinion at least)!

Near the start, looking back towards Galloway Forest Park

We stayed the Friday night in Newton Stewart, and in the morning I could tell my dad was excited for me as we drove the 8 miles North to where the Southern Upland Way crosses the A714, near Bargrennan. The weather added to the excitement - it was the kind of weather you dream up when planning these crazy things. Pale blue sky, crisp still air, wisps of mist above the ground vegetation that was white with frost. Midgies wouldn't have a chance!
I was running by 9am, the terrain immediately proving a challenge for muscles that hadn't warmed up yet! Feet submerged in bog within minutes, and ankles getting a good workout. The first two miles involved ascending "Glenvernoch Fell", a modest lump but with a good panorama from its summit trigpoint.
I was nicely warmed-up by the time I was at the summit, photographing the new vista over Loch Ochiltree. To the West I could see mile after mile of forest, and that's where I was heading. Although not exactly a dramatic view, I was inspired by what I saw. The vastness and remoteness of it I guess, and that feeling of having part of the world to myself for one day!
After a fun, gentle descent I was routed onto a decrepit road (which my poor dad had driven over earlier!), and after a mile and a bit of this I was off into the woods. It was fairly tricky going at times but also great fun. At one point a fallen tree disguised the route ahead. This forest section was fairly short and I was back onto another deserted road, passing Northwards through a scattering of houses called "Knowe". A fingerpost sent me off this road onto an equally deserted road, and so I was heading West once again.
My dad and I were experimenting with a new way of keeping me fuelled and watered today! Instead of him having to commit to leaving my car somewhere at sometime, we were using 'drop bags' at planned locations, which meant he could have a lot more freedom to do his own exploring in his own time (or just go to the pub). The first of three drop bags was along this minor road, tucked in the bracken beneath a tree, and having shown me a picture of exactly where he was going to put it I had no problem finding the goodies!

Was a bit surprised when a car came along - I'd catch up with the occupants later as they were walking along the Southern Upland Way to check out the "Wells of the Rees". The road downgraded into forest track for a few miles. At one point I stopped, unplugged the music and indulged in a few moments of absolute peace and quiet. Even the gentle North West breeze didn't penetrate the trees around me. A couple of miles later, back in open terrain, thistle posts lead me off the gravel and up a grassy/muddy path to ascend Craig Airlie Fell. The views remained open all the way to the top, and although I wasn't moving forward very quickly I certainly felt I was climbing well, not wanting to walk but not wanting to burn myself up either. I knew from recent training that my fitness and endurance was back to how I like it, and it was moments like these which made it all worth while.

The path almost doubles back as it descends down into the forest, but soon I was standing at a fingerpost marking a short diversion to the "Wells of the Rees". Can't find much info about these curious things, but another mile down the path there were the "Laggangarn Stones" which did have a small interpretation notice. Unfortunately it explained not a lot was known about these either - other than they vastly predate the Christan symbols inscribed on them.
From the stones, a short way down a fire-break took me to the wooden Beehive Bothy! The location was a bit more interesting than I'd imagined - sure it was surrounded by forest, but it was quite open with a burn flowing by, looks like the site of an old farm. I couldn't resist going into the bothy (it was colder indoors than out!) and checking out the logbook, the last entry being nearly 3 weeks ago.
The trail from here was quite good, briefly, then merged onto a gravel forest track, before leaving this to take in a few more swamps. In fact most of today I was either bounding along road or up to my ankles in either moss, mud, bog or water. I've got photos of each flavour below. I didn't moan about it. At first.

I was really enjoying this run in spite of the difficulty, and the miles had flown by. I wasn't counting them - but I did know that once I had "escaped" the forest and descended the moors down to a road by the river, I'd be approaching halfway, and my second drop bag of the day.

