MarySmith’sPlace – Walking off the mince pies#04

Happy New Year!

It’s becoming a New Year tradition to walk off the mince pies, though the first one took place between Christmas and New Year and was my first blog post, which you can read here. The following years, we walked on New Year’s Day itself and you can read those posts here and here.

This year, I was determined to walk (I may not have eaten many mince pies but the cheese and chocolate pounds definitely need to be shifted) but knew I couldn’t tackle hills like I did on previous years. Lung cancer, breathlessness on exertion, and depleted energy levels has rather put the kibosh on climbing hills.

We felt most of our usual short walks would probably be hoaching with folk, making social distancing difficult,  as January 01 was a glorious day after a hard frost. We – the DH, Wee-sis and I – finally decided on Cairnsmore National Nature Reserve, a few miles from Gatehouse of Fleet. Described as one of the wildest places in south-west Scotland it’s a great place for walkers of all levels of ability from those who want to tackle Cairnsmore of Fleet’s 2,331ft or walk to Loch Grannoch or any one of a number of walks including the Clints of Dromore.

We, however, were going to do the in-bye walk below the craggy Clints of Dromore. It’s a circular walk of less than two miles, along the old railway track, across moorland, some of which has a boardwalk over the boggiest parts and it’s relatively flat.

We parked in the Visitor Centre car park and headed off towards the Big Water of Fleet viaduct, a remarkable twenty-arch railway viaduct built in 1861 as part of the Portpatrick Railway. At 900 feet long and 70 feet high it is pretty impressive. It was closed in 1965 and the army wanted to blow it up, as they had the smaller viaduct over the Little Water of Fleet.

Cars were parked all over the place, people were everywhere. Thank goodness we didn’t choose a popular walk as even out in the wilds of Galloway it was difficult to remain socially distant, at least at the start of our walk.

Way back in 2007 I was commissioned to work on a project with sculptor Matt Baker and wrote five poems to complement Matt’s five sculptures hidden around the reserve. I insisted on a slight detour to find Heart in the remains of Little Cullendoch. The stone face is hard to find and is now much weathered.


Further along the old railway route we came to Ocean, made of slices of greywacke, the rock cut through for the creation of railway – rock that once would have been on the ocean floor.


Once, there was a test tube filled with sea water but that seems to have disappeared. I thought it would be good to climb up onto the Clints to find a third sculpture called Hush.

Mistake! I knew the sculpture wasn’t on the first summit reached by the sign-posted path. Last time Wee-sis and I did the climb we found ourselves climbing up and down over several summits. This time, I knew we shouldn’t go up the first path but make our way on the level until we reached the end of a fence, and then go up. However, I lost confidence in my idea and we ended up climbing up at the wrong point. While I had a rest, Wee-sis carried on and was soon lost to view. I had to give up, not least because the DH was chuntering in my ear about not overdoing things, it wasn’t safe, the sun was starting to go down…

Wee-sis and the DH

As it was, Wee-sis didn’t find Hush at the top. I knew we had to go further before we started climbing – next time. I was bitterly disappointed at not making it to the top, even if it was the wrong top – though the energy expended mush have counted for half a pound of Brie and a couple of roast potatoes. I hope.

I still think we should have followed the fence on the left before starting to climb

Looking down on the viaduct – made me feel I did manage a bit of a climb

Next day, I was able to enjoy another walk, this time with no fear of meeting anyone – thanks to a very generous offer from a friend. John and Margaret have been very supportive over the months since my diagnosis but John’s offer of a field for me to walk in was pretty exceptional.

It is all on the level so easy walking borders the River Dee and has stunning views – and no people. Perfect. Indeed, the grazing geese were rather shocked to see humans heading their way and protested loudly before taking flight.

Looking across the river to the snowy hills.

Thank you, John. It was perfect.

MarySmith’sPlace – #Otter #Otter Pool #Dumfries&Galloway

After my last Silent Sunday post here my blogging friend Jemima Pett left a comment asking if I knew the wood where there is an otter pool with a bronze statue beside it. By sheer coincidence, as part of my never-ending task of sorting old photos for scanning, I had a photo of the otter statue on my desk! I couldn’t not blog about it, could I?

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The Otter Pool is situated on The Raiders’ Road, a ten-mile forest drive through part of the Galloway Forest. The pool, on the Back Water of Dee was always one of our favourite places for picnics when my son was small because of the wonderful, smooth flat rocks, the pools, some shallow, some deep depending on the amount of rainfall, and small waterfalls.

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My son was a total water baby from the day he first crawled into the ocean and he loved being at the Otter Pool, spending the entire time in – or under – the water while I pretended not to be terrified.

This is the poem (from the collection Thousands Pass Here Every Day published by Indigo Dreams) I wrote for him in those days.

(To David)
Sun-gleam on wet bronze limbs,
seal sleek you slip
into the deepest pool.
From the rocks I watch,
afraid of your fearlessness,
breath held as brown water
closes over you.

Surfacing, you laugh,
a careless toss of your head
scattering miniature rainbows –
my water god of the Otter Pool.

