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It must be twenty years since I last ventured up the side of the Grey Mare's Tail with my then small son who was aged about four. The path then seemed long but steady, not arduous and demanded respect but we were beaten back by torrential rain half way up, however we tried again a year or so later and got to the top. On another trip I took my mum (then in her seventies) to see the spectacle and got some of my first stock images of the waterfall.
Now all these years later, I returned on the Spring Equinox, Tuesday 20th March 2018.
It was a beautiful day after many weeks (and months) of chilling winds and heavy snow as we endured the 'Beast from the East's" historic wrath. With open skies and crystal clear vistas, I got the walking boots on and lugged my camera bag onto my shoulders. It felt heavy. Two Canon Digital SLR's with 24mm-70mm and 100mm macro lenses, small flask of soup, another with water, sandwiches etc for lunch, then with my carbon fibre tripod in one hand and walking pole in the other I was ready to go.
From the car park the ascent is steep and the NTS (National Trust for Scotland) have put a lot of work in to the path to add stone steps the majority of the way up. A feat I appreciate for the work they put in but not for the walking experience as many of you will know, stone is hard on the legs, something I was to curse on the way back down!
Once on the path I stopped about a quarter of the way up to look back and see the extent of the glacial valley that cuts its way between the Ettrick and Moffat Hills above and around, from which their aggressively steep slopes, carved by the ice so many millennia ago, formed the Southern Uplands. The car park looked small from where the path leaves and begins its upward trail over the wooden bridge across the Tail Burn as it feeds its way down from Loch Skeen above to create the spectacle that is the Grey Mare's Tail, then it flows under the narrow, twisting main A708 Moffat to Selkirk road, to join and follow the Moffat Water. The picture below shows one of the two viewpoints from where the falls can be safely viewed in the style of a sheep pen or holding. How fitting I thought to myself.
By now my legs were screaming. The extra pounds (stones) I was carrying on my physical frame since my last encounter and the weight of a small child on my back in my camera pack, meant my legs were taking a full-scale assault. The view from here was spectacular though and so getting my camera out gave me a breather and time to take it all in.
For a weekday there were only a few visitors with the same idea. One young family of mum, dad and two small children (in wellies) had traveled up on holiday from Northumbria and were staying in Peebles. Another party of four mature adults were just ahead of me and then soon after, seemingly out of nowhere, a young woman scantily dressed in a bright coloured top, leggings and trainers, whisked by clearly putting her faith in the weather, though I suspect her natural athleticism would have got her back down in a hurry if needed.
Facing the hill again the falls came more clearly into view. The white moustache-like whiskers on its sides were remnants of its partially freezing-over during the worst of the winter. That would have been nice to see, but the roads were virtually impassable with snow and traveling 20 miles in my front wheel drive car on what are virtually single track roads would have been a complete nightmare.
The older viewpoint is a precarious path on the lower slopes of White Coomb, the highest of the Moffat hills. It takes you to a dead end with a barrier and is nearer the falls. For some unfortunate souls though this attraction has been literally that - a dead end! It does not pay to get too close to the edges of these precipitous gullies with sheer drops of 200 feet at the top.
Pressing on, the stone steps pathway leads safely from the dramatic edges of the gully on its left and frequent drainage channels have been added in its construction. Personally, I'd prefer the softer natural path underfoot for walking as the ground is more forgiving though I appreciate that over time, many walkers will have taken their toll on it and so is possibly more dangerous as a result so I accept the works as necessary and climbed ever upwards.
On reaching the top (after a few stops to ease my pain!) the path turns deeper into the hanging valley above. Here it is tempting to go nearer to the edge and peep into the abyss but age and wisdom whispers in my ear, "don't be a fool' as now I get the giddiest of feelings where heights are concerned and after years of back problems my balance is definitely suspect, so it was with great respect and caution that I ventured on.
The path flattens out passing the remains of early settlements and cuts a weaving twist through the rugged hillocks which form on both sides of the Tail burn obscuring the way ahead to the distant hilltops. Here the snow for the most part is off the path but occasionally there are patches of packed ice and snow covering the streams running underneath as the melt water continues to be released from high ground. It would not take much to slip through and perhaps twist an ankle so my trusty walking pole was used to test the solidity of the ground, particularly where previous walkers have inadvertently broken through leaving shoe-sized black holes about nine inches to a foot deep.
