We left the train station and turned right, towards the river Tilt. Close to the track we found a shop and a public toilet, for one last stop before heading up the valley. Mark bought an apple and a block of chocolate. I found an off-brand sports drink in the fridge and gulped it all. Greg bought a small bottle of Famous Grouse. Liv spent 5 minutes in the shop collecting snacks, stuffed them into her pack, and went to the loo. The day had become bright, and would be hot soon. Waiting in the car park I took off my softshell and grabbed the sunscreen from my Bergans ruck, smeared it over my arms, neck, face. The morning’s breeze still felt cold on my skin but I knew a minute on the path would get the blood moving, and I’d be layering down regardless.
Liv appeared in a spot of light, walking from the public toilet we had stopped outside, her face raised in an eager calmness. Next to me Mark and Greg stood and looked about, making sure they hadn’t dropped anything. I patted my trouser pockets; my wallet and house keys were in the lid of my bag, since there was no point in having them to-hand out here. All I wanted on my body were things I’d need quickly, or often – my Olight and my Spyderco knife, the day’s map in an Ortlieb case, my compass and, folded in the back pocket, a handkerchief. Mark’s trousers, Fjallraven ones, had billowing pockets on the thighs, stuffed with snacks, gloves, bug spray. I preferred a more streamlined design, with less interference on the range of motion. These were made by Craghoppers, but other brands have similar models. Earthbound make something very close.
The road crossed a granite bridge, two-laned with tarmac and sidewalk. We followed it, looking out for the path north, up the valley. The water here ran wide and fast. It would be shallow enough to walk through if needed but starting the trip with soaking wet feet would be a bad idea. Ahead of us, to the left, Greg spotted the turnoff. He passed me on the pavement, stepping into the carriageway for a moment, speeding up to look at what lay ahead. At the tip of his finger was a break in the trees, and a brown path winding in a direction parallel to the river we had just crossed. The junction came at a corner that took traffic downstream, and we had to bunch together at the bend, watching for a clear moment. It was now the tail end of rush hour with enough cars still gusting past to force us to wait. The group stood at the trailhead, hoping for a break in the traffic. All of us, in turn, laughed. The space came; we looked both ways and dashed ‒ off the road and onto the path.
The path we hit broke away from town and within 5 minutes we were clear of any urban sounds at all. All we could hear were the chatter of the wind and the water, and our own voices. Greg laughed, trying to explain the charm of Monty Python to Liv. My pace put me five steps ahead of them, close enough to hear the conversation but far enough forward that I could stay quiet. The morning sun streamed between birch and sycamore trees, splashing the ground in patches. The air was warming as I’d expected and Greg stopped at the first bench we passed, layering off the insulation he’d worn for the train ride. We others held, watched, listened. Away from us, over the murmur of the river flow, we heard a whoop, then a splash, and then joyful laughter. Some other people, in these woods, were having their own kind of fun. I let Greg finish then resumed the trek.
‘Ah, the local wildlife,’ he laughed, hearing the sound himself.
‘If it’s kids, they’re up early,’ Mark commented. I agreed, pushed on along the path.
‘What’s happening?’, Liv asked, moving to keep up with me.
‘Somebody’s playing in the river, it sounds like’, Mark explained to her happily,
‘Who?’ She asked, as if we’d know. “Some-BODY-” Greg yelled from the back of the line, hitting the cadence of a dumb pop song well enough to set Mark singing the next line, which I then caught, ‘-ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed…’ With my head twisted back to deliver the words I caught sight of the other three beaming forward at me. We all laughed aloud, and carried on walking. Around another corner three young teens stood on rocks by the river’s edge. A chubby boy shivered next to two girls in dry swimsuits. Our path had risen over the water and they did not look up to see us.
The woods ended after only a few minutes. The road cut across us and bridged the river once more to my left. A gate marked where the path snaked through open fields, populated by sheep with fresh white lambs. I took my map and checked our position and then looked ahead. The treeline, the gate, the bridge were all clear landmarks and we were exactly where I had expected. The hills ahead of us shaped a long valley, Glen Tilt running northwest as far as we would walk today. On the path a group of six or eight others ambled gently forward.
‘If we’re lucky, they’ll be no slower than us,’ I spoke mainly to Mark, offering the map to him, and they’ll be off the path before we come up on them.’
‘But what if,’ he nodded, and I could see his grin forming, ‘they’re going the same way we are?’
‘Well we’d best get moving then!’ and raised my boot, exaggerating the steps across the quiet road and opening the passage on the other side. We scurried through and into the open space at the bottom of the Glen. The river had crept away from our path, stuck to the low ground, holding onto the trees and letting the sun rise over us. After only five minutes I stopped, letting Mark pass me, to find my sun hat in the pocket on the outside of my pack. I fitted it low so that the wide brim covered my ears, shaded my eyes and neck. Instantly I felt cooler. Liv went onwards, and I kept walking.
‘Nice uhh, nice boonie,’ Greg had stopped behind me. He held his camera, a compact with a strap around the wrist. I slowed for a moment to walk next to him.
‘Thanks. I don’t wear it very often,’ I reached up and fidgeted with the fabric, pulling it flat, ‘but it’s good to keep the sun off.’
‘Yeah, well they look kinda dorky,’ his eyes flicked up at my head, then away again, ‘definitely the best thing in this kind of weather though. Feel bad for all these sheep, covered in wool all the time. God, it’s gorgeous though,’ he swept his arm, clutching the camera, ‘like how rare is it for Scotland to look like this, huh?’
‘It’s worth the train ride, that’s for sure,’ I agreed, admiring the clear view ahead of us, ‘we don’t get hills like this where I’m from, everything’s flat moorland and woods.’
‘Yeah, like there’s mountains in Hong Kong, and volcanoes even, but there it’s subtropical so it’s always hot and wet.’ I looked to Greg, listening, and walking to catch up with Liv and Mark; ‘they even destroyed one of the big hills, to build the airport.’
‘Yeah the uhh, the Japanese,’ he told me, keeping pace, ‘they totally destroyed it, during world war two. Made it flat for the runways. It was a big sacred site there before that, there was a huge memorial for one of the old emperors or something. I don’t know a lot about it.’
‘That’s incredible,’ I stared at him, ‘I didn’t know about that.’
‘Yeah, and then it was the Kai Tak airport,’ his eyes were straight forward now, watching the path, ‘and now it’s uhh, I don’t know…’
The walkers ahead had come close, moving slower than the four of us. A group of eight, retirees by my guess, striding up the valley on the same path as us. Their lead man, dressed in pale blue and white, had pushed ahead to open a gate at the edge of the field, separating one pasture from another. He caught the latch and swung the frame, opening the way for his group to pass through. He looked back then and saw us for the first time; his eyes widened, he stood up straighter. I was close enough to see all of his group catch the expression in turn, look about and realise they were being overtaken by a party they’d been unaware of until that moment. The gateholder stayed where he was, raised his chin in greeting. Mark, Liv, myself and then Greg weaved between the other group and into the paddock beyond the fence.
The next field had more grass, and more sheep with lambs springing about the place. Greg stopped to make sure the man at the gate was happy, and we all walked in silence for a while. Every walk becomes a trudge at some point. The scenery kept its beauty but everything had been seen, and we continued to see it. All we had to do was to keep walking, taking in the details, making sure we follow the path. Thought tracks, unoccupied by the trudging pace, tended to go elsewhere.
© Jed Edwards