Other children splash,
playing safe
in sun-warmed shallows.
Their mothers silently question
my carelessness of you.
They do not know
how deep the fear,
how powerless
the mother of a deity
who believes he’s indestructible –
my water god of the Otter Pool.

The bronze statue of the otter Jemima remembers was, unfortunately, stolen some years ago. He stood on a flat stone overlooking the water and every visitor stroked his head so it had turned to a gleaming gold. He is greatly missed.

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MarySmith’sPlace – Walking off the mince pies #3 #HappyNewYear

The 1st of January 2019 was a glorious, sunny day; the 31st December 2019 was a glorious sunny day so we were looking forward to walking off the mince pies on New Year’s Day. The day dawned dismal and grey. Not raining, though, so at least there was that.


Screel, to the left, on a clear day!

Our plan was to climb Screel Hill, which is close to where we live in Dumfries & Galloway. At 344 metres, it’s not a very high hill, though it’s a bit of a tough scramble in places – and it does offer fabulous views out over Rough Firth and Auchencairn Bay.

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Unfortunately, from our bathroom window Screel wasn’t visible behind the low cloud.

I’d have opted for an alternative walk – or maybe hot chocolate and a good book – but the DH was adamant we should do it. Wee-sis and Sula the Labrador were joining us and we did have those mince pies to walk off.

The car park was full, which made me feel we were not being totally foolhardy in heading out into the mist. Others had gone before us and I thought, as Wee-sis pulled into the only space, some had even returned.

At least this year the DH was sensibly shod in proper boots rather than the crocs he wore last year.

The first part is fairly easy walking but looking back down at how far we’d come the views over the coast were not inspiring.

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Imagine how fabulous this looks on a clear day

We crossed a path and into the woods where the going became a bit tougher and a lot muddier. Pausing for a breather we discovered the DH, although sensibly shod, was not sensibly dressed. He’d forgotten when he jumped in Wee-sis’s car that his jacket was in his own car. By then, I, over-warm in my many layers had removed my fleece, so the DH struggled in to it and on we went.

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Stopping for a breather

Sula the Labrador was ecstatic as we set off – a walk with three of her two-legses family, one of whom might be persuaded to throw an occasional stick for her, is her idea of heaven.

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The last part to the top is a scramble over slippery rock, bog and mud. That only takes you to the ridge which is still some way from the summit of Screel – again over bog – which we still couldn’t even see. Sula didn’t care, she was having a wonderful time and if only these stupid humans would throw her stick, all would be perfect.

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We’re going up there – somewhere

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Wee-sis leads the way through the mist

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DH battles on – it was his idea!

Finally, we made it to take the obligatory photos and looked round at the non-existent views.

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Why you should never work with children or animals!

The return route is easier after the initial scramble. We could chat again instead of puffing. And, to add to her joy, Sula dog found something wonderfully fox-scented to roll in. And the DH only fell over once. Walkers 3 Mince pies 0

Does anyone have an easier solution to working off the Christmas excess consumption?


MarySmith’sPlace – Walking in sunshine #HoddomCastle

When my friend Rachel and I go walking it often rains, as it did when we did this walk. I’m pleased to report that this time we walked in sunshine all the way round the Hoddom Castle and Repentance Tower walk. And a very nice walk it is, too, partly alongside the River Annan, through farm and woodland with great views from Repentance Tower – not forgetting an excellent lunch at the Hoddom Castle Caravan Park.

We started the walk from the car park just south of Hoddom Bridge and the entrance to Hoddom Castle Caravan Park. The path took us along the riverside.

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River Annan

We must have missed a detour to the Hound’s Monument but I’m not really sorry about that. Apparently it’s a monument erected in 1898 in memory of an otter hound called Royal, who is said to have perished having spent too long in the water pursuing an otter.

The riverside path skirts the edge of a golf course until we went through a gate and over a footbridge across the river. Here we found the Salmon Pole – one of four installations illustrating the life cycle of the salmon.

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We also met some cute lambs.

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After Hoddom Mill, deserted and a decidedly creepy the path brought us to the banks of the Water of Milk, a tributary of the Annan. Here a stone wall with orange floats represents the salmon eggs in the gravel riverbed.

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The path meets the River Annan and continues downstream to a wooden carving of a salmon and its predators, an otter and eagle. Further on is a sculpture of a salmon fly before the path brought us back to the footbridge we’d crossed earlier.

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Rachel smiling in the sunshine

From there, we carried on through the wood to Hoddom Castle Caravan Park and lunch at the café.

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Hoddom Castle – would love to explore inside!

Hoddom Castle was built in the 1560s by Sir John Maxwell of Terregles, probably as a barracks and defensive structure against English invaders. It was invaded several times, blown up by the English, repaired and expanded in the 17th century and in the 19th century was given a Scots Baronial makeover. The army used it during the second world war after which it was in a state of disrepair and some of the Victorian additions were demolished. The old uninhabited tower can still be seen but it is all fenced off. Still, it makes an impressive backdrop to the caravan park.

