The Hill of Joy Moment
We skipped ahead via Stafford to Cannock Chase for the next stage of the walk, starting from the trailhead by the Iron-Age monument of Castle Ring hill fort. The path was stony but firm, fern-fringed and boasting fine views across to the Weaver Hills. The three spires of Lichfield’s medieval cathedral, known as the ‘Ladies of the Vale’, first came into view just before we arrived at Gentleshaw Common. For medieval pilgrims, this view would have been the mons gaudium (Latin for ‘hill of joy’) – the moment to lift a weary pilgrim’s spirits as the destination first looms on the horizon.
The waymarks – a St Chad’s cross one way, a goose (symbol of St Werburgh) the other – ushered us along Watery Lane, an appropriately titled woodland path, towards the village of Chorley, where we followed our directions to a footpath by the village hall headed across arable farmland. A new spring in our step now, we strode purposefully towards Farewell, passing St Bartholomew’s Church and crossing a stile into ancient Cross in Hand Lane. This charming country lane, carved between sandstone banks and peppered with listed buildings, marks the point where medieval pilgrims would take out their wooden hand-held crosses to meditate on the final approach to Lichfield.
On a wintry morning, it was a blissfully bucolic scene: late flowers in the hedgerows, a small brook gurgling at our feet and wood pigeons fluttering overhead. To capture the moment, David reached into his pocket and offered a short meditation to the spirit of the ancient pilgrims walking with us: “Where the saints have trod before us,I bring myself to you.”
Lichfield’s Gothic cathedral finally loomed into view, its imposing 13th-century facade towering majestically beyond the sweep of Cathedral Drive. This site was possibly Britain’s first ever pilgrimage cathedral, predating even Canterbury. Pat Evans, secretary of the Lichfield Ramblers and a volunteer greeter at the cathedral, was on hand for a quick tour, including St Chad’s Gospels, the ancient manuscript from around 730AD, and a few thoughts on the perennial appeal of the saint whose footsteps we had followed over the past few days.
We walked around the back of the cathedral, skirting the embankment of Stowe Pool, with its honking geese and swans, to the Church of St Chad and St Chad’s Well in the churchyard beyond. When Chad arrived in Lichfield in around 669, he founded his church and baptised followers in the nearby well – its holy water was believed to have miraculous qualities. He was buried nearby and today the well is housed within a secluded, open-sided building with a laburnum-covered roof.
As I took off my boots to bathe my feet in the cooling water after another hard days hiking, just as pilgrims have done for centuries before me, I looked into the well to reflect not just on the walk itself, but also on what I had learnt about myself along the trail. “The idea of life as a journey is deep within our psyche,” David said. “But today people want their spirituality more on the hoof.” He took out his notebook and read aloud a closing thought by way of a final offering to St Chad. The passage, taken from Psalm 23, encapsulated the journey of both body and mind – the sign of a truly great walk.
There were hills on all sides and my aim was to reach the summit of Merrick. At 843m/2,766ft, it is the highest point in the south of Scotland, with views that extend far beyond the Firth of Clyde to the Lakes and Ireland’s Mourne Mountains. Except I would be walking at night, and the views beckoning me on would be those of the stars and inky sky above, rather than mountains in the distance. Merrick, you see, lies at the heart of the 300-square-mile forest park and is one of the darkest places in the world. Which is why it’s the UK’s only officially designated Dark Sky Park – one of just six in Europe – and one of the best places to view the night sky.
Walking at night, despite high-profile advocates such as author Will Self, remains taboo. Darkness is, after all, the refuge of rogues and rascals. So, at just after 9pm, I set off on the very obvious path through waist-high bracken. The sky was grey but not quite opaque, and the half light was diffused so that hillsides and trees were petrified in monochrome. The cloudy conditions would have to improve if I were to stand any chance of spotting the Andromeda galaxy, the moons of Jupiter or the Milky Way on the outer edges of our own spinning galaxy. Crucially, there would be minimal moonlight to obliterate the stars and planets should the sky clear. Earlier that day I had met astronomer Mike Alexander, who runs courses at the Galloway Astronomy Centre, near Whithorn. Mike told me that in such a dark spot, the sky would be awash with stars, and the well-known constellations of Orion, the Plough, Cassiopeia and Pleiades would be trickier to pick out. Beyond the tree line, a proper darkness began to develop. But there was no need to resort to a head torch as my eyes had already grown accustomed to the gloom, helped by bobbing white bog cotton acting like cats’ eyes in the failing light. Besides, Merrick’s gently rising and smooth grassy terrain provoked few stumbles.
