Over the Hills and Far Away

Never mind the Lake Poets: Beatrix Potter is one of the most evocative and romantic of authors. I mean, look at this!

Over the hills and far away! Your dinner wrapped in a red pocket handkerchief, your clothes (in a style evoking a freer era before railway travel and crinolines) all fresh and neat, the ways parting, the hills blue…

It makes my heart beat faster: it always happens when I go up the Pentlands at the Edinburgh end: from the top of Allermuir you look south, and see the blue hills stretch away, away, ready to be skipped over, to … where?

I looked on a map and found it was Carnwath, so I booked a B&B in Carnwath and on Friday caught the bus to Penicuik and, humming ‘Tom, Tom the Piper’s son’ – or for a change ‘Lilibullero’ (I’ve got the eighteenth century on the brain) danced over the hills and far away.

It began through the woods around Penicuik House (the eighteenth century is pursuing me, I tell you), which dripped with that other current obsession of mine: moss.

 It also dripped with rain. All the way up into the hills I kept thinking it might clear up, but it set in heavier. And heavier. Every time I got my map out it turned slightly more to papier mache, and soon the wind just blew bits of it away each time I got it out and I got well and truly lost.

My navigation descended to, Look! A feature! A kind of low point on the skyline! Let’s head for it and see what we can see… I discovered later this was called Cauldstane Slap, which seemed appropriate.

The thing was, even in the pouring rain, what appeared from far off like the bleakest and most featureless of landscapes, is, under your feet, the most intricate, gorgeous tapestry of bright colours, rich textures and dazzling forms.

It’s like an illuminated manuscript so fine and detailed that from any distance it looks mushy brown: only close up you see the radient emerald, wild red, bright gold, delicate grey-green.

I had swithered as to whether to find someone else to walk with this weekend. I find myself pretty irritating company, but I really wanted to test myself, have a sense of achievement, and not be held back by having to plan a sensible walk, and then hang around while they put their waterproof trousers, or stop for lunch (I’m a snacker-on-the-march), or argue about navigation. As it turned out though, I didn’t have to put up with my own company, because the hills were my company, demanding my endless interest and attention with finding the route, battling the wind and rain, watching my step and finding my way over the pathless ground, and unrolling this stunning, endlessly variegated tapestry of moss, lichen, sedge, grass and heather under my feet. By the end of the walk I felt more chilled out and distracted from all the stuff than I have done for months.

However, I still didn’t know where I was. My map had turned to mush (memo: get plastic map case). I was getting wetter and wetter in a pathless wilderness. But this was the reason I was doing this in the Pentlands and not (say) on Rannoch Moor: I knew reaching civilization would always be within my capabilities. I could see woods and a reservoir, and although I was sure it wasn’t where I wanted to be, I decided I’d just better go for it.

It turned out to be ten miles up the A70, not a good road to walk along, but at least I knew where I was. I headed south about through fields, buggering about delicately in my perpetual fear of a. scaring lambs, b. trampling crops, c. damaging fences, d. committing some other blundering city-dweller transgression, until I reached a minor road which I could identify on my soggy shreds of map. It looped around half West Lothian. I went around three sides of a wind farm which I came to hate with a cordial hatred. I had the Binns and the railway line to Carstairs ahead of me — places definitely in the ‘over the hills and far away’ category. But it did at last bring me to Carnwath.

I’ve never been so glad to arrive at a B&B. They said I was the wettest guest they’d ever had. I’d walked about 25 miles.

SO the next day dawned completely different.

The map although somewhat shredded was dry and solid again. My new boots were a triumph. I was restored with steak pie, sticky toffee pudding, nine hours sleep and full Scottish breakfast, so I set off to do it properly.

The southern end of the Pentlands really are romantic. I didn’t meet a soul in the whole two days, until I got all the way back to West Kip. The featureless wasteland of yesterday formed itself into evocative places: the high-point Craigengar; the Raven’s Cleugh (I’m sure I’ve encountered that in literature? Walter Scott? John Buchan?). Most romantic of all, when I came down Bleak Law (!), the Covenanter’s Grave:

all wreathed in lichen, ‘…covering with strange and tender honour the scarred disgrace of ruin, laying quiet finger on the trembling stones to teach them rest…’

Several miles on, a lonely rock formed the next significant feature in the landscape, all harlequinned in white, black and bright green:

 Everything was drenched and soaked and dancing with yesterday’s downpour

Merry with a million fountains

Despite going by a reasonably sensible route, it was still at least 23 miles, or more given that even in the better conditions I faffed amongst low hills that all looked the same. I came over, I think, Cock Law — the placenames just got better and better — and got a sudden view of the Kips and Scald Law and all the familiar Pentland range with the Forth laid out lazily behind, all sunlit and homely-looking. But it was still about six miles to Penicuik, and although for the first time on the walk I was on paths, they seemed a very, very, very long six miles. I became obsessed by the thought that ‘don’t people sometimes do extreme sport things and then SUDDENLY DIE?’ Going back through the woods south of Penicuik I had to keep having little sit-downs on fallen trees, where I pondered whom I should text to tell them my netbook password and to ask them to publish my novels posthumously. After about 50 miles of walking, I was pushing myself. I’d found my limitations.

I hadn’t conquered the Pentlands, and they hadn’t conquered me, but I’d got completely immersed in them, and come out clean and refreshed. It feels amazing. And I’ve been there: I’ve been over the hills and far away.