50 from your front door.

Ronald Turnbull has kindly let me reproduce a chapter from his book “Three Peaks Ten Tors.” A real treat of a read. For those of you participating in the ‘howies 36 hour door to door Bivvy Bag competition’ story this should wet your whistles. I will be posting a few other bits and pieces of Ronalds over the next month so keep your eyes peeled.

please click view below for the whole story

  • concept: visit a friend 50 miles away
  • distance: 80km / 50 miles (or your usual maximum + 50%)
  • ascent: 1500m/5000ft if you live somewhere hilly
  • start: your front door at dawn
  • finish: a suitably distant friend
  • terrain: off-road
  • target time: a day
  • standard strong walker: 20 hrs

Suffering from stiffness and too much staring into the computer screen? Draw a circle that's slightly more than you can do in a day – twenty miles, thirty miles, fifty miles – find a friend on the circumference, and go. But it helps if you live in the Southern Uplands. Fifty miles, my personal not-quite-in-a-day distance, can take you over twenty hills, and only three tarred roads.

Home, says TS Eliot, is where one starts from. Starting from home means a good night's sleep, and no driving around in the pre-dawn dark. Just up, into a big bowl of muesli, and off out the door.

The plan was simple. The Lowther Hills; the Moffat Hills; and then the Manor Hills. I remembered some paths across the Manor Hills, and the Harvey map shows fences to follow. But being Southern Upland hills they are, here and there, a bit boring. Doing the Manors in darkness would add excitement. And then, at the end, there was the Tweed. Into Innerleithen the choice was a bridge a mile south or a bridge two miles west. But on the map a farm track ran down to the bank and stopped; and the name of the farm was Howford.

I asked my friend at the end, and her History of Peeblesshire knew all about it. She sent me a picture of 18th-century commuters crossing the How Ford on stilts. Rivers shift over the centuries. But in the slightly featureless Uplands, a possibly impassible ford generates exciting suspense.

As I rose out of Nithsdale up a handy Landrover track, the sun was already well above the grassy Lowthers. Straw-coloured light gleamed between bars of cloud. The day was basically grey, but far-seeing. From Ballencleuch Law, distinguished as the second-highest of the Southern Lowthers, I saw across the sea to Skiddaw. Behind me, green Nithsdale ran southwards to the Solway; ahead, the Clyde headed north for Glasgow. Further east the Moffat Hills spread along the horizon, and a wide black hump beyond was Broad Law.

The going across the Lowthers is fast and grassy. Quite quickly I was across the Lowthers and down at the Daer Reservoir. Daer is pronounced Dar, as in Dar Dar di Dar Dar. Its hills lie back slackly, its waters spread colourless between bare stone banks. The dam is wide concrete; the houses are concrete too but more cheaply constructed.

Down at Daer, the end of Summer was dribbling away in grey haze. I crossed the dam, and below me half a hundred swallows were swooping after midges and dipping their beaks in the reservoir. A brief scramble up the banking, and I was on the Southern Upland Way.

Twenty years of walking have left the SU Way green and almost unmarked. It has its good bits, which are quite widely spaced apart, and it has its fairly good bits. Above Daer Reservoir it turned off for one of its rather bad bits – ten miles through trees to Beattock – so I left it and headed down to the Evan Water.

High and out of sight, buzzards were squeaking across the quiet valley. Ahead and below, a faint low rumble told me that the spruce-lined slot contained the main road out of England. The wide dual carriageway was marked, of course, on my map. But I've lived in Nithsdale for two decades now and the map is an old one. The dual carriageway has become a motorway.

Shouldn't matter. There are farms on either side of the valley. So one or other of them must have a bridge leading over to the old road, no?

No. The further farm has simply been abandoned, its access cut by the six lanes plus hard shoulder. Hopping across the carriageway is not just illegal, but also unpleasantly life-threatening. (As against the Crib Goch Ridge, say, which is pleasantly life-threatening.) No over, no across, and the next bridge a mile away through the spruce. But there is also under. The Evan Water gave me a long concrete tunnel, quarter full of water, with a nine-inch concrete walkway leading into the darkness. It doesn't have the glamour of Crib Goch; but grim is a sort of good. Even if it does mean wet feet.

Beautiful grey and pink stonework, topped off with broken slate; nettles everywhere; and the continuous grumble of the motorway. Howcleuch Farm is gone, and the Evan is no longer a place for unwheeled people. Even more gone was the Roman fortlet I passed in a forest clearing, lost under thigh-deep ungrazed grasses. I emerged to hill breezes and fifty miles of grey air on the rim of the Devil's Beef Tub.

Southwards, now, the River Annan ran down green valleys to the Solway. North, bleakly interleaved bogland and moor were the top end of the Tweed. Under my ankles was the hole in the hill where Armstrongs and Eliots (plus the odd Turnbull) hid the Englishmen's stolen cattle when the Englishmen came to get them back.

