I awoke around 5 am in my little ground nest beside the loch after a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep. Thick morning mist hung over the water, obscuring the hills around it, making the silver waters seem as if they were enclosed in a huge white dome, like the most epic Center Parcs ever. And since I had forgone a swim the previous evening, I refreshed myself with a blissful idyllic morning swim. Even as I was doing it, even I found it hard to accept that I was swimming in a Scottish loch at 6 o’clock in the morning, and feeling as if I was in Greece or Nice or any other such hot place that I love. As I write this four days later, I still find it difficult to believe that it really happened.
It was 8.25 am when I finally managed to pack up my stuff and tear myself away from the loch to continue on my way. The path was lined with hundreds of sparkling dew-covered spider’s webs, although by 9 am I had to stop to seek out a patch of shade for a few minutes and cover myself in sun cream; the sun was already out in full force (seeking out shade would go on to become a common feature over the next couple of days, as you will see). But I was very, very excited because I knew I would very soon be reaching my favourite spot of the first half of the SUW and I was just itching to keep moving. And 40 minutes later, there I was, looking up to the beautiful landscape of Shield Rig. It was a lot greener than the last time I was there and thankfully the thick, tall bracken which rose up over the path was still soaked in morning dew which cooled me down as I stomped through, aiming for the rocks at the highest point of the rig.
At exactly 10 am I was leaning up against the rock I have been wanting to lean up against again for the past 2 years. The feeling was even better than when I had got to my camping spot the previous night. Again, my inadequate words cannot do it justice, ditto my photos. I can perhaps explain how very, very hot it was by the fact that I basically had no other choice but to indulge in a spot of naked sunbathing – although after 10 minutes I actually thought I was going bake to death so I created a bit of shade with my hammock and psyched myself up to get moving – if it was that hot at 10 am, I didn’t want to imagine how it would’ve felt a couple of hours later.
I was back on my way by 10.50 am, passing by the abandoned cottage of Clenrie (dream home, please can I have it?) and following the long, long farm road. Half an hour later I was feeling so, so, so hot and in desperate need of shade. The road stretched on ahead with no prospect of shade for ages and my spirits began to drop a little.
And then, the Southern Upland Way offered up some of it’s magic. On my right appeared a small car park – more like a grassy lay-by for 3 cars really – but then, as I nearly passed it by, I looked back and saw an odd little wooden shelter. It was so small that most of it was still exposed to the bright sunshine, but I realised if I pressed myself into the back of it then at least my head would be covered. There wasn’t any kind of seating in the shelter, save for a small beam across one corned so I wedged myself into it and suddenly felt insanely thirsty. I’d dumped my backpack at least 6 feet away from the shelter and I was so hot at that point that I really couldn’t face exposing myself to the sun for even another second, even to retrieve my bottle of bitty, slightly gross burn water. And then the real magic happened; nestled into the corner of the shelter was a package with a tag, announcing the package to be a gift from a fellow walker and in it was a kit-kat…and a bottle of water. If I’d had any moisture in me I probably would’ve cried at that moment. I raised the bottle to my unknown saviour and gulped down a third of the bottle, the water within it tasting better than water has ever tasted. Thankyouthankyouthankyou, you magical mystery person. If the person who left that package happens to read this, please get in touch.
My magical water made the next hour or so completely wonderful – I have never seen so many peacock butterflies in all my life! If I’d been doing one of those butterfly counts for BBC’s Autumnwatch, Chris Packham would of thought I’d made up the numbers and called me a liar (and I’d be gutted if Chris Packham thought I was a liar). But the whole track was lined with them and at some points they would rise up and seem to circle me, fluttering right past my eyes as if they were performing a special dance, like something right out of one of the fairy books I used to read to my daughter when she was a bit younger. If that had been the only good point of the walk then it all would’ve been worth it just for that.
When I reached the much welcome, cooling shade of Hannaston Wood, I treated myself to a 40 minute lunch/reading break, knowing that I still had to face the last tough stretch of Waterside Hill before reaching St. John’s Town of Dalry (where I promised myself, over and over again that I would have only ONE pint of Guinness). Just before the hill I was treated to the new boardwalk which hadn’t been there last time, and instead of a half hour boggy trek through the woods, I found myself almost skipping along and feeling as if I was in the gardens of some National Trust property. These few minutes of bliss tricked me since as soon as I started to climb the hill, I realised it was just as much of a bitch as I remembered it to be, only this time I was climbing it on what had to be one of the hottest days of the year. When I finally reached the summit looking down over Dalry, I cowered into a tiny patch of shade offered by the bracken and waited for a cloud to cover the sun, which it briefly did, thank goodness, so I hurried down the hill, my mind utterly focused on the prospect of a cold pint.
So, my plan was thus: I had set myself quite strict time goals for all my personal checkpoints and thus far I had been doing everything well within time so I was feeling very pleased with myself. It was 2.30 pm when I was I finally crossing the suspension bridge into Dalry, which was actually an hour later than I had planned (I certainly hadn’t accounted for such intense heat which I guess had slowed me down) but I figured if I stuck to one pint at the wonderful Clachan Inn then I would be on my way with the hour and all would be fine and I’d still be able to make it to my destination of Stroanpatrick where I had planned to stop in the forest for the night.
But, of course, I didn’t stick to one pint, despite the fact that even as I was standing at the bar ordering my second Guinness, I knew I was utterly screwing myself over. I had got chatting to a lovely bunch of locals outside, and it felt nice to be talking to interesting humans with interesting life stories, especially after not speaking to anyone properly for so many hours, so I reasoned with myself that surely another pint wouldn’t hurt. But I managed to forget that, when it comes to alcohol, I am the biggest lightweight in the world and even after just 2 pints, I am most definitely not a fully functioning human being.
When 4 o’clock hit, I knew I had to be on my way. I didn’t actually know how many miles I had to go, but it was a full 2 pages of the map in the Cicerone guide book from Dalry to Stroanpatrick so I knew I had a good few hours of walking to do. And so off I stumbled (after stocking up on essential water, Irn Bru and Honeymoon slices from the shop), leaving Dalry behind, travelling along a pretty farm track, passing by the farms of Creaganfois and Ardoch. I’d been powering on, slightly drunkenly, for and hour when I came to edge of the forest below Ardoch Hill. I pushed myself on a little further until I realised that I would soon be turning away from the semi-shaded sanctuary of the forest (it was still mighty hot at this point I should add) and would need to cross a horrible stretch of farmland filled with MILLIONS of cows and zero prospect of shade. The thought filled me with intense dread and I realised that I was not mentally prepared to face fields filled with MILLIONS of cows at that point.
So, even though I was very cross with myself for having that second pint and messing up my plans, with a sense of relief, it was just 5.30 pm when I was lying down my tarp and roll mat and creating another little ground nest in the shade (I couldn’t even be bothered to faff about finding the right pair of trees to hang my hammock). With my body contorted about some tree roots I was tired and suitably drunk enough to trick myself into a sense of comfort and after a few hours of reading and listening to the very noisy owls, I was fast asleep before it was even dark.