I like the way Barry thinks, which is a good job because our paths keep on crossing. After initially meeting in Street and bumping into each other on the banks of the Severn near Bewdley, we didn't meet up again until Alston, when we happened to stay at the hostel at the same time. The following night we met up again, this time in the hostel in Greenhead, and a few days later we joined forces for a pint or two in Jedburgh, followed by another few beers last night in Melrose. Our paths have finally diverged, as from Edinburgh he's heading straight for Inverness while I turn west to catch the West Highland Way, but in the last couple of weeks he's not only been excellent evening company, he's been a mine of information.
It was Barry who first inspired me to take official trails and guidebooks with a large pinch of salt. Back in Street I'd been looking forward to sampling the delights of the Cotswold Way, but he'd warned me that it didn't half make a meal of all those hills and he was right; as a result I ditched it earlier than planned, cut across to Gloucester and never looked back. He also told me about a shortcut on the Pennine Way that would miss out Cross Fell, though having a score to settle I conquered the bugger anyway; but by the time we met up again in Alston I was getting a bit tired of the Pennine Way, and it was Barry's idea to cut the corner at Hadrian's Wall and to walk from Alston to Haltwhistle instead of Greenhead. Without him I'd have probably killed myself struggling along the wall with a full pack; instead it was his suggestion that enabled me to avoid the Emperor Hadrian altogether.
His final piece of advice was another beauty. Because finding accommodation is one of the hardest aspects of walking across the country, we've been swapping B&B details and helping each other out where possible, and when Barry had a half-day's rest near Hadrian's Wall, he used his time to find a solution to a problem we both had. There have recently been some pretty serious storms in the area between Melrose and Peebles, and one of the results was a landslide that cut off the water supply to Broadmeadows Youth Hostel, forcing the SYHA to close it until further notice. Both Barry and I were planning to use Broadmeadows to break up the 24-mile trek from Melrose to Peebles and its closure rather scuppered our plans, especially as Broadmeadows is in the middle of absolutely nowhere and there's nothing else for miles around.
Barry's solution was simple and effective. Instead of trying to book accommodation halfway along the walk, he worked out that I could walk a few miles further to a town called Innerleithen and catch the bus back to Melrose; then the next day I could catch the bus back to Innerleithen, from where it's a relatively easy six-mile walk along minor roads to Peebles. And the beauty of it all? Seeing as I'd be staying in Melrose for two nights, I could leave my pack at the hostel and do the Melrose-Innerleithen section with just a day pack. Genius!
As I said, I like the way Barry thinks, and I had cause to thank Barry on many an occasion today, because it would have been a completely miserable day with a full pack; in the event it was still a completely miserable day, but it didn't last half as long. The problem, as always, was the weather. Scattered heavy showers are never very much fun when you're outside, but guess what I had to cross today. Did you guess 'moor'? Then you guessed right.
I could save a lot of effort here and simply refer you back to one of my many whinges about crossing moors in shitty weather, but I need the cathartic effect of telling you all about it and besides, the moor doesn't crop up until later in today's walk. First I've got to tell you about the Southern Upland Way, so hold those moorland thoughts for a while and I'll come back to them in a minute.
Scotland doesn't have too many national trails, but I'm following most of them. I've already mentioned St Cuthbert's Way and later on I'll be joining the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way. Apart from the Speyside Way, which I don't go anywhere near, the only other long-distance trail of note is the Southern Upland Way, which stretches for 213 miles from the west coast of Scotland to the North Sea. Today I sampled just one day of it, and in this weather that was enough.
In sunshine the Southern Upland Way must be a lovely walk. It meanders through some of Scotland's most unsung beauty spots, taking in the historical towns and lonely hill walks of the Borders Region, and even though today was cloudy and the views were shrouded in mist, it wasn't hard to see the appeal of walking through the region's hills. But the section from Melrose through the neighbouring town of Galashiels is an incredible waste of effort, and before I even reached the countryside the Southern Upland Way was getting on my nerves.
I think it's been designed by committee, because instead of heading west from Melrose and getting up into them there hills, the Way dithers around for miles, cutting through parks, beside rivers and along tarmac paths in a way that left me thankful for the exemplary way-markers that guided me through every single twist and turn. Indeed, if the way-markers hadn't been there to reassure me, I'd have assumed I'd gone wrong somewhere, because no long-distance walker would intentionally meander around so much. It's a guaranteed way of tiring you out before you've got into the meat of the walk, and it took me a good two hours to weave through the suburbs of Galashiels and up onto the moors.
I did enjoy one bit, though. As the Way plodded through an industrial estate in the no man's land where Melrose and Galashiels merge, I glanced into a huge open-plan office where bleary-eyed workers sucked on polystyrene coffee cups and stared at Monday morning's workload piled up on their desks. I had to stop and stare, not because there was anything strange about this office, but because it was so utterly normal. 'I'm going back to that in a few weeks,' I thought, and it struck me that slipping back into office life might be more of a challenge than walking from Land's End to John o'Groats in the first place. My walk will have lasted three months; the rat race lasts a lifetime.
Ooh, here come the moors! All I have to do is tell you that the Way passes through some farmland and into Yair Forest, and then we're out into the heather for more of my favourite walking. Mmm, let's get stuck in.
Minch Moor. It doesn't sound too bad, does it? It's not like it's called Miserable Git or Boggy Bastard, and there's a good reason, for Minch Moor isn't miserable or boggy. Actually, it's a delight underfoot; the Southern Upland Way is a stunningly well-crafted path and I didn't once reach for my gaiters. Instead Minch Moor's attraction is that it is horribly exposed, and today the wind battered my eardrums until my brain ached and my head rattled.
It also decided to rain, coming down in short downpours that managed to soak straight through my Gore-Tex jacket, leaving me at the mercy of the savage westerly winds that slammed through my layers of clothing. I half-noticed the views through the mist, thinking how lovely they would be under a cloudless sky, but for most of the walk over Minch Moor I was bent double, fighting through the gales and hardly stopping at all.
Luckily the pine trees of the Elibank and Traquair Forest cover the summit of the moor and for once I was happy to walk into a man-made forest. Midges don't even get out of bed in weather like this, so instead of stepping into a torrent of neck slapping and feverish itching, I gratefully fell into the eerie silence of a pine tree wind break. The industrial strength gales stopped dead in their tracks, leaving only the background hiss of rippling pine needles as evidence of the howling winds outside, and I collapsed on a bed of dry undergrowth, my head pounding.
From there it got easier; the track headed downhill and back off the moor, and as I stepped out of the forest the sun came out and dried off my clothes in no time. By half past two I had reached Traquair, where I was due to turn off to Innerleithen and the bus back to Melrose, and I couldn't believe it; I had oodles of time to spare, probably because I'd practically jogged across Minch Moor, thanks to the weather and the lack of weight on my back.
So I decided to walk all the way to Peebles and to catch the bus back from there, enabling me to take a full rest day tomorrow; sure, the six miles along the B7062 seemed to drag on for a long time, and by the time I reached Peebles I was exhausted, but I did manage to find a delicatessen in town that sold Traquair ale and this pretty much made up for it. Traquair House is apparently Scotland's oldest inhabited house and was a place much frequented by royalty over the centuries, and in an inspired move one of the wings of the house has been converted into a micro-brewery. I bought a bottle of Bear Ale, a treacle-flavoured 5 per cent brew that set me up nicely and quite put me in the mood for a couple of pints of McEwan's 80 Shilling with Barry back in Melrose.
And why not? I've well and truly earned tomorrow's rest day, and I did it the hard way, on the moors.