I’m not going to pretend I was looking forward to White Coomb, because I wasn’t. I was expecting it to be boring. This is probably very unfair of me given I’ve never walked in the Southern Uplands…but I’ve always thought of the hills there as being dull compared with their northerly cousins. The view from road level reminds me of travel sickness as a youngster. Every time we travelled south along those narrow rolling roads; through green rolling hills; my desperately rolling stomach complained bitterly. It’s funny how some things stick in your mind…even after almost 50 years.
Anyway, I’d picked White Coomb because it was easy. As far as I could make out from what others had written there were no fences and no signs telling dogs to “Sod Off!”. Given I’ve never met a dog who can read, I’m not sure how useful these signs actually are. The Fatdog swears she can’t read but I’ve never seen her visit the “Gents” by accident.
So…an easy hill and no obvious obstacles thus making it a prime candidate for a pair of hill walkers whose capabilities are becoming increasingly variable as time wears on. After years of putting off walks because my legs weren’t quite right I’ve finally caged that demon. Early retirement is a grand thing: I’m now more relaxed about the leg situation and just head out regardless. I must point out however, that his is not necessarily the cleverest decision I’ve come to in the past few years but it can add a certain frisson to proceedings.
While I’ve been hobbling off and on this month The Fatdog has been doing likewise. Like me, she seems to have good days and bad days…but never a bad day when a hill walk is on the cards…funny that. So, today’s big question was – while there was a good chance we would make it up the hill…would we make it back down?
The Grey Mare's Tail car park - the ascent path can be seen crossing the hill opposite
From the Grey Mare’s Tail car park the path up the east side of the waterfall was clearly visible – as were the sheep. That meant the lead for Maisie and at least an hour of me being yanked up the hill by an enthusiastic Fatdog. She does like her hillwalking. But fate opted to intervene in the shape of four other travellers with whom we were to meet up fairly regularly on the ascent. We let the four man sheep plough head up in front and clear the trail of the woolly munchers who, on cue, disappeared into the deep bracken muttering as they went. This allowed Maisie to be de-hitched and me to insert my right arm back into its socket.
The Grey Mare's Tail
The Fatdog waits patiently as the "sheep plough" clears the trail in front
Other critters inhabit these hills
While The Fatdog doesn't mind goats cheese...she reckons goat pie would be a far superior dish
As we moved past the gorge formed by the waterfall the gradient eased and the terrain either side of the winding path became more lumpy. We had passed our human sheep repellent having a break some minutes before and had now reached the southern edge of Loch Skeen. What a view! We had a short break for numerous photos. Our “not quite” travelling companions caught up and kindly took a shot of The Fatdog and I at this most stunning of locations.
We reach the most scenic part of the walk...Loch Skeen
The tail end of the "sheep plough" disappears round the bend - Lochcraig Head in the background
Ain't that pretty!
There was a near reluctance to move on. While this section of the walk had been a pleasure I was aware the next section taking us to the foot of Lochcraig Head would be less so…and it proved to be a lot less so. Here’s a view looking down on it from Lochcraig Head. The “path” led along the loch side (left hand side as you look at the photo). But what lay to the east were the peat hags. Now there’s terrain you really don’t want to have to cross.
Walking "Hell" to the left of the photo
It was wet.
It was muddy.
It was up and down.
It was treacherous underfoot.
It was hell.
…and that was just the path, such as it was.
A couple of times we headed away from the loch edge to find a route to the wall that we could see in the distance beyond the bog. If there was a path we managed to miss it and so kept stumbling back to the shore and towards the rising grassy ground at the end of the loch. We must have been a couple of hundred metres from the end of the mire when my right leg, which had been a bit dodgy all week, flailed due to a misstep down a hollow in the peat and twinged alarmingly. I discovered that hobbling and bog trotting are two functions which to not marry well together.
I briefly considered the options. It didn’t take long. Although we were only one third into the walk there was no way I was going back along that loch side with a dodgy leg. It would be much easier biting the bullet and making the relatively easy climb up the south slope of Lochcraig Head and complete the planned round, limping or otherwise. As it happened the ache eased off (as it nearly always does) and we carried out a ponderous rising traverse across the south face of Lochcraig Head until we reached the stone wall which we would follow across the top of the hill. There we met up with the sheep plough who had managed to find a way through the bog to meet the wall at a lower level.
The "sheep plough" forges on up the steep grassy slope towards the east spur of Lochcraig Head
The Fatdog introduces herself to (from left to right) Ed, Mick and Des
Looking back down the length of the wall to the bog below
While The Fatdog scampered up the hill behind her new found friends I was left to plod behind, contemplating how much easier I used to find ascents. I was grateful when the gradient eased on reaching the hills east spur.
The view east (looking back down the east spur) was amazing - sadly the photo doesn't do it justice
The top of Lochcraig Head is a rounded lump but a wander south from the summit allows a good view down onto Loch Skeen (earlier photo showing the extent of the bog). From here the plan was to head for White Coomb via the summits of Firthybrig Head, Donald’s Cleuch Head and Firthhope Rig. From now on it would be about following the wall which joined up the various tops.
Ed on Firthybrig Head with Lochcraig Head in the background.
After the steep…ish drop from Lochcraig Head followed by the brief ascent of Firthybrig Head, it was time for lunch. This is the point where the sheep plough made its first mistake of the day. Billy, Des, Ed and Mick sat down beside me and FD and opened their rucksacks…
…the Fatdog enjoyed lunch.
Deprived of lunch by the ravenous Fatdog the hungry "snow plough" decide they're as well pushing on to White Coomb
It was a gentle amble from our lunch spot on Firthybrig Head, across the intervening bumps, to White Coomb. In fact it was so gentle I was surprised by our sudden arrival at the summit and kept looking around for the rest of the ascent. Where the hell had it gone? There has to be more!
My puzzlement was set aside. The Fatdog had completed her 100th Marilyn and was, most charitably, treated to a round of applause by the unfortunate lunch-less sheep plough.
The Fatdog's 100th Marilyn!
We picked up a trail which followed a wall leading us back downhill via Rough Crags (White Coomb’s east spur) to the Tail Burn. It was, in parts, a steep descent.
The Fatdog watches the "sheep plough" scuttle off down the easy slope to Rough Crags - still wondering if there is anything edible left in the rucksacks that she'd missed
Des contemplates the steeper section of Rough Crags
Time out for Billy and Mick after the steep section of Rough Crags
The last shot looking back up Rough Crags before the crossing of the Tail Burn
That only left a wee spot of paddling across Tail Burn to be done before taking the main path down past the Grey Mare’s Tail back to the car. The burn crossing resulted in soggy bums for those who opted to splash across with their boots and gaiters on. Des and I opted to remove the footwear, roll up the trouser legs and paddle sedately across the 3m wide stream. A very sensible…and dry…solution. The Fatdog ambled across totally nonplussed by the whole experience.
Almost back at The Tank
It had been a leisurely stroll taking us less than 6 hours in total. This included tea stops, lunch and a lot of blethering. The sun shone for the whole walk and as a result I have a line across my forehead where the sunburn ended and the bandana began, but it would be churlish to complain given the paucity of decent days this past few weeks.
Route shown in green
So, rather than being bored by our first foray into the Southern Uplands, I thoroughly enjoyed our amble around the White Coomb circuit. As a result I’m actually looking forward to our future trips down the M74. Wonder what we’ll do next?
For Those Who Like Photos – Here’s the Flickr Slide Show.
Once you’ve started the slideshow – click the icon in the bottom right corner to see the slide show FULL SIZE – definitely worth it.
My thanks to Sheila who discovered this little gem of a code.