The road goes ever on and on… Bilbo Baggins, in Tolkien’s The Hobbit
Today promised to be one of the most varied days of the route so far, taking us from West Linton, nestled to the south of the Pentland Hills, over the col between East and West Cairn Hills, and down the other side through the conurbations of Livingstone by way of the Calderwood and Almondell Country Park, and thence north to Phillipstoun by the towpath of the Union Canal.
It also turned out to be the longest day of the End-to-End walk so far… at 39km, more than 24 miles. There were several sections on which we seemed to be walking on elastic being slowly stretched: at times the end of a section seemed to get further away as we walked towards it.
The George Arms Inn where we started the day is one of those pubs which gets it exactly right. At the end of yesterday’s walk we had decanted ourselves into a bright, warm, smallish public bar, crammed with locals and outlanders alike, all mingling and chatting over pints of well-kept beer and eating solid portions of good home-cooked food. After abluting and stretching in our super-comfortable room, we had found David installed at a table and joined him for supper. He was going to walk on after eating, and wild camp up in the Pentland Hills to take a chunk out of the next day in order to make it past Winchburgh and Philipstoun all the way to Linlithgow. That meant that we wouldn’t see him again until Fort William on the far side of the West Highland Way. David was chatting with a local couple who were mighty impressed with his End-to-End feat. So much so that when they left they handed him a fiver to buy his first beer at John O’Groats. It transpired that the publicans were also mighty impressed, and shouted him his meal too! David was rather bemused at this – at 35, an accountant is not usually accustomed to being given free stuff. But he looks such a youthful man of the path with his long beard, and is so irrepressibly positive, and his North Face lightweight boots are in such a horrifically poor state (full of holes that started to appear within two weeks of use, giving him blisters that are so bad he is on permanent painkillers), that it is entirely understandable.
We had aimed to end today’s walk in Winchburgh, but there had been no accommodation options. We therefore planned to stop briefly there for supper, and add on an hour’s walking after that to take us further along the Union Canal to the village of Philipstoun where there was a single B&B. The route climbed straight out of the back of the pub up a wooded track, and we emerged at the top into the glory of a sunny day on a high path above a bright, grassy valley which drank in the light and seemed to become an ever-more intense green as we watched.
A little burn executed a textbook meander on the valley floor,
and a pair of runners, as exhilarated as we were by the light, ran up to intersect with our path, which here was still the Old Drove Road.
As the path climbed, the agricultural land gave way to moorland, forestry operations and a reservoir, and we were up in the Pentland Hills proper.
It was wild and uninhabited and magnificent. The path climbed steadily, winding through the shoulders of the hills, at first on a wide track where dozens of small heath butterflies displayed, and then narrowing to a twisted path where the precipitation of recent days had swirled patterns of white sand in with black peat as it flowed down the path, the rain pock-marking the edges with the force of its impact.
Eventually we reached the col under looming clouds which hadn’t yet broken over us, and the Central Belt lay before us, with Edinburgh, unbelievably, magically, to our right. The white sails of the Forth Road Bridge stood out clearly in the sun, which had disappeared above us under heavy clouds coming up from the south west but which had yet to reach the Firth of Forth.
It didn’t look a long way down to the road from where we were, but this was our first experience of a strange property of the Central Belt: its underlying geology is infinitely elastic, and as you traverse it something pulls from the far end to the effect that the path recedes before you, and distances which appear to the eye easily crossable extend in practice endlessly, into an afternoon which just gets longer and bewilderingly longer.
The path down from the col was called the Thieves Path. In days gone by ruffians lay in wait in the heather to steal cattle and relieve travellers of the contents of their pockets. As we picked our way through the bogs, a figure in the distance – wearing shorts, t-shirt and running shoes and obviously a highwayman – came down from the col behind us where he had been hiding in the heather with the small heath butterflies and the grouse, preparing his ambush. We still had a bit of distance on him, so pressed on, trying to keep open the gap between us. As we crossed into the flatter farmland, where sheep seemed unperturbed by the vast clouds of screaming starlings, he disappeared. Was he circling round to take us at one of the railway-sleeper plank bridges?
