I did two big walks while staying in Edinburgh. The first one we went up Cold Law in northern England at the end of September. A law is a hill. On the second walk I went through part of the Pentlands, hills just south of Edinburgh, in the days before Christmas. In between I also walked up Arthur’s Seat in the middle of town. I found him sitting at the top and he didn’t seem to mind.
To get to the Cold Law walk we drove through Coldstream on the River Tweed. We started from Humbleton Burn, through Wooler Common, then through green paddocks of a sheep farm. Scottish law allows public access to the countryside, but the laws in England are stricter so we had to stick to marked paths. Going up and up until we hit heather and wild looking sheep among stone ruins and cairns. The skin and skeletal remains of a weasel were caught in one of the cairns. It was much smaller than I expected, but that’s not really surprising given that Wind in the Willows was my reference.
We passed through gates and went downhill very quickly, dimly aware that in short time we’d be going as high and then higher up the hill on the other side of the burn. We stopped at the foundation remains of a house called Switcherdown by Switcher Wood. A single large tree remained of several that had been planted in front of the house. The directions we were following said a witch had lived there. It would have been isolated enough at the time without that sort of talk. The path from here to the bottom was edged on one side with an impeccable stone wall and a mixture of gorse and bracken on the other. The bracken was mostly green but patches had turned brown with the changing season. On the other side of Carey Burn we were sure which path the directions intended us to take. We took the first and the most likely looking.
Halfway up the hill two of us stopped for bananas and water. I was asking whose idea this was (mine). The bananas and the sit down got us up the rest of the hill. This was an area protected for grouse. There was food for them beside the road and they called and flew out of the heather at regular intervals. A patch of trees told us that we’d chosen to do the loop in the walk the wrong way due to our decision at the bottom of the hill. Coming down the other half later we decided we’d picked the better direction.
We’d get to a peak, only to turn along the ridge and see another peak ahead. We were back in heather again, with patches of sphagnum moss. A grey crag jutted out of its circle of grass. The wind picked up. Tracks criss crossed through the heather. A serious hiker lunged across the hill, Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant in hiker’s gear. Finally at the top we stopped for munchies and photos, a moment to emphasise that we’d made it.
On the way down the sun played games with the clouds and the landscape’s patchiness of forest, heather, browning bracken, long and short grass and deep clefts in the hill opposite. The directions took us up Carey Burn for the return route. Broken rock made wounds in the cover of vegetation. My new boots started to get uncomfortable. The light faded. A little waterfall gave us some reward. The next part of the directions had us looking for Hell’s Path back up the first hill. Whether or not that’s what we found, the climb was not worthy of the name. Just as well really. The walk had taken it out of us, in a good way.
The day I walked up Arthur’s Seat I’d decided to wander around a little and try to capture some late autumn. The leaves had mostly left the trees. I walked over cobblestones I had ridden over – not the most enjoyable memory but I’d done it to find out what it was like. I chose a path that rose steadily around a part of the hill with a view of the city that grew and grew with height. The cold wind hit the south side of the hill, the sun filtered through thin cloud. A pretty park below turned out to be a golf course. The Salisbury Crags poked out above and the Pentlands sat in mist in the distance.
The climb up the last part was on wet rock steps. I’d slipped earlier in the day so I was already wary. A woman coming down landed on her backside and hurt her wrist and I took it even more carefully. The crags cut out half the view of the city. At the saddle at the top, short grass grew over lumpy ground, like the worst putting green in the world and I decided that the smooth grass and the holes were what led to the invention of golf here. The final peak was rock swarming with people. The crags were well below. A fellow sat apart from everyone, looking over the city with a booklet or map in his hand. He seemed unaware of the cold wind combing his thinning hair forward. He could have been Arthur surveying his domain.
The short afternoon was the limiting factor for my walk from part way down the Pentlands north back to Edinburgh. The direct buses weren’t as frequent as I expected. A more frequent one went through a village a half hour walk away. The walk from the village had its own rewards through woods in a narrow easement between open paddocks. Some way in to the hills I stopped at an old fort. Earth works formed large concentric circles. Steps led down to a narrow tunnel, the bottom half of the walls rock and sunlights at ground level illuminating the tunned. It reminded me of the tunnels at St Andrews, only these were obviously not built in such a rush. Frost sat in the shadows of the grass where the sun didn’t reach. It was a chilly sunny day.
Up into the shadows of a hill and more frost. The lack of trees and the number of people meant I had to stop drinking water, but the water was getting too cold to drink anyway. A gutter beside the service road had sheets of broken ice that had formed on the top of water that was no longer there. Frost sat on top of the ice. Back into the sun and up a steep section with puddles in the path frozen solid. Footprints in frozen mud played tricks on the mind when stepping on them. No give and squelch. The Firth of Forth bridge visible first and then Edinburgh. At the top, long grass was bent over with the weight of ice. I got a little cold from stopping to take photos. The sun was getting lower. Not that it had got particularly high. I decided I had time to go across the ridge to the other peaks.
Going down the shady side of this higher hill presented a new challenge. The steep path was frozen and offered no grip. A fellow coming up ignored the paths and zigzagged across the vegetation. I followed his lead. It felt kind of wrong to leave the path, potentially damaging the plants, but there wasn’t much else for it. Piles of rocks on the next two peaks might have been the ancient cairn. I asked a couple to take a photo for me and met them again on the way down. They told me that a building nearby was where Robert Louis Stevenson had come to visit his mother, I think. A far cry from a deserted tropical island. A lovely big tree was silhouetted in the colours of the sunset, but those colours also signified that dark was not far off so there was no time for a photo. Icy patches continued all the way down, and were even present at the bottom on the outskirts of town. It was colder in this sunless part of town.