I’d somehow managed to get a pretty good nights sleep, interloping as a woodland creature in the forest and had been warm enough to have slept in just a t-shirt. Of course, I was desperate to make up for lost time after my extra pint error the day before, so I was packed up and on my way by 6.45 am, heading out into the thick morning mist, my heart pounding with the fear of the impending field filled with MILLIONS of scary cows.
I had hoped that perhaps the cows were still asleep at this hour, but no, once I had got a bit disorientated and lost the path in the mist for 15 minutes, at the same moment I finally found a much loved yellow-topped SUW waymarker post, surrounding it was roughly half a million cows, with the other half million of the scary bastards waiting for me on the other side of the field. All I could see ahead of me was the black hulks of the beasts dotted all around the misty horizon, staring at me menacingly, preparing for attack. And then they started calling out to each other, their battle cries amplified by the hills and the sound coming at me in stereo, making it seem as if there was another million bovine troops ready to storm down from the other hill and I will admit now that I was fucking terrified. As I always do in those situations, I tried explaining that I was a vegetarian and therefore absolutely not the enemy, but still that didn’t make them retreat.
But, to my delight, I made it past the first half million unscathed, only to find the other half of the army waiting for me, blocking the path, staring me down. I had no choice but to keep moving forwards, the echoing racket of the surrounding beasts still sounding out all around me. Luckily, I think the big mama finally understood that I was not there to hunt them down and roast them so she gave out a call and the army at last retreated. I was alive! If this had been a choose-you-own-adventure book (which at times it felt like it was) then I was able to turn to the next page. Although my trainers were pretty soaking by this point, thanks to the misty hilltops which was a bit annoying.
By 8.30 am I was finally crossing Butterhole Bridge and trudging down the rather relentless track past the farm of Culmark and by 10.30 am I at last came to last nights intended destination, Stroanpatrick, when the thick morning mist finally began to make way for more bright sunshine. From this point the Cicerone guide book informs you that you are now about to start ‘one of the longest and hardest of all the stages of the SUW…through remote country, with long sections between roads and no opportunity to aquire extra provisions or a bed before Sanquhar almost 30km ahead’. Yippee, what larks.
And so on and on I trudged, the sun growing ever hotter. In no uncertain terms, Manquhill Hill nearly killed me dead (although the giant dragonflies I spotted were an utter delight). I have no idea what time it was as I battled my way up because I couldn’t let myself stop to check my phone – if I’d stopped moving at that point then I might not have moved again. But when I at last reached the track and the signpost pointing up to Benbrack, I sought out the only tiny patch of shade I could find, I most certainly did stop, shaking with utter relief that at least one of the hills was over and done with – only 3 or 4 more to go until I was done for the day!
I left the sanctuary of the shade at 2.15 pm and staggered up the hill, the beating sun making it feel as if I was walking through semi-set concrete. And then a genius idea struck me: using my hammock I created a sort of ‘walking tent’ which covered my head and my sore shoulders and instantly cooled me down – I might’ve only actually slept in the hammock one night on this walk, but it became more invaluable than ever as I made my way up Benbrack. And, of course, the sight of Andy Goldsworthy’s Striding Arch sculpture at the summit made it all worth it, and the pain of the ascent was instantly forgotten.
From this point on, I let my tired, very sore feet carry me on as I walked the familiar part of the route from Benbrack down to the bothy and by 5.30 I was finally snuggled up on the sofa, finishing the last 2 chapters of my book and reading all the lovely comments in the visitors book. I was quite moved to read how happy the bothy and my mural up there seemed to of made so many people over the last few months. I fell asleep feeling cosily warm and contented…and happy with the knowledge that I could return home the following day for a much needed shower (and see Jay and the kids, of course).