329: Wanlockhead

OS Explorer map 329, Lowther Hills, Sanquhar & Leadhills: Wanlockhead & Crawford – I own this map, but had not visited it before starting this blog. Visited for this post 10th July 2021. This is the fifth of six posts about my trip to Wanlockhead in Dumfries and Galloway with my school friends Cabbage, Joystick and Climbing Programmer, including time I spent in Northumberland and the Scottish Borders alone on the way there.

Google Maps location link: Wanlockhead.


After the couple of days of adventures alone in Northumberland and the Borders narrated in my last few posts, on this Saturday afternoon, I finally headed over to Wanlockhead, where I’d be spending the next several days in the company of my old school friends.

A view of Wanlockhead

Wanlockhead is an old lead mining village sitting in a sparsely populated area of Dumfries and Galloway in southern Scotland, which is pretty isolated despite being only around seven miles off the main A74(M) England-Scotland motorway. It has many things to recommend it: it holds the distinction of being the highest village in Scotland at an elevation of around 470m, sits on the Southern Upland Way long-distance walking route, has lots of interesting lead-mining heritage, and is one end of the narrow-gauge heritage Leadhills and Wanlockhead Railway. It has held a place on my loose list of interesting places to visit for rather a while.

However, on this occasion, my friends and I picked it for a much more prosaic reason: we wanted somewhere to meet for a holiday that would be within easy travelling distance of Climbing Programmer and Geochunderer’s Glasgow and Edinburgh homes, and where we’d have a large dining table we could use for playing the Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game (more on that later), which would be the trip’s main activity. Wanlockhead won out for having a nice large house available to rent for our chosen dates for a very good price!

We surprise Climbing Programmer with a caterpillar cake for his birthday

I was first to arrive at our rented house, and Climbing Programmer joined me shortly afterwards. After accepting a groceries order, we then had a good while to wait before Joystick and Cabbage arrived – they were driving up all the way from Northamptonshire that afternoon, and also had to stop at Climbing Programmer’s parents’ house on the way up to collect his models and gaming boards! We finally all assembled at around 8pm, in time for a dinner of oven pizzas, and a chocolate caterpillar cake to celebrate Climbing Programmer’s birthday the evening before.

Attentive readers may remember my Irthlingborough post from 2019, detailing the previous time I met up with this group of friends for several days. Much like then, our main activity for this trip would be playing the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game. Usually, at these gatherings, we play a tournament, with a structure of rounds, and with points that can be totted up at the end to determine who gets to take away our coveted trophy. On this occasion though, we did a less formal setup: we’d still present the trophy, but instead of holding a balanced tournament, we’d hold a more diverse set of games. The final scores would be determined by voting: we’d each rank our fellow players based on how well we thought they’d played.

Climbing Programmer, Cabbage and Joystick at the gaming table! What you see is the dining table that was already in the house, but with Climbing Programmer’s gaming boards placed on top, and various bits of mine and Cabbage’s scenery on it. [1]

We spent most of our time over our four days in Wanlockhead around the gaming table, so I won’t give you a blow-by-blow account of the holiday. However, we did manage to fit in a couple of other things. The second day we were there, 11th July, was the day of a big international football event in which I believe England were playing, [2] so the others all wanted to watch that. For this occasion, Joystick made a very exciting dinner spread of nachos with a barbecue-flavoured veggie mince topping, various sides (and also some chicken wings, which I didn’t eat due to my vegetarianism, but which I hear were nice).

I also had a wander around Wanlockhead a couple of times: the first alone, as after eating the nacho meal, I left the others to their football and went exploring; and the second with the others later in the week. I have to say, I really liked Wanlockhead! The village sits at the head of the valley of Wanlock Water, and the valley floor just below the village forms an open green area, full of interesting abandoned mine equipment and mine entrances, which is open to the public and has been filled with paths, little interpretation boards and so on; it’s a really interesting place to wander around. The valley itself is also very pretty, with sizeable hills all around.

Cabbage on our wander around the valley floor below Wanlockhead. Cabbage particularly appreciated this little bridge, if I recall correctly!

Wanlockhead also has a Museum of Lead Mining, which was unfortunately closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. As well as the museum looking interesting, they do tours into the mine shafts sometimes, and take care of the Wanlockhead Miners’ Library, a 250-year old subscription library used by the miners themselves. I’d love to come back sometime when it’s open again! The interpretation boards around the valley floor were put up by a community organisation called Wanlock Visions CIC – I wanted to leave them a donation but unfortunately couldn’t find a way to do so. Oh well!

As mentioned above, Wanlockhead sits on the long-distance walking route the Southern Upland Way, which I’d really like to walk someday. The Way crosses the hills of Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders from sea to sea, areas which I think are deeply underappreciated compared to, say, the Highlands, the Lake District, or the Yorkshire Dales. Indeed, I think I first formed my desire to visit Wanlockhead from hearing about it in this Southern Upland Way report! [3]

Cabbage and Joystick, a little further down the valley

Our war-gaming went well in the end. As I’ve described before on this blog, I’m not all that interested in the game myself, and often find myself getting bored during longer sessions; for me, playing is more about spending time with this group of friends. However, I think I felt more engaged than usual this time, which was nice! Additionally, while for many years the game has for all of us been a bit of an inactive hobby between our very occasional games; Cabbage has in recent years got really into it again: he’s found various communities of players near where he lives in London, goes to tournaments, regularly buys and paints new figures and so on. Apparently, the game has had a bit of a renaissance recently: there are plenty of tournaments and events going on, podcasts and so on. So it was good having Cabbage around, giving us insights from the wider community!

The tournament trophy! (This is it sitting on the shelves back at home after the trip.) The block at the bottom is for the Wanlockhead trip – as you can see, I’ve yet to add my name to it!

Somehow, I ended up winning the tournament! So, in our customary prize-giving event, it was I who received the coveted trophy, which consists of a single plastic warrior sitting atop a stack of painted polystyrene blocks, growing by one every time we have a tournament. The second and third prizes vary each time, the specification being that they just need to be “quite good” and “a bit disappointing” respectively: on this occasion Joystick in second place, received some Tunnocks tea cakes, while Cabbage in third got a packet of Spar Burger Bites crisps. Climbing Programmer bringing up the rear received the traditional toilet roll, which he was rather pleased with, as he’d just moved into a new house the very day before joining us for the trip, and was in need of some!

And that’s it! I drove back home on the Wednesday after a very pleasant few days in the company of my friends. One post remains from this holiday, relating to a trip the four of us made out of this map area one evening. You can look forward to reading that soon!

[1] Climbing Programmer made his gaming boards many years ago with his dad, and they’re rather ingenious – there are four 2×4 ft sections, each made of a layer of chipboard sandwiched between two thinner lays of hardboard, which makes them very sturdy. There are pins sticking out of the side of the boards, with matching holes on the others, such that they can be securely put together on a tabletop or floor to make a combined bigger board. On this occasion, at times we used three of them on the house’s dining table, making a single large 6×4′ board. At other times, though, we used four of them to make two separate 4×4′ boards so that we could play two games at once, with the second board sitting on some folding tables I’d brought. The flexibility was very useful!

[2] After some internet searching, I think it was this one.

[3] That wasn’t the first time I learned of Wanlockhead: that would be from this excellent Tom Scott video – the video, entitled “The Bus Replacement Rail Service (yes, that’s the right way round)”, is about an occasion when the Leadhills and Wanlockhead Railway found itself in the perfect location to get people, including passengers, around a road closure!

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