Lamington is a village in South Lanarkshire. A lot of people probably don’t know it’s there. I didn’t until recently when the viaduct there was closed due to the recent storms. Said viaduct carries the West Coast Main Line and due to structural damage it is closed until March (at time of writing), significantly disrupting transport links across the border at this side of the country.
It got me thinking about the border itself and about our southern neighbours. The border stretches north-east from the Solway to the Tweed, through the Debatable Lands and the Cheviots until it hits the North Sea at Lamberton, just north of Berwick. Part of the route follows that of Hadrian’s Wall, once the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. In Parliamentary terms, the border sees Conservative constituencies on the English side and SNP and the sole Conservative constituency in Scotland on the other. There are differences in prescription charges, drink-drive limits, laws on many things and culture too. In the Cheviots, a couple of feet can determine whether the Border Mountain Rescue or the Northumbrian equivalent will come to your aid.
It means that Border communities have a very distinct identity. Berwick-upon-Tweed, a town that has been besieged more times than any other except Jerusalem, has been English since 1482. It has a very split identity, neither Scottish nor English. It is Northumbrian and proudly so. Its football team, Berwick Rangers, though, play in SPFL League Two, the only English team in the Scottish League. Rather wonderfully, in Berwick you can get the best selection of newspapers anywhere, with paper shops there stocking both Scottish and English editions. I like it a lot. The train station stands on the site of Berwick Castle, a prominent place in our island’s history. It also has a trail dedicated to the artist LS Lowry, who holidayed there and in Sunderland, taking a break from painting matchstick men to portray waves and seascapes. To be honest, I prefer them to his more famous works but that’s me.
Carlisle, meanwhile, is about eighty miles away at the other side of the country. It has one of the finest museums in the country, Tullie House, and a pretty decent castle, run by English Heritage. The underpass between them features reminders of the area’s past, of industry and of the Border reivers, the raiders who pillaged and stole and caused general strife in the border lands over time. It is why much of the western Border passes through an area known as the Debatable Lands, as who ruled was often open to question. One of my favourite sculptures anywhere is in the underpass, a lump of stone featuring the words of Gavin Douglas, the bishop of Glasgow in the early 16th century, brutally denouncing the Reivers.
Between them is Hadrian’s Wall, built in 122AD by the Romans, covering 73 miles from Bowness-on-Solway to Wallsend, near Newcastle. One of the most evocative historical experiences I have ever had was at Housesteads Roman Fort, not so far from Hexham. At the back of the fort, I sat a while and looked over the wall. I could readily imagine Caledonian forces in times of conflict and local traders heading for the wall to trade, Reivers and much else besides. The landscape distinctly changed there, a valley and then hills beyond, as I recall, and it was quite incredible, really.
I know Berwick better than I do Carlisle. Berwick is about 30 miles from Dunbar and I sometimes went for a walk around the walls at Berwick to help me think when I was studying a few years ago. There is a direct bus route from Dunbar to Berwick, passing through Coldingham and Eyemouth en route. Berwickshire is a gorgeous part of the world, with fields, trees and a dramatic coastline, including St. Abbs Head, sitting high above the pretty fishing village of St. Abbs, one of my favourite places on earth. It is one of the pleasures of travelling south via the east coast that the train passes through Berwickshire. The country just gets a lot nicer beyond Torness and Bilsdean, where East Lothian becomes the Scottish Borders.
The same can be said travelling south from Glasgow to Carlisle, particularly when the train turns right at Carstairs Junction. The hour’s journey south is beautiful, passing through valleys and then low by the Solway before it hits Carlisle. It is best seen through the window of a tilting Virgin Pendolino at 125 mph, it must be said, though of course not at the moment. Carlisle is one of the best train stations I know too. You can get a train to a lot of places, including along the Tyne Valley Line to Newcastle as well as along the line to Settle in Yorkshire, which I have wanted to do for years but haven’t managed yet.
I like the North of England. Great people, fine scenery and quite a history. Getting there from here is brilliant, whatever way you go. I hope to be on the Lamington Viaduct again soon, possibly to go to Tullie House to go to the Roman Galleries or perhaps to Newcastle, another favourite place. Maybe I will finally get to the Cumberland Pencil Museum in Keswick, a town badly hit by the floods in recent weeks. It’s not so far, England, but it’s completely different. Not bad different, though.