50: Culter Fell, Lanarkshire/South Lanarkshire

Culter Fell summit
The summit of Culter Fell — my 50th County Top.

Date: 19th May 2020.

Weather conditions: In the valley, a beautiful day. Larks were singing, lambs frolicking, etc. However, as seems to be the case in most of upland Scotland most of the time, very windy at height, and quite cold. I was glad I hadn’t left the fleece behind.

County Top bagged: Culter Fell, the summit of which lies at grid reference NT053291, and is 2,454 feet/748m above sea level. This was the highest point in the historic county of Lanarkshire. As in almost all of Scotland those boundaries have been messed about with on several occasions, but the majority of old Lanarkshire now constitutes the local authority of South Lanarkshire, of which Culter Fell is the modern Top.

Culter Fell from below
The highest parts of Culter Fell, above the head of King’s Beck.

By altitude it ranks:

The summit sits right on the county boundary with, historically, Peeblesshire, and these days, Scottish Borders. This is a significant line because it also marks the principal east/west watershed of Great Britain. Pass water to the west of Culter Fell’s summit and it will eventually reach the Irish Sea, via the River Clyde. Do the same a few feet to the east and it will end up in the North Sea, via the Tweed. Heading south from here there are, perhaps surprisingly, no more CTs exactly on this watershed until Blackstone Edge in Rochdale. (While the walk to White Coomb, about 20 miles south of here, runs along the watershed for some distance, that summit misses being actually on it by a few hundred yards.)

Coulter reservoir
Coulter Reservoir.

[ << (48/49) Merrick, Kirkcudbrightshire/Dumfries and Galloway and Kirrierieoch Hill, Ayrshire/South Ayrshire | (51) Brimmond Hill, Aberdeen City >> ]

Start and end point of walk: Started and finished at the car parking spaces that are available just outside the house of Birthwood, at about NT031311. This point can be reached by a minor road heading south from the village of Coulter (note the extra O in that name if looking for it on Google Maps — and see the commentary). There is room round there for about half a dozen cars. Beyond this point the road is private and signs warn that there is no further parking available.

Starting in Coulter itself is possible, and could allow the walk to be done by public transport (see ‘Accessibility’ notes below). The walk as I did it took me about 3½ hours.

Pub at end: Sadly, the Mill Inn in Coulter is ‘Permanently Closed’ according to Google Maps. The nearest other options are in Biggar, which is (I have to say this) a bigger place and only a few minutes’ drive further north. I had to carry on to Dundee on the day so have no reviews to offer.

View to the Pentlands
View north to the Pentland Hills.

Distance walked: 8 miles/12.9km approximately. Starting and ending in Coulter would add about another 3.1 miles/5km to this, but on the other hand there are ways to shorten the rest of the walk; see the route notes below.

Feet of ascent: 1,675 feet/510m approximately.

Difficulty: ★★★. Although there’s climbing to do this is a straightforward walk, considering the altitude attained. At no point is there difficulty with terrain or navigation, though the final ascent to the summit will be a steep uphill trudge whichever way round it is done.

Local bird life
Local avifauna, at the reservoir.

Ease of access: ★★★. By Scottish standards this is a relatively accessible walk. Coulter village can be reached by public transport using the 101/102 bus that links Edinburgh and Dumfries: there’s only four of these daily, so you’ll need to check the times, but Biggar, not far away, has more frequent services and you could get a taxi from there to the starting point. Car drivers will find it easy too, as it’s only about 20 minutes up the A702 from junction 13 of the M74, at Abington services.

Scenic qualities: ★★★. These are rolling hills, pleasant enough without being particularly exciting. Views are quite extensive, though not as wide-ranging as they were from Merrick last time.

View to Tinto Hills
View west, toward the Tinto Hills.

The area: If the historic boundaries still applied then Lanarkshire would be Scotland’s most populous county, thanks to having the city of Glasgow within its borders. But that was hived off from the rest of the county in Victorian times, and Lanarkshire then lost some bits and pieces to the north as well, leaving South Lanarkshire in its modern form. Its biggest towns these days are Hamilton and East Kilbride. I’ve been to both once: and it’s perhaps significant that it’s only once.

A much more interesting feature of the county is New Lanark, which like Saltaire (visited on my walk to the Top of Leeds last year), is a planned industrial village built in the 19th century, in this case by Robert Owen, with (to some extent anyway) the welfare of his employees in mind. It’s worth a visit.

Map of walk 50

Map: On the clear day on which I did the walk, packing Explorer 336: Biggar and Broughton was not really necessary, but if there is a chance of clouds coming down then bring a copy to at least make sure you get off the summit the right way.

On this summary map, the starting point is towards the top left, and I went round the circuit in a clockwise direction.

Route: This is a decent, straightforward walk without difficulties or irritations. There’s not much drama to it, but its comparative ease of access makes it a nice way of breaking a journey north into Scotland: which is exactly how I worked it on the day. Or do it on a day trip by bus from Edinburgh.

View on the ascent
On the ascent through the heather.