Island of Darkness
On the final slopes it eventually became apparent that the sky wasn’t going to clear. In such circumstances, Mike had suggested I look out for noctilucent clouds – luminous cobwebs that are visible in the deep twilight, formed when water in the upper atmosphere mixes with the vapours of meteors fizzling on contact with the Earth’s atmosphere.
Alas, I witnessed neither such clouds nor the green flash that can occur in the final moments of sunset (probably caused by atmospheric dispersion). Instead, I watched as the cooling sun appeared to be swallowed by the hellish lower jaw of the Arran Mountains, and I shivered as the perfectly semi-circular outline of the rocky island of Ailsa Craig resembled – just for a moment – the sun’s satanic alter ego.
In an instant it was dark. Very dark. In fact, on the Sky Quality Meter’s scale of 1 to 25 – a measurement accredited by the International Dark Sky Association, which campaigns to minimise light pollution – Merrick reads 23.6. That’s almost 100 times darker than Glasgow and similar to the light levels in a photographic darkroom. Very sparsely populated, there are few sources of artificial light here, and to look out from Merrick is to look out over an island of darkness. Only the distant orange glows of Belfast and Glasgow compromise the totality.
Pitching a tent, I waited without success until 4:30am for any further stellar light displays. Although the Galloway sky is dark and generally unpolluted, it is unfortunately only clear of cloud on around 140 nights per year. Nevertheless, my first nocturnal exploration had been a thrilling experience and, after catching some sleep in the day, I was ready for another attempt.
The second evening started rather more promisingly as I set out from the Glentrool Visitor Centre to trace a figure of eight, combining the loops of the river Trool trail and Loch Trool loop – two of four park routes that have recently been reconstructed to make them more accessible.
The Forestry Commission has, where possible, replaced very steep sections with gentler zigzags and eradicated much of the mud. As well as the coast-to-coast Southern Upland Way, there are 27 other waymarked paths that fall within the park’s boundary. The easiest is perhaps the mile-long Bruntis Loch route, which starts from the Kirroughree Visitor Centre; and one of the most challenging is without doubt that to the summit of Cornish Hill (467m/1,532ft), from where there are excellent views of the Isle of Arran and Ben Lomond, nearly 100km to the north.
The new surfaces, although not intended to assist night walkers, do help to make such nocturnal adventures easier. Following the freshly laid gravel into the deeper recesses of the conifer forest, I resisted the temptation to switch on my head torch and relied on my heightened senses.
On occasions it was necessary to feel for the mossy dyke lining of the path with my foot, or reach out for the proximity of branches. Listening rather than looking, I became aware of the sounds of the swaying trees. The monoculture of conifers created a consistent swish, whereas the varied native woodlands of oak, rowan and birch around Loch Trool produced an incoherent cacophony punctuated by hoots.
Ahead of me, on the slopes above the tree line, water tumbling over slabs of granite glinted in the light of the moon and stars. And, when the sky remained clear for long enough, I believe I was able to pick out most of the well-know constellations from the smoky profusion of billions.
Using the binoculars, I was excited to locate the dim white ovoid of the Andromeda galaxy a mere two-and-a-half million light years away. A very keen eye could pick out the fast-moving dot that was the International Space Station. The moons of Jupiter would not rise until 3am.
Winter is the best time to view the night sky, when there is no need to stay up so late, and there are meteor showers promised every month from October through to January. Mike Alexander also reckons that this year will be among the best to view the northern lights.
With any walk there is a tense hope of good views. The difference at night is that the views – in Galloway Forest Park, at least – are potentially out of this world.