After a mile of two of road, the route of the S.U.Way climbed back onto moor giving me this view back over the way I had come (2nd drop-bag had been down by the river).
According to the map this elevated area is known as Kilhern Moss, and the route upon it was a long, straight, muddy and puddle-filled track with a herd of cows beside it. I imagine some S.U.Wayers bypass this section and stick to the road using the village of "New Luce" as a staging post. Once off the "Moss" and down into the Valley of the Water of Luce, it was back to lusher grazing land - the waymarker posts taking me across a couple of sheep-filled fields to "Huftanny" bridge over the river, then up and over a railway line which takes a parabolic route from here to Stranraer. A rough section followed though trees, contouring the muddy hillside with rocks to trip me up now and then, and afterwards I was back into shady pine forest before re-emerging onto a well-engineered trail that reminded me how comparatively tough much of today's off-roading had been! This part of the route skirts "Glenwhan Moor" (which I guess might be called "Glenwhan Forest" these days?) before briefly joining a minor road. A vista opened out to the West and it was clear I had a bit of descending to do, down into a new landscape of arable farmland!
Descending down the fields towards Castle Kennedy, I felt the waymarkers were a bit scarce, but the GPS course I'd taken from the map gave me the re-assurance I needed.
The route does a brief rendezvous with the gardens of Castle Kennedy then arrives at a main road with a conveniently located petrol station and spar shop. Time for some full-fat coke! I was very happy at this point - the scenery was fairly plain here but I was still enjoying my running with only a half-marathon to go. The first stretch from Castle Kennedy was along a nice bridleway through trees, and I had to hold the pace back and try focus on the moment again rather than just "getting to the finish". Then out onto some backroads winding through hedges, with the occasional farm track or horse-churned path. Two of the "bog photos" above show that even down in these relatively tame and cultivated lands, the Southern Upland Way manages to find mud and water to play in.

I was aware that there'd be a final climb before I got to see the coast (and hopefully Ireland beyond!). As I've commented before, there always is a "final climb" on any section of the way. To be honest, this one did start to get to me, not because of the gradient, but because of the subject of one of those "bog photos" above. The worst one. The one with my hand and leg-prints clearly shown. Hardcore cross-country training!
The final hill of the way (or for most, the first hill of the way) was reached - a green lump with a view over the water, and yes Ireland was clearly visible today. As was Arran. From here I managed to get lost for the second time of the day in spite of the GPS - running to a dead-end and back which was a bit cruel given I was so close to the finish! Eventually got onto the correct track, briefly joined a backroad, then a right turn down a lane to Killantringan Lighthouse on the coast. Here followed what was the nicest piece of running this splendid day, and I was both surprised and grateful to have arrived there well before darkness. The coastal trail was good and firm, and the scenery was particularly pretty in the light of the setting sun. My dad had walked this bit earlier, and I let him know he'd picked the best part my day's journey - if not the entire Southern Upland Way!
My GPS told me I only had about 1.8 miles to go, and as I attacked the final hills I had a sad realisation that this was the end of what had been a great little adventure, a project that had started back in January this year, and here I was on the final couple of miles, and they were stunning. I slowed myself down, wanting to savour this, and indulge in the fact I still felt so good considering how far and quickly I had travelled. The sunset to my right was a fine metaphor for the moment.

Portpatrick became visible around the corner, and lived up to the expectation of being a great setting for a finish.

My dad and I had a fun evening in "The Crown" with some fellow runners who were down for today's Stranraer 10k. Yes I had plenty to drink. As promised.

The next morning, on the start of the long drive back home, we both commented on how it seemed a shame it was over. Obviously it wasn't all about the running - it was the fact that these weekends on the Southern Upland Way had forced us to explore parts of Scotland neither of us had really visited before, and stay in towns like Newton Stewart, Dalry, Moffat and of course Portpatrick. We made a point of making the car journey as much a part of the weekend as the running, deliberately taking different routes home.

So, I guess we'll just have to find another project.

Southern Upland Way Stages: Prev [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] 6

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