Britain’s longest view. You couldn’t ask for a much more enticing end-goal for a run than that. Catching a glimpse of it was the prospect when, late last summer, I was dropped off at Loch Trool in Galloway to run-hike up to Merrick, the highest peak in southern Scotland.
At 843m, Merrick is a dwarf by the standards of the Highlands. Yet this giant of the Southern Uplands is most notable for having the longest potential sightline in Britain – the 144 miles to Snowdon in Wales.
It’s only theoretically the longest, though, because it’s a view no one has ever seen. A little science lesson is necessary at this point. How far you can see depends on a number of factors: how good your eyesight or binoculars are, what’s in the way, and the suitability of the light in between. When it comes to obstructions, the natural curvature of the earth is a significant limiting factor. The earth curves around eight inches per mile; therefore, for a typical human whose eyes are around five feet above the ground, standing on the shoreline, your horizon will be only three miles out to sea. However, the higher either you or the potential target object are, the smaller the factor that the curvature of the earth is and the further you can see.
The reason Britain’s highest peak of Ben Nevis doesn’t provide the longest theoretical view is because of the mountains in the way. The crucial factor when it comes to Merrick and Snowdon, therefore, is the lack of obstructions in between.
The final factors and the reason this view is only theoretical is that you need the perfect air conditions and probably a high-powered telescope or a super-long lens to capture it.
It was thus extremely optimistically that I set off with my long-lens camera near a monument known as Bruce’s Stone and followed the sign for ‘Merrick Trail.’ The roughly four-mile route is essentially split into three sections: the stony section near the bottom, a slightly technical forest track and the open mountain path at the top.
After an easy trail initially, I ran parallel to Buchan Burn, with its waterfalls providing the soundtrack as I concentrated on hopping the boulders and avoiding the worst of the mud. Never one for preparation or following a map as I run, I found myself occasionally doubting I was still on the right trail. A quick check with hikers coming down confirmed I was on the right route. In reality, it’s not too hard.
Passing Kilsharg bothy, I’d no time for a rest and no need of shelter – in fact, it was great weather for view-seeking. So it was onwards and upwards through the tricky forested section. Higher up on to the exposed montane grasslands was arguably the steepest section as I climbed towards the peak of Benyelleray at 719m. As it’s too testing to run up, it’s a good excuse to look back at the views down into the valley and out on to the sea.
Merrick came back into sight as I descended around 150m before the final ascent. I was feeling slow and unfit due to having to walk so much of it but I felt better as I one by one picked off a steady stream of walkers up one of the Southern Uplands’ most popular mountains.
I reached the top in around 70 minutes – around half the time of some of those with whom I shared the peak – and stopped for a while to enjoy the full 360-degree vista. My eye was instantly drawn to the North Channel and, in particular Ailsa Craig, a small hemispherical rock jutting out unmistakably from the sea 27 miles away. Behind it, Argyll – 45 miles away – was quite easy to see. The north Lakes peaks including Skiddaw at 65 miles away? Quite clear, as long as I wasn’t mistaken. Isle of Man at 50 miles? Possibly. Or it could have been a cloud! Ireland was just 50 miles away but I couldn’t pick it out. As for Snowdon, that will have to remain the Holy Grail of views.
An hour of gazing quickly flew by. It was barely enough time to do the view justice but, on the other hand, it fails to live up to its billing as the "longest view in Britain". Unless you have a telescope and the perfect atmospheric conditions, that is.
Opting against forming a loop to take a more technical route down, I retraced my steps and enjoyed free-running down. However, on an uneven section, I took a tumble – naturally right in front of a whole family of hikers.
It meant I was particularly careful on the route back down through the forest, which was unrunnable in places. One third of the way from the bottom as the waterfalls came back into view was a perfect spot for a photo, I thought. However, reaching for my phone in the front pouch of my rucksack, I realised it wasn’t there.
With no point going back to where it presumably came out as I fell, and resigned to having lost it, continuing down and along a tough three-mile road section to the visitor centre.
After 11.3 miles and a well earned sandwich, I was just about to leave and walking through the car park. A car pulled up and the driver asked whether I had by any chance dropped a phone! The reunion was a great end to a perfect run. Well, perfect except for seeing Snowdon, that is.