It’s my first proper walk in Scotland, and I’m freaked out by the absence of public footpaths on the map. First thing to do is visit the tourist centre (as suggested by Alan Palin). Rather bizarrely, the centre is located in Gretna’s large retail park.
A very helpful lady gives me an excellent map showing bus routes, and an equally excellent leaflet full of bus timetables. But she seems perplexed when I ask about walking routes.
I head back to the Sark Bridge and find a path sign pointing along the river bank. So they do have marked paths in Scotland, after all. Over there is England. But I’m in Scotland! (I still can’t really believe I’ve made it this far.)
The path starts off well, but then I come to a section where the bank is crumbling away. I tread a precariously narrow strip between barbed wire and muddy slope.
I reach the mouth of the River Sark, and begin walking along the bank of the Solway estuary.
Gretna is soon left behind and I reach the little hamlet of Stormont. Here I find another footpath sign, pointing back to Gretna. Information boards tell me about local wildlife, and also mention the famous Lochmaben Stone, which lies nearby
I continue onwards along the shore for a few hundred yards until I reach the mouth of the another river. Kirtle Water. Over there, across the estuary, is Cumbria.
I follow the river bank and look across the fields, searching for signs of a big stone. There it is… in the middle of a ploughed field. To get to it I must scramble through a barbed wire fence and then plod up a little hill.
This is all that remains of a prehistoric stone circle. In the 19th century a tenant farmer attempted to clear the stones out of his way by burying them, but his excavations were discovered in time and the largest stone – the Lochmaben Stone – was saved. It has served as a local landmark and a meeting place for centuries.
I love finding these ancient monuments, and I place my hands on the granite surface and think of all the history this stone has seen. It’s an ‘erratic’, which means it was carried here by a glacier many millennia ago. It certainly seems very alien in this landscape of ploughed fields and river mud.
After taking photographs of the stone from every angle, I continue with my walk, traipsing back along the field towards the river bank, which I follow until I find the road bridge.
A mile along the road and I turn left into Rigfoot. It’s a tiny village, but in a garden I see two boys of about 10 years of age playing with a group of younger girls. One of the boys lines the girls up, making them lie down in the grass in a row, and then takes a running jump over their little bodies. Like Evel Knievel – but, luckily, without a motor bike!
I would like to take a photo of their antics, but am reluctant to photograph other people’s children without permission.
Onwards. Through Rigfoot to tiny Redkirk…
… and then along a farm track. Here’s another footpath sign. I’m surprised that Scotland actually seems to have proper, signed footpaths after all. What was I worrying about?
I follow the track through farmland until, after a couple of miles, it turns down towards the shore again.
This is very pleasant. I walk along a raised bank, covered in flowering gorse bushes, and pass through another little hamlet – called Browhouses.
From here, a good track runs along the edge of MoD land. Behind the fence is a large area where ammunition was stored during the war. I’m not sure what happens here now, but the fence is obviously still in place and well maintained.
Notices tell me the MoD land is a PROHIBITED PLACE and warn of guard dogs. I don’t see any dogs, nor security cameras, nor anybody… it’s a lonely and deserted landscape.
I make good progress along the track until it abruptly comes to an end and my way is blocked by a fence, beyond which is an overgrown patch of land. Oh no! Am I going to have to turn back?
I force my way through some brambles and gorse bushes, picking up several scratches, and find a narrow passage between two high fences. One fence is protecting the MoD land. The other fence is encircling a deep pit of water.
Beyond the pit is a crumbling mess of deserted buildings. Their foundations are slowly slipping down the bank and the shore is littered with tumbled bricks and smashed concrete.
This is Torduff Point. A place I had hoped would be pretty and scenic, but isn’t. Ah well. Onwards.
The MoD fence continues, but the ground beside the fence is now too overgrown for easy walking, so I take to the mud instead. There are footprints here – something I find very reassuring to see. And I wonder if these might be Alan’s prints. He walked this route a year ago and it’s possible the tide hasn’t reached this far.
After a while the mud turns to marsh. I climb back up to the fence, but the ground is very chewed up and difficult to walk along, and eventually becomes obstructed by a mess of driftwood and debris, so I head down to the marsh again.
