It’s a chilly April fool’s morning with a smattering of frost on the ground. Looking to the day ahead, Jo discovers we’ll be crossing an area of land called Inch, which is several miles longer than it’s name suggests. Alan was up from dawn experimenting with landscape photography techniques on the Loch using the castle on the distant shore as a focal point. After an hour of doing this in the freezing cold, it was only the smell of bacon which brought him back to the tent! The delights of the Trangia (our alcohol fuel stove) frying pan – previously we hadn’t “discovered” the frying bit which is the lid – allow us to enjoy a delicious breakfast of bacon rolls. Whilst breaking camp in a record 45 minutes; Alan is shocked to see that Jo still has a full length toothbrush. She did not manage to cut it in half with pliers, as she was strongly encouraged to do by Alan, and couldn’t get any help from Alan because he was taking so long to pack that they were in danger of missing the train!
We trek out of the woods back to the path, we look across the morning loch to the two castles on the opposite shore, the first being Castle Kennedy from which the nearby town gets its name (a ruin now), and the second being Lochinch Castle – Castle Kennedy’s replacement, which is now a private residence. Seems that Alan spent his entire morning photographing the less famous replacement castle rather than the unimpressive ruin.
Along the shore of the White Loch, also known as the Loch of Inch, and pass some lovely private houses. Continuing along the estate road, we find it lined with voluminous bushes of Rhododendrons flowered with their rich pink blossoms, enticing us to take a peak at the famous Castle Kennedy gardens. Curiosity draws us up the track as far as the a bridge with masonry adornments, crossing the canal which here is lined with palms. This canal links the White loch to the Black Loch, the latter which we will soon pass.
Regrettably we decide not to visit the gardens as we don’t want to lose time so early in the day having failed to walk even one mile. Diverging away from the two lochs, we begin the climb to a viewpoint above the Black Loch, which basks in the glory of the lovely low morning sun. In the centre of the loch is a wooded island called Heron Isle, supposedly a type of prehistoric man made island known as a Crannog.
Our rucksacks are feeling a lot lighter today and a lot more tolerable after last night when we were left with sore hips and shoulders.
Leaving the estate of Castle Kennedy we are back on road again, through fairly pleasant countryside surrounded by low fells. Although the views are not particularly thrilling, the history of the land here is very interesting. We understand that experts believe this area was once part of a raised beach and that the escarpment in front of us may have been a sea cliff.
A fallen Southern Upland Way sign has us missing a turn-off up a farm track to Chlenry farm. Jo, as ever the all-knowing navigator, spots the mistake after 100m or so and we head back. Just as well someone’s keeping an eye on the map! We climb up through the farm to the top of the escarpment and take a moment to gaze back across the Rhins. The sea is no longer in sight, but we can identify Stranraer and Castle Kennedy both now distant. It’s a beautiful day again, with birds singing, and the gorse bushes displaying their vibrant yellow flowers. It feels good to be out adventuring!
On returning to the road, a group of cyclists pass us by, and we wonder why we’re walking and not cycling; we’re not die hard walkers or anything, and simply the most enjoyable adventure type appeals to us. On reflection, this road section may be easier by bike, but we would hate to have to carry a bike up yesterdays coastal cliff paths! We resolve to keep an eye out for today’s kist which is made by a basket-maker and lies somewhere before we join the road again on the other side of New Luce. Turning off the road, we spot a sign which shows an alternative Southern Upland Route going through and past New Luce by road. Clearly this is for people with accommodation in New Luce, but why anyone would want to add an extra 2 miles of road to replace the path through the forest is beyond us. If we had wanted to stay in New Luce we would double back to the point where we left the SUW as it’s a shame to miss out such a beautiful section, not to mention missing the kist!