Looking back behind me I could see the wilderness for what it truly is. A fearsome, unforgiving landscape if caught unawares and yet also breathtakingly beautiful. I honestly believe you cannot appreciate any landscape until you walk even just a few miles of it. The effort required is your guide to nature's secrets and the feeling of connectivity with it should never be underestimated. It is memory enhancing, rich in understanding.
After what seemed like a fruitless journey through obscurity, with one hillock after another blocking the promising views ahead and as the path twisted and turned over ice and snow, rock and mud, I came across the four mature walkers who were up ahead of me taking photos of themselves. I stopped to inquire if they would perhaps prefer a group photo with everyone in it. Their camera phone was duly set up for me but as it had no flash (that they knew of) I had to reposition the group with the sun behind me and retake their photo feeling more confident now that they would all be clearly seen unlike the earlier one facing into the sun which most likely had a group of dark silhouettes instead!
As I passed them and turned the next corner, my visual senses were heightened and to my utter amazement, the reward for my endeavour was instant and in a way shocking. There before me in full majesty and awe-inspiring glory, lay the foreshore of a white iced Loch coveted by the protective snow dusted peaks of the Moffat Hills creating a natural basin in a winter wonderland of amazement.
Loch Skeen with Mid Craig (left) and Lochcraig Head (right)
I think I actually gasped (literally breath-taking!) when I saw it. Such a sudden and unexpected surprise which I will remember until my last breath. Rarely does Nature fill you with such amazement so suddenly. It was a kind of awakening, a spiritual moment, an enlightenment. Then my trance was broken with the cries from the group following behind me - "Oh Wow"!!
To be honest I would have preferred to savor this moment alone but then perhaps we were a kind of 'soul group' there to experience it together. The young woman who had flown on ahead earlier was now standing on the shore Loch head, balancing herself dexterously on the small rocks which formed a kind of land bridge to the opposite side with her phone camera in hand and aiming for a low perspective shot of the magnificent sight before her.
"Beautiful" I said to which she nodded in enthusiastic agreement.
Not to be outdone, I garnered my gear from my backpack and mounted my camera on my tripod then like her, took up a position on the rocks within the 'Tails' icy waters. My boots and balance were not as deft as hers and as she suddenly spirited away, I was left to compose my shot whilst trying to stay focused and not slip and inadvertently immerse my feet in a baptism of liquid ice.
I had fitted a polarizing filter earlier to help eliminate some of the light reflections on the burn and so rather than remove and replace it with ND Grad filters, I stuck with it opting to shoot multiple exposures instead which I could choose from or combine later in post production.
The hillocks were quite steep for carrying a camera on a tripod but I gingerly made my way up to the top where the views were excellent and thankful for my accompanied visitors who led the way to a short circular walk with safe return. I duly followed their lead and took a couple of sequences of the Loch from different viewpoints culminating in a five-exposure panorama which I would complete later on my return and is the lead photograph of this piece.
Mid Craig rises out of the shoreline of a frozen Loch Skeen
White Coomb (above Loch Skeen) is the highest mountain peak in Dumfries and Galloway at 821m
And so it was time to return. I had left the car park at 11.30am and had promised myself to be heading back by 1:30pm and with my phone in hand I snapped a few more, packed up my gear and headed back. Little did I realise that the phone setting which was on Manual, didn't reveal its settings in the viewfinder and so what I thought I had taken correctly, when I got back down was shocked to see they were all white, overexposed blanks! Good job I wasn't relying on phone camera skills then.
The walk back was steady and I was careful to place my feet on solid ground and as I reached the summit of Grey Mare's Tail once again I stopped to have a closer look at the falls and pools that preceded it. The fairy tail wonders of the Ice Queen were evident everywhere.
The walk down was difficult for me. The stone steps were brutal on my knees and legs and so it was hardly surprising that I stumbled and fell just thirty feet from the bottom. I will though forgive 'Her' for giving me such a perfect day to witness her full glory on a perfect day on the vernal Spring Equinox of 2018 and I hope anyone reading this will will take away from it some of the magic and pain for themselves to savour.
Until we meet again my friend.