Armstrongs and Eliots now ride the green ridges on four-wheel motor bikes; which makes things easy for us walkers. A quad-bike path leads comfortably up onto Hart Fell. And the Moffat Hills, unlike some of the Southern Uplands, are real scenery. Deep stream valleys are edged with rotten rocks and sideways-growing rowan. The marshes drain over the edge in the spectacular waterfall called the Grey Mare's Tail. And above the waterfall is small but lovely Loch Skeen, cradled in its bog hollow.

Rotten Bottom lives up to its name in every way except that it's actually at the top; to get to White Coomb you have to sink knee-deep in its green embrace. But the hillwalker, like his friend the broken wall, emerges onto the opposite slope and finds short sheep-nibbled grasses. It was a weekend in late summer, so the hills were busy, and accordingly at this point in the walk two other walkers did pass me, no more than fifty yards away. Then it stopped being busy again.

White Coomb, at five o' clock. The hazy day was fading towards grey evening. A few sun-specks fled eastwards towards somewhere with a better climate. But lightweight shoes and short Southern Upland grasses, long summer days and chill evening air, make for fast walking, along the last rounded ridge of the Moffats and down to Meggat Head. During half an hour off the ridge end, two cars passed along the strip of tarmac that divides the ranges.

Looking carefully left and right, I stepped across into the Manor Hills.

Broad Cairn on Deeside; Broad Peak in the Karakoram; the Breithorn above Zermatt; and Broad Law in the Southern Uplands. They are large (especially Broad Peak) but otherwise unexciting. Broad Law does boast a peculiar onion-spiked bandstand; there are also a small and a large radio mast. But grassy paths and fence-following are great for the slightly-aching legs, the fading brain. I crossed four hills called things like Water Head and Black Cleuch Hill. The sky turned from grey to black-and-scarlet stripes, with Biggar and Peebles glowing orange around the edge. In the half-light, bog-cotton glowed almost luminous, as I waded through a knee-deep dreamy sea of it.

There are, as I'd hoped, good paths across Dun Rig. The question is, how often to hop across the fence in the hope that the good path may be existing over this particular bit? For there are also bad paths, where you sink knee deep in the dark, wake up a sudden grouse by treading on its tail; and the trouble with following the fence is the bits of the previous fence that twist around your ankles.

On television there used to be the Crystal Maze. Imagine the opposite: a maze that's soft, black, and floored with fallen fence posts. That's the night-time peat hag on the way down from Dun Rig. But up out of the peat is short heather, soft like shag-pile; switch off the torch, step anywhere, and gaze with half-asleep eyes at hill shapes and the stars. The night before me, two boys saw the Northern Lights from these hills. But even the Southern Upland darkness was pleasingly dreamy.

I had, however, outwalked my schedule. Hill darkness is one thing: darkness across the impassible fords of Tweed was not so desirable. And if there's one thing better than treading the benighted heather, it's lying down on it and going to sleep. So I stopped in a hollow below the breeze and unrolled my bed. The heather twigs adapting to my weight made soft clickings against the bivvybag, so that I thought it was raining, but it wasn't. I lay under the stars and slept my way back onto the schedule. And at dawn I came down to the Tweed.

The Tweed, whose source I'd passed sixteen hours before, was now alarmingly wide. There was no sign of the 18th-century workmen on their stilts; more seriously, there was no sign of their ramped way down in and their ramped way up out again. However, the wider the shallower, and 100 metres downstream were ripples and water crowfoot. The difficulty was getting in, down a steep bank of goosegrass and willow herb. And the more serious difficulty was getting out, up a bank of head-high nettles. After that, a comfy railbed path led into Innerleithen.

Walking in between the breakers' yards, a warm crusty smell of fresh croissants drifted in the early air. A nasal hallucination, or someone baking deliciously but in private? I wandered into the village in search of a drink – the Manor Hills had had plenty of water to squelch into suddenly, but none in clean streams.

The loos of Innerleithen were locked against the pre-dawn vandal. However, there was a six-in-the-morning newsagent with his light on. He looked up at the man in bush hat and rucksack, wet to the knee and sprinkled all over with goosegrass seeds. "It'll stay dry," he suggested mildly, "but that's the best we can say. 75 pee."

I wandered down the road and went to sleep on the lawn. My friend's dog found me there at breakfast time. It had been a proper walk, I could tell: it cost in bus tickets more than nine quid to get back home.

          50 Miles in a day

  •  for most of us 50 miles is a bit of a superhuman effort. I give myslef various advantages
  •  lightweight shoes
  •  comfortable ground
  •  long days of may or august, a full moon and an ok weather forecast.
  •  Light rucksack, this is the tricky one. Stay under 12lb whilst including plenty of food and water, and enough gear incase of foul weather, exhaustion, and nightfall, all perhaps happening at once.
  •  A map that marks fences: paths are hard to see by moonlight, a fence is dependable.
  •  A friend at the end is a more enticing destination than a bustop, a hilltop or even the sea,. Depending on the intimacy of the friend when I arrive at 4 in the morning I either find the key under the flowerpot or go to sleep in the garden. A really kind friend would drive to pick up the body if I collapsed near the end of the journey.
  • Or one could relax into the supporting arms of the log distance walkers association. 
  • The picture above is of Tavy Cleave in Dartmoor from this site about Dartmoor.