Continuing up the track to Glenwhan forest, we then join a path round the edge of this forest, making a decision that we will stop for some lunch on the other side. This section of the route used to go through the forest on a wide forest track, but because of criticism about the lack of view, and the SUW being predominantly a walk in the woods, the path has been diverted. The path has also been heavily leafleted to increase interest. We pick up a Tree and Shrub leaflet at a handy leaflet box, which tells us that this plantation is mainly Sitka Spruce, with a few Noble Fur. Interestingly, the leaflet also tells us that the forestry commission planted some Western Hemlock, a species of tree which casts dense shadow, in the hope that it might have some commercial value, only to find that it has none whatsoever!
To our left we have moorland, and to our right is the now half-felled forest. Jo and Alan have the usual tense debate about lightweight camping ideology – is it a bit excessive, or is it cool? Jo insists that she would rather carry an extra kilogram than be miserable due to lack of a few”luxuries”. E.g. soap and loo roll! The moorland is quite a lovely place, at least on a day like this. We notice a wind farm far off in the distance, and realise, when we look at the map, that we are aiming to walk a few miles past it today – talk about demoralising! We have decided that early April is a great time to walk because we have got blazing sun and, although this is not guaranteed, when it does happen it’s not too hot. The daylight hours are also decently long in length, and those damn midges are nowhere to be seen! A fallen tree blocking our path is hard to negotiate – no way over and a very muddy way under. Alan trips and gets his knee stuck in the mud– that’s two days in a row of falling in the mud! The tiny meandering burn (the Craig Burn) which we are following, grows as we turn into the next valley – the valley of the Water of Luce. The path turns into the plantation and becomes pine needle laden as it winds through the woods in an elevated way. Below us we can hear the babble of the brook, and above, the sun filters through the trees casting a green tint on everything. We follow the path down to the burn and cross by some mini waterfalls. The other side finds us in an old wood of twisty, self-planted trees. This is a really unusual wood-scape here with gnarled trees, higgledy-piggledy ground and moss-covered rocks. After a brief engagement with the burn to fill up on water, we continue on to the water of Luce.
Winding our way between the trees of the old wood, we find ourselves following a railway line which leads us back into Sitka Spruce. We can’t really see anything other than the path and the occasional glimpse of the single-track railway line. We soon come out into a field, and head down to the Water of Luce for some lunch and cross by a suspension bridge named Huftanny. Our guide book tells us that everyone who helped build this bridge had to wear hard hats, so when they came to naming it they made an anagram of ‘funny hat’. The spot makes an OK place for lunch, though unfortunately the river is lined on either side by barbed wire fences. Luckily we find a nice spot under the shade of a tree between the fence and the river and dig into a lunch of noodles, smoked sausage and cheese. We will soon be heading up onto the Kilhern moors and away from civilisation, so its going to get a bit more fun from this point. We have a nice 20 minute nap following lunch, and Alan feels quite energised by this. Up away from the valley floor, and its through farmland with a notice telling us that we cross the fields at our own risk! We head up beside a new looking dyke with some very placid looking sheep on the other side, and emerge on the top of the hill. The wind turbines, although closer, still look very distant with a large expanse of moorland between us and them.
It’s rolling, elevated moorland, which, although very pleasant today, could become a very miserable place in bad weather due to its height and the fact that it is very exposed. The moor section makes for fairly nice walking, though maybe a wee bit boring towards the end. Alan jokes, that with his new water tube, his shadow looks like it was made by a Borg (an alien creature from Star Trek), especially with the glasses (not that we are trekkies even remotely we might add). We find that sucking on the waterspouts is contagious, as when one takes a drink the other follows suit. Its very much like yawning.
We turn left at Kilhern, an abandoned ruin which had too many water excess and drought problems to be practical for settlements. Some rather fat and extremely wide bellied cows graze in this area, and we later come to the conclusion that these cows must be pregnant. Leaving our bags in their care, we take a short 300m detour to see Caves of Kilhern – a group of burial cists (coffin made out of stone slabs). Not to be confused of course with Kists. Not much to see other than what can be seen in the photos.