This turns out to be a mistake. The bank disappears under a forest of tall grasses, making it difficult to see the ground underfoot…
… which is a problem because the ground is threaded through with deep water channels and picking my way from clump to clump of dry grass is not easy. One false step and I could twist an ankle. Or even break a leg… oh dear.
After fighting my way along the bank for some time, I head back to the fence again. There is a narrow path here, and even some handy planks of wood that someone has placed over the little streams.
Eventually, and to my relief, I reach the end of the MoD land and a pleasanter landscape of fields. I love this time of year – baby lambs are leaping about!
Following the shore, I find another footpath sign. Good news. It means the route will be easier now, I hope. And what’s that hill ahead in the distance? My old friend, Criffel.
Criffel reminds me of Black Combe. It, like Black Combe, is impressive enough to look like a mountain, but doesn’t quite make the grade, being 40 metres too short.
Onwards. I’m close to the village of Dornock, and I know David Cotton had difficulty crossing a little river here, but I’m relieved to see there’s a proper bridge.
Further on and I reach a ford. A sign warns me of deep channels. Oh dear… but there is a handy bridge here too, and I cross the ford without even getting my boots wet.
From the bridge, I take a photo looking back along the shore where I’ve just walked. There’s Torduff Point across the bay.
Looking over the estuary, I can make out familiar landmarks on the other side. Cumbria. Those white buildings are in Port Carlisle. And the long, low structure (to the left of the photo below) is the remains of the harbour wall. I smile when I remember meeting the young couple who thought they’d actually found Hadrian’s Wall.
Now I reach a collection of houses, a place called Battlehill, and the path along the shore seems to come to an end. It might be possible to continue along the bank – I know Alan did – but I’m fed up of fighting through reeds and marshes, so I take the easier route and follow a quiet road as it makes a circuit inland.
After a mile or so, I turn left at a T junction and am soon back on the banks of the estuary. This is Whinnyrig.
An easy track takes me to next tiny place – Seafield. It looks like a scrap yard, with a motley collection of buildings, machinery, piles of rubble, and several skips full of junk.
Here is an old railway embankment where a viaduct used to carry trains across the estuary to Cumbria, and I remember seeing the other end of the missing track when I walked through Bowness on Solway a few weeks ago.
I stand at the end of the embankment. The wind has picked up and is blowing hard and cold. I look across a bay of mud. On the other side is Barnkirk Point – I should get there tomorrow. And beyond, a blue hump on the horizon, is Criffel.
I follow the embankment inland. It’s tempting to keep going, as the path along the top will take me all the way into Annan, and I’m feeling tired…
… but instead I turn off to the left and follow a footpath along the shore. I was worried this path would be marshy and muddy, but it follows a raised bank and is surprisingly dry.
The marsh to my left is called Annan Merse. I know these wetlands are supposed to be teeming with wildlife, but they look rather bleak and desolate to me.
After a while, my nice, dry bank disappears, and I’m picking my way across marsh, leaping across waterways and balancing on dry tussocks. Occasionally I find a handy bridge, but most of the time it seems to be a matter of finding my own way.
It takes a surprisingly long time to cross the Merse. Impossible to walk in a straight line.
Finally I reach the other side of the marsh and another raised bank that marks the mouth of the River Annan. Here there is a memorial cairn to Robert Burns (every significant place in Scotland, I’m soon to discover, will host a memorial to Robbie Burns!). I balance my camera on a bench and take a self-portrait.
From here I follow a quiet road all the way up to Annan. The river is somewhere on my left, but I don’t see much of it until I reach Annan itself.
Well, I’ve survived my first day of Scottish walking. Some of it was easy. Some of it was hard. But I’ve been surprised to discover there is a network of paths in this area, after all, and I’m optimistic about making good progress tomorrow.
Postscript: I arrived back in my B&B to find an email from Chris Elliott, who walked this section of the coast in 2015, and he warned me the path along the MoD land was non-existent and the route was dangerous in places. He was ‘lucky not to break a leg’ and suggested following the road instead. Great advice. But too late for me!
Miles walked today = 15 miles
Total around coastline = 3,060 miles