open country

When I was called on again to cover a colleague’s ranger-led walk, I was pleased to discover it was a section of the Southern Upland Way that I had not walked.

The last section – a 10-mile stretch from Abbey St Bathans to Cockburnspath – has varied terrain.

Under the overcast sky, one village ran into the next on the road east. Our iconic hills were mere shadows; the country looked very flat.

A collection of campervans was parked by the rivers below the austere walls of Abbey St Bathans House.

The owners of the vans seemed to be emerging slowly to look at the cars that were arriving, curious as to why more people were gathering. The water thickly pouring over the ford was the colour of ale. Some of the leaflets in the information point had curled in the sustained dampness.

One of the campervan owners enquired what we were doing and decided to join us. He was our fourth English visitor out of only eight people in total. I enjoyed the mixed group – strangers and regulars coming to the front to talk to me then falling back.

We leave Abbey St Bathans on the high footbridge that looks down on the swollen curve of water curling over the ford. The first fingerpost we see points north towards Cockburnspath and west towards Portpatrick; the latter is 200 miles away.

The route follows a track through woodland old and new, tumbledown dykes where moss has sealed their abandonment loosely edge around the plantations. We wind our way through newer trees on Shanno Braes and cross underneath the buzzing pylons. Then we walk up to the top of the smooth green slope of a field before passing the farm buildings of Whiteburn.

Before heading past Blackburnmill Farm we stopped in the relative darkness of a mixed woodland. From the rock where I sat I observed a dead Scots pine that had been perforated by insects; nearer me, the flaky barks of larch were dotted with lichens. Otherwise there was no sign of life. Some of the beeches had wrinkled grey bark like elephant skin.

The two dogs from the farm stood and barked at a metal field gate as we followed the field just as they had when I had walked there alone. A pair of buzzards called to each other and met over a woodland strip to scare off a crow in their air-space.

Apart from hesitating before crossing the roaring A1 in ones and twos, we did not stop again until we crossed the railway bridge and came to Penmanshiel Wood. In contrast to the open farmland and the high country roads, the woodland offered great interest and intrigue, it was through these kilometres that we dallied the longest.

Penmanshiel Cottage now stands silent, nestled in the trees and grasses around it. The track that heads north from it leaves Pease Burn and goes deeper into the darks and lights of the forest where a fine film of moist air veils the way ahead – old oaks thick with cankers, animal trails cross the green track disappearing into the dark space under the spruce, the debris of feathers from goshawk’s kill lies on the edge.

Then we are out in the faint light of the cloudy day again and we can see the coast. We go on in single file on the narrow muddy path down through Pease Dean where the speckled wood butterflies had fluttered in the hot summer sun.

By the time we reached the cliff tops, you could feel the length of the walk and the close of day chapping at our heels. The waves thudded over the harbour wall at Cove as fulmars soared and a pair of eiders rode the swell.

I was happy that there was constant chatter among our group as we crossed fields, followed farm tracks and wound along woodland paths. They only fell silent when we reached the cliffs above Pease Bay and Cove – we were all tired and cold.