From the parking space, head back along the road a short way and then turn into Culter Allers Farm. A sign warns walkers off heading into the farmyard itself, so skirt the buildings to the left, and then go through a gate to begin climbing a path that rises gently through woodland for a time then begins to zigzag up through the heather.

Stick with this path as it climbs and the views open up. Culter Fell becomes visible ahead, poised above the deep valley of Kings Beck. At first it looks like there’ll be no choice but to have to descend into this, but after a while the saddle of land, that connects it to the ridge that you’re on, becomes visible — which will be a relief, though there’s still plenty of climbing to do. The track becomes grassier but remains easy to follow, steepening as it ascends the slope of Tippett Knowe (pictured).

Tippett Knowe
Climbing up to Tippett Knowe.

Skirt round the head of the valley to embark on the final climb which, though not difficult, may seem rather endless. Eventually the trig point on the summit is reached, and the watershed touched for the first and only time on the day.

This page on the Walk Highlands web site describes a hike that continues along the ridge to the south, encircling Coulter Reservoir and taking in the neighbouring summits of Gathersnow Hill and Hudderstone, but I didn’t feel like a yomp that would be 12 miles or more. The shortest descent from the trig would be via the north-west ridge over Fell Shin, coming out at the foot of King’s Beck, and this is the way I would have gone had I needed to walk all the way back to Coulter, as it would have trimmed a good couple of miles off the route.

View south from summit
The view south from the summit trig.

In the end my chosen way off fell somewhere between these two stools, heading south-west in the direction of the reservoir. This isn’t actually visible from the summit but a walk of a few yards towards the wind turbines brings it into view. The track over Knock Hill can also be clearly seen, to help you pinpoint the direction of descent. (In misty weather, check the map: from the summit, the route leaves the fence immediately, and you need to keep to the right of the fairly prominent valley of Lang Gill.)

This track leads you down to the reservoir with even more zigs and zags than were present on the way up. The cluster of residential properties (Culter Waterhead), industrial buildings and a solar farm below the dam is a mild surprise. Expect the large number of dogs at one place to give you a welcome that can probably be heard in Biggar. From these houses it’s just over 2 miles back along the access road to the starting point: on a sunny day this was no hardship.

Coulter Water
Culter (not Coulter) Water, on the walk back to the car.

Where’s the O Commentary: The final arbiters of what places in the UK actually get called are the Ordnance Survey. Until they began serious work in the late 18th century, there might well have been disagreement over what things were named. A village on one side of a mountain might have called it one thing, villagers on the other side something else. Spelling, particularly in the troublesome, non-English fringes was a real bugbear. But along came the OS, who needed to put something down on the map, so fixed the names of things, and here we are.

None of this really explains the indecision round this little part of South Lanarkshire about whether there’s an O in Coulter/Culter or not. The village is Coulter, and so is the reservoir. But it’s Culter Fell, Culter Allers Farm where the walk starts, the Coulter Reservoir is drained by Culter Water and the hamlet at its foot is Culter Waterhead. Time to decide, folks.

Mobility scooter
Off she goes, along the reservoir access road.

Culter Waterhead certainly was inhabited, not just a bunch of holiday cottages, making me marvel, and not for the first time, at just how far out of the way some people live. OK, it’s not St Helena, but the access issues were highlighted when the only other person I saw today in my 3½ hours out of the car was an elderly lady on her mobility scooter, presumably heading back to her cottage: I had a two-mile hike just to get back to the car, and it was at least that distance again to Coulter (with the O). At least the sun was shining (though when she greeted me she immediately complained about the wind). Good luck to her. Now the Mill Inn is shut I would be even less likely to want to join her out there.

It’s Joe that has decided he’s living in Scotland. As he comes to the end of his first year at Abertay University in Dundee, he doesn’t seem to want to return to Yorkshire for the summer, nor perhaps ever again. For at least another three years, his presence there will provide a series of excuses to come up north of the border and continue to collect Scottish CTs. Even after today, and Corse Hill last year, there are plenty to pick up. West Cairn Hill (West Lothian), Allermuir (Edinburgh) and West Lomond (Fife) all lie basically on the shortest route to Dundee from home, and this ‘breaking the journey’ approach works well. I left home at 7.30am, did the walk as described above and was in Dundee by 5pm. After a couple of days here I’m heading further north still, and two more CTs should fall in the next few days. Then it’ll be time to take a break from Scotland. It’s midge season coming up, anyway.

Formal sheep portrait
Today’s Formal Sheep Portrait.

In order to do these things I have taken a week-and-a-bit off work (including days in lieu for the mandated, ‘there will be spontaneous celebrations of the people’ two days that others may be using in two weeks’ time, but on which I will be staying in and doing my marking). It doesn’t seem that long since I was last on a break from work, and isn’t. I seem to need these more often these days. Working full-time for the next 15 years is not something that appeals any more. For now I’m stuck with it, but — so to speak — I’m working on it.


4 thoughts on “50: Culter Fell, Lanarkshire/South Lanarkshire

  1. That looks rather a nice walk.

    Also thanks for the armchair bag. I didn’t realise Allermuir Hill was a county top and I’ve done that one. Another off the list without leaving the house!

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