Being April Fools day, Alan texts his sister to tell her that we are the 10,000th people to walk the SUW, and are in a helicopter now being flown to Glasgow with Jackie Bird to collect a £10,000 reward cheque. She buys it and replies to say she can barely believe it and even asks us if we are going to return to the SUW to continue our walk afterwards, and if we can text her mum to tell her to record the news that night as she thinks we’ll be in it!
Its downhill back to the road at the other side of New Luce, where some people would spend the night, however we are going to continue on towards the Beehive Bothy. On the descent we get good views of the next section of the Way, and are able to trace the route we are going to take up past the still (rather annoyingly) distant wind farm.
Found in a secret location between Castle Kennedy and New Luce, this one is made by a basket maker who is also an artist, and has a deep hole in it which Jo reaches into to extract our second coin. Maybe not quite what we expected from a basket maker, it’s pretty easy to find – a sculpture named Midlife Crisis.
On reaching the road, we decide to take a small detour over the wall to see the waterfall and gorge known as the Loups of Barnshangan. It’s a nice wee spot, but nothing too spectacular. It’s on road up through Balmurrie Farm where we see a calf that has literally just been born behind a gate near the buildings, only just started to try and stand on its shaky wee legs. We move away quickly so as not to distress the calf and its mother too much. Through the fields and we see tiny little lambs, which the mothers herd away from us; another nice point about hiking at this time of year is lambing season.
Once off the farm track, we rely on SUW markers to guide us through the moorland, as there is no proper path, just the occasional eroded strip. Constantly trying to spot where the next waymarker is can be quite fun, as is the lack of paths. The wind farm, once a tiny speck in the distance, is now close by on the opposite hill, and the 8 visible wind turbines look massive, with their sizeable blades swishing, and a small white building at the bottom of each turbine. We contemplate taking a signed 800m off-route trek over to Cairn-Na-Gath, but figure that there is probably not anything interesting to see, and that we will get a better view of the wind turbines (a bit of a fascination for Alan) from the SUW.
Though wind turbines may be a scourge to many people, as we don’t live here, we find they add a lot of interest to the landscape, and look really quite elegant, swishing around in the wind. As we ascend the shoulder of Balmurrie Fell, a panoramic view starts to open out. Over a nameless peak and we head down and into a plantation forest, for which, a few years ago at least, the SUW was notorious. This is the first proper closed-in forest we’ve encountered.
Into the forest and the SUW’s only marker is a style over the fence enclosing the forest. Its refreshing to have to rely partly on a map to know where you’re going and not just on signposts. On contemplating the route, we come to the conclusion that we need to follow a rather muddy fire-break through the forest. It’s one of these coniferous plantations where all the trees are the same age, and the fire break is lined with heather, and deep gouges of mud! A few swarms of small insects hover around, but do not attack us. It is very muddy in places and Jo accidentally steps into a deep section and goes down to her knee! Makes a change that it’s Jo getting muddy for once! Luckily some of the worst sections are covered by duck boards.
The “path” eventually emerges from the fire break and we follow a forest track for ¾ of a mile, the low sunset lighting the tops of the trees around us. Leaving the forest track we join another fire break, this time with a path made of stone – much better than the previous mud gouges. While Alan stops to take a photo, Jo calls back and notices an amazing echo. We don’t know what it’s caused by but everything you say echo’s back perfectly, even better than being in a tunnel!
Leaving the echoing forest we emerge into a clearing with the Beehive Bothy, a rounded pyramid, single-room bothy shaped like a beehive. It looks neat. There’s a fire at the entrance and inside, we find 4 benches round the outside of the room, each probably wide enough to sleep two people. We choose to sleep outside as there is already a couple of guys (father and young son) in the bothy, and Jo’s planning on one of her infamous cold water sponge baths. We are situated in a grand clearing between the firebreaks. Alan takes the opportunity to sit up late photographing the moon which bathes the clearing in pale light. Later on another Scottish chap arrives to stay in the bothy after dark.