After lunch we headed uphill to Repentance Tower, which was built as a watchtower on top of Trailtrow Hill at the same time as the castle. It had a clear view across the Solway Firth and had a bell and a beacon platform to warn of approaching enemies.

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One story for how it came by its unusual name is that Sir John Maxwell was trying to atone for some act of treachery. He had pledged allegiance to Henry VIII of England during the 1540s and, when he dramatically changed sides at the Battle of Durisdeer, hostages, mostly members of his family, held as assurance of his loyalty were executed.

Around the tower is a small graveyard containing family graves of the Murray family who bought Hoddom Castle in the 17th century.

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One story which I found most fascinating was that Sir John Murray went to America and brought back a slave called Moses. They were close friends and Moses became a free man, taking the Murray name and is buried next to the family. Now, I have to find out more about this Moses Murray.

We headed back down the hill, and were soon back at the car park – and the sun was still shining.

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Looking down on Hoddom Castle – the caravan park completely hidden by the trees.


MarySmith’sPlace – Walking off the mince pies #2

Happy New Year to everyone!

In a determined effort to walk off the mince pies the DH and I decided on a fairly rigorous (for us) New Year’s Day hill climb. Criffel is one of those hills, practically on the doorstep that you intend to climb and never get round to it. January 1st was a gorgeous, gloriously sunny day here in south west Scotland, we didn’t have anything else which needed to be done so there was no reason not to do it.

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Credit: Darrin Antrobus/Field near Maxwellfield, view towards Criffel

At 569m / 1867ft Criffel is by no means the highest of Dumfries and Galloway’s hills, but looks higher because of the way it rises up from the flat coastal around the Solway. It dominates the landscape and is the eighth most prominent hill in southern Scotland.

There’s a car park for walkers at Ardwall Mains, a farm about two miles from New Abbey. Leaving the car park, the route is well signed up a good footpath which climbs up through the trees. It crosses over a forest road continuing upwards, ever upwards with Craigrockall Burn tumbling down on our right.


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The view down to Kindar Loch with its islands and crannog, the Solway Firth and across to Cumbria is beautiful but I’m already puffing. Glad to stop for a photo opportunity, it’s  then my camera battery dies and we have to rely on the DH’s phone. When I check my watch and discover we’ve only been walking for about twenty minutes I’m worried. The printout of the route describes this part of the climb as ‘gentle’.


The DH has a much greater lung capacity than I have so he’s not bothered.

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At the end of the forestry where a gate heralds the finish of the well-constructed path we’ve been slogging up I insist on stopping for some coffee and a few dried apricots to fortify myself for what’s ahead.

As I sip my coffee I watch people coming down the hill. They look like they’re drunk, staggering and zig-zagging all over the place. Once we go through the gate, I understand. We now have to climb up a very muddy path. No, that’s not true; it’s actually endless bog and heather and it’s a real struggle.

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Looking up is not a good idea for the summit remains hidden. ‘Not far now,’ call out people coming back down the slope, looking a lot more cheerful than I do.  When I’ve paused for the twentieth time, the DH says it’s okay if I don’t want to carry on. ‘We can do it another day.’ No chance. I’m going to get there because I am not doing this again.

A couple overtakes us – everyone who started after us overtakes us – and the woman says she’s pretty sure it levels off soon. Says she’ll wave to us if she’s right. I give up watching for her wave and eventually they disappear from view.

Finally, we near the huge summit cairn – known as Douglas’s Cairn. Reputedly, one of the Douglases, Earls of Morton, was buried underneath it but it is more likely to be simply a marker cairn.

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Looking back to the cairn from the trig point.


It’s even squelchier between it and the trig point a short distance away. And it’s bitterly cold. Convinced my feet are wet, I remove a boot to discover my socks are bone dry although my feet are numb.

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We’re still learning how to take selfies – but getting better.

We have another coffee while we admire the superb views all around: the Solway Firth, river estuaries and the English Lake District, with Skiddaw nodding over at Criffel. It’s too cold to linger and we set off back down. Now, it’s our turn to do the zigzag walk in an attempt to avoid the worst bits of bog.

The DH has had a problem with an ulcer in his ankle and can’t wear his proper walking boots or it opens up again so he is wearing his special walking crocs. These have done sterling service all over the mountains of La Gomera, on long country walks here but Riffle’s mud proved too much. His feet suddenly slid from under him and down he went – not once, not twice but, ‘I’m trying to keep it so single figures,’ he says as he goes down for the ninth time.

Unfortunately, the tenth time he goes down, one of his crocs vanishes into the bog. It disappears without a trace. Until then, I’d been laughing and wishing my camera battery hadn’t died but the thought of having to go to the car, fetch fresh footwear and climb back up, stopped that. Using his walking poles – both by now quite bent – he fished around in the various holes the croc might have gone down. It would be a great place to dispose of a body – though getting it up there would be difficult. I suppose you’d have to commit the murder in situ. By some miracle he found the croc.

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Once on the dry path again, his crocs and socks washed in the burn, we made good progress back to the car park. I’m glad I can say I have climbed Criffel but I don’t intend to do it again any time soon. I reckon I walked off both the mince pies and the Christmas pudding!