He didn’t, and we reached the safety of the road where we ate a quick lunch perched on a style, pleased at the sight of a linnet briefly spotted on a tree next to a little footbridge.
The trail took us up and over Corston Hill, turfed with tussocks of bilberry, heather and rush, after a footbridge phenomenally churned up at one end by cows.
There were no paths, which made stumbling up (and even worse stumbling down) very awkward. But the views from the top over to Edinburgh, clear at first and then with a cloudbank rolling in and shrouding the city with curtains of falling rain, were very powerful. It seems a big thing to see landmarks such as Arthur’s Seat and Carlton Hill, which emphasise just how far we have come on a mental map of the United Kingdom.
Coming down off the hill we found ourselves in one of those valleys where all the means of transport seem to run parallel to each other. We walked along the service road under an old railway bridge which, disused, had turned itself into the kind of (dangerous) aerial garden walkway of which the city of London can only dream.
As we crossed a second railway bridge, a goods train passed beneath us. Beyond that was a busy A-road, and above us was the flight path of planes taking off from Edinburgh Airport. We so briefly intersect with the frenetic pace of the modern world that when we meet it, it comes as quite a shock. This route has charted a path between the urban sprawls of Glasgow and Edinburgh through a variety of green corridors, more planned than the spontaneous green lanes and tracks of the south: the country park of Almondell and Calderwood, and the reedy peace of the Union Canal.
The vast park of Calderwood is only a couple of kilometres from north to south, but our path took us on a meandering, looping journey through the intestinal tract of this great green beast.
We all know how much length can be crammed in to a small space by scrunching up a very long ribbon, and here was the second piece of stretching elastic: we calculate that taking a winding route through the park extended today’s walk by about an hour and a half, but although we were exhausted by the end of the day, it was worth it to see what a landscape might return to after industrial processing. The extraction of shale oil at the back end of the 19th century had left its lasting mark on the landscape in the huge opencast pits, now completely greened over by deciduous broadleaved woodland in the park, in stark contrast to the vast spoil heaps created over years of mining, which still tower above Broxburn and Philipstoun.
In several places, water in the park is diverted away from the River Almond in channels which are used to top up the Union Canal.
We had a brief stop at the visitor centre just before it closed at 5pm, to hear that David had passed through about three hours earlier. We stocked up with ice cream and biscuits and carried on, heading for the canal and passing directly under the Edinburgh flight path.
It began to rain as we joined the canal, and we stopped under one of its many bridges to put on waterproofs and for me to fit to my rucksack the raincover which had charmed the water away successfully up to that point.
The canal was strangely empty of boats, and also of wildlife. The water was fairly murky here, which may have been because it was passing through the depressed town of Roxburn where the canal took us right past some sad-looking social housing. The guidebook actually says that one might feel uncomfortable about walking between several of the bridges, and suggests that one might want to take a road route instead. We did not feel at any time unsafe, but it did not feel a particularly happy place.
It was about an hour and a half’s walk to Winchburgh where we planned to get something to eat before continuing on to our B&B. We came off the towpath, still in the rain, and slogged uphill to the top of the town. A passing shopper told us that the pub which was the only place to eat had closed down a week and a half ago, but that there was a Sainsbury’s local and a Domino’s pizza place back down next to the canal. Domino’s had a small seating area and did us a restorative two-for-one deal which we ate watching four local youths skin up their joints in full view right outside the door. The food, along with the rest for our feet, gave us just enough extra energy to walk (slightly slower) the last 5km along the towpath.
This was the last elastic section of the day. The towpath was monotonous, apart from a little gift of a pair of bullfinches hopping about on the path in the rain, and never-ending. We, like the cygnets, were looking forward to our rest.
Stats for today
Total distance: 39.84km
Elevation gained and lost: 1093m
Number of steps: 47,530
Number of calories expended 3,808 (is that all?)