Walls, rivers and abandoned roads: a day in the Borders

Robert Burns said it best that ‘the best laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’. I’m not sure if Burns had much time for day tripping between being a ploughman and getting his end away but I suspect the sentiment would have applied quite snugly. I had planned the trip to Berwick after I had been sent a photo of Bamburgh Castle on Facebook. No sooner had I seen it then I was on booking train tickets. Over the next few days I thought about where I would go from Berwick, whether to Bamburgh or Lindisfarne, Alnwick or St. Abbs. I packed no fewer than four Ordnance Survey maps and of course the time I needed navigational assistance I didn’t have the right one. The day took me from Berwick inland to Dryburgh Abbey near St. Boswells then up the Borders Railway to Edinburgh and home from the capital. The walk around the walls at Berwick was the only clearly planned bit of the day when it began. It was only on the pier that I ended up deciding on Dryburgh.

It got sunnier the further east I got. I had managed to snaffle a First Class ticket and I had a table seat to myself as the train left Central bound eventually for Penzance. Even the comfy seats would have been little comfort if I was going that far. From Edinburgh, the train soon hit East Lothian, crossing the fields as I smiled and reflected that it was good to be home, even just to pass through.

I always like to stop in Berwick Station. It was built on the site of the old Berwick Castle, one of the mightiest fortifications in these islands, with the great hall right where the platforms now are. Precious little survives, only a small bit of wall across the tracks from the station buildings. Luckily the walls are much more intact and I was soon up on them, looking down on the town going about its business in the sunshine. I hadn’t realised that from the bridge where the Marygate joins the Castlegate that it is possible to see beyond the Town Hall to Bamburgh and Lindisfarne. The views from the walls are cracking, even better from the pier designed by John Rennie of Phantassie, with the sea shimmering and the sunshine reflecting off the scaffolding currently gracing Lindisfarne Castle. There were lots of folk out walking or running, quite a few fishing by the lighthouse. I often fall asleep or sometimes even wake up to the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4 and Berwick is the point in the Inshore Forecast where north the area stretches to Rattray Head near Peterhead and south to Whitby. The sea was gorgeous, calm and sparkly, not quite the scene on the Lowry trail board on the lighthouse but just right for the day. I hadn’t done this walk for a while. I used to do it every so often when I still lived in Dunbar and I had an Open University essay to write. I often went for a walk around the walls planning my essay out in my head. Then I took out my notebook. I relived those times and thought of future studies as well as the more immediate future and where I wanted to spend the rest of the day.

The 67 bus, operated by Perryman’s, must run on one of the most scenic routes in these islands, from Berwick eventually to Galashiels 40 miles away in the heart of the Scottish Borders. It took a good while to even cross the border, delving down farm tracks and lanes, eventually doing so at Coldstream just as I was about to doze off. Norham Castle, just on the English side, always looks imposing and impressive and one of these days I will need to go. Kelso looked lovely in the sunshine with its impressive mercantile buildings. Even more impressively there was a group of lads out playing and one of them had a Hibs top on, not something I see that often, certainly putting right the sight of Tynecastle earlier in the day. Anyway, as we neared St. Boswells, I was looking at my maps and trying to hatch a plan to get to Smailholm Tower but it turned out to be 5 miles from Dryburgh, not so easy when on foot. When I got to Dryburgh, I bought a guidebook for Smailholm, so at least I can read about it if not actually get there.

From St. Boswells I had a pleasant half-hour walk along the side of the Tweed to Dryburgh Abbey, stopping for a few moments en route at the Temple of the Muses dedicated to the Border poet James Thomson. The muses were worth a closer look, more modern and beguiling than the more conventional Greek ones in the National Gallery in Edinburgh. Dryburgh Abbey is in a stunning location right by the Tweed. It is ruined but what ruins there are! I particularly love the floral window at the end. I just wandered a while, admiring the architecture but just loving the peace and serenity. I sat for a wee while by the river and read and it was utterly lovely.

Owing to the sparsity of buses, I decided to walk to Melrose, around 4 miles, through woods and up a road which was closed off to vehicular traffic lending it an eerie feel. I half expected the crew of Top Gear to drive past me in a rally car or something. The first part of the path led me to Newtown St. Boswells though I was only certain of this when I went to the cash machine and the receipt told me where I was. Anyway, not long before I eventually reached Melrose, now in scorching sunshine, I stopped off at the Rhymer’s Stone, dedicated to the 14th century poet Thomas the Rhymer, who apparently fell asleep there and was met by the Queen of the Fairies who led him off for what he thought was three days but in fact turned out to be seven years, imparting wisdom and bestowing on him truth. I had not long left Dryburgh, the burial place of Sir Walter Scott and much of his family, including his biographer John Wilson Lockhart, and it reminded me of just how literary rich the Borders are. That’s before considering the Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg.

I reached Melrose and decided to catch the bus up the road to Tweedbank, terminus of the new Borders Railway. I say ‘new’, it’s been open two years. It was new to me and I reached Tweedbank with a couple of minutes to spare and the train to Edinburgh waiting. The journey to the capital took just shy of an hour and passed through some stunning countryside, much reminiscent of the East Coast Main Line in Berwickshire with quaint villages and thick forest plantations for much of the route, and it was only nearer Midlothian that there were more signs of life, with the bonus of crossing the old viaduct just beyond Newtongrange.

It was still beautiful, sunny and warm in the capital and after tea I had a walk around the New Town. I’ll write another post about it soon since it was psychogeographical in nature but I wanted to share a random bit of serendipity. I was walking along Northumberland Street, a nice bit of symmetry considering where my day started, and a couple met their friend just outside a house. The house had a plaque on it declaring it was where one John Wilson Lockhart had lived, biographer of Walter Scott and buried in the same plot at Dryburgh Abbey where I had been only a few hours before. Everything is connected, even in the unlikeliest ways and certainly not planned, best-laid or otherwise.



2 thoughts on “Walls, rivers and abandoned roads: a day in the Borders

  1. Pingback: New Town psychogeography – Walking Talking

  2. Pingback: Digest: July 2017 – Walking Talking

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