Wild Camp: Galloway Forest Park, Sandwood Bay and Glas Bheinn, Assynt

Hilleberg Enan wild camp at Sandwood Bay

That might sound an odd collection of locations for walking and wild camping, and indeed they are. This was a different trip for me. Normally I would catch the sleeper service to Scotland. I have, in fact, never driven to Scotland and I’m in my forties. However, with Covid in full swing, I decided to drive to Scotland for the first time. If I am going to drive, then it makes sense to take in some of the locations which cannot be reached from the sleeper. I loaded the car with supplies and set off intending to effectively have a number of overnighters, replenishing from my car each day. The objective was not so much to have long hikes or summit anything, but mainly to get out into the wilderness following lockdown. Unfortunately it didn’t quite go as I had hoped.

The first stop was Galloway Forest Park. I will say that I selected this location primarily because it would break the long drive to Sandwood Bay (a location I had wanted to camp at for years) into manageable sections. I therefore treated it as an overnight stop, which really does not do it justice at all and I fully intend to return soon. I took my hammock for this trip, being only my second time in a hammock (evidenced by the fact that the first time I pitched it it collapsed and I fell out). I arrived at Galloway Forest Park itching to get out of the car after the long drive. I wanted to hammock far enough from the car park to feel I was in the ‘wild’ but not so far that I couldn’t make a quick getaway the next morning. In the end I walked about 4km from the car park, and found a nice spot at the edge of some trees with some good views. It took quite a while to find somewhere mainly because there was lots of evidence of fallen trees and I didn’t fancy one landing on me.

I put up my tarp, and then the hammock (twice – I did it better the second time). Then I put my underquilt on and got in, using my quilt for insulation. My hammock has a midge net, which was needed as the midges were out although not in the sort of numbers I’d seen in Arran in 2019. There was some light rain, but generally it was quite pleasant, not too cold and I enjoyed a beer whilst I admired the views.

The first time I hammocked was in South Downs National Park. South Downs National Park is not wild in any way and I didn’t relax or sleep all night. This was entirely different, I fell asleep quickly, waking only once or twice and although I was up early I felt rested. I made coffee and had a breakfast bar whilst I packed up. Then I walked back down to my car to start the long drive further north. This really does the park no justice, and as I said I will definitely be back.

It had taken me 6 hours to get to the park from London. Once in my car, I put the post code into my sat nav for Sandwood Bay car park and was dismayed to find it was nearly 7 hours from my current location. But this meant I’d be there by mid-afternoon given my early start, even allowing for some stops. So off I went, and aside from the quite terrifying single track roads that form the last 30 miles or so of the journey it was fairly uneventful.

I pulled into the car park. This is proper north. It’s remote. The roads are narrow and the towns are tiny. But the car park was rammed full of people. And I was even more dismayed to see that they were all filling packs with tents and sleeping bags. It was quite clear that I was not going to have the place to myself. However I was here now and I wasn’t going elsewhere. So I packed my backpack with fresh food and replaced the hammock with a Hilleberg Enan and set off down the uninteresting path to the beach.

After a walk that I think lasted around an hour, I arrived at the beach. It is undoubtedly beautiful, but I’m not sure it was really worth the 12 hour drive from London to see it. I had passed several people already camping, some with surf boards, and quickly found a flat spot set back from the beach to pitch. I was not keen to pitch on the sand – I’ve done it once and never again! So I enjoyed the views from afar. There were at least 8 or 9 tents there that night and whilst I celebrate this and am glad people are getting out, it did slightly spoil the experience and made it feel less special. However, there were no hooligans, everyone was respectful and took their rubbish away. So it certainly could have been worse. I settled down for a chickpea curry and enjoyed the views, until it started to rain. I spent the rest of the evening reading my kindle listening to the rain tapping just above my head.

I slept well, and in the morning the weather had improved. So I got up and had toasted crumpets with raspberry jam and coffee (a real treat – I ate much better as I could resupply from the car) before packing away and taking a walk on the beach. I had taken a travel fishing rod with me in the hope of catching my dinner the night before, but hadn’t used it in the end and it went home unused. Rather than hang around on the beach fishing, I was keen to tackle Ben Hope, the most northerly munro.

I started the drive to Ben Hope, and this is when I started to see the effects of the lockdown. Official campsites were still closed, unless you were ‘self contained’ (i.e. had your own toilet facilities, which ruled out anyone in a tent). Every town that I came to there were big family tents on every patch of grass and I cannot imagine how local residents must have felt about it. Bins were overflowing with rubbish and it just looked a mess. Bearing in mind how far north we were, and how remote I was expecting it to feel, it felt like I was in a holiday park. After 90 minutes of driving, I arrived at Ben Hope to find there was nowhere to park. The ‘official’ car park was full and cars were strewn around on the verges, which bearing in mind it’s a tiny single lane road was a bit ridiculous. I was disappointed not to be able to park considering the weather was perfect for Ben Hope, but I didn’t want to become part of the problem. So I pulled in briefly, looked at the map and tried to find a nearby hill I had never heard of to go and climb. Surely then I’d have the solitude I was looking for.

Glas Bheinn. That’ll do! Not a ‘honeypot’ so should be quiet, and should have good views of Quinag and down to the sea at Eddrachillis Bay. So I set the sat nav and headed off. I arrived in the afternoon, packed and headed up the hill. I didn’t summit it (I’m not much of a ‘bagger’) but I climbed high enough for good views, then pitched my Enan and made a chilli for dinner. I was finally on my own, enjoying a spectacular view and it wasn’t raining. I spent the rest of the evening reading and relaxing.

I had one more night available to me, and I thought maybe to head to the Cairngorms for a night as I hadn’t been there for some years. However, in the end I decided to make my way home the next day. I felt that it was just too crowded. Part of the reason I go away is to enjoy some solitude. That is, by its very definition, selfish and I accept that. However, it’s what I enjoy. So reluctantly I got up the next day, and started the drive home, stopping overnight in Carlisle to break up the journey. All in all, an underwhelming trip, but time spent in rural Scotland is never time wasted.

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