Saturday, 13 July 2013

Border Country

Northumberland is traditionally the English side of the feuding, disputed and dangerous Border Lands that lie between Scotland and England. They were lawless for centuries, with raids, cattle rustling, murder and worse as part of daily life. Any landowner, rich or humble, had to defend himself with a stout house, thick doors, an armoury of weapons, loyal helpers - and stay alert. Family members had to go to market, of course; the return journey with beasts or money was always fraught with acute peril.

A glance at the land will show why these parts were so well-suited for ambush and easy getaway. There are many folds in the land where an army might hide, or move around unseen except by the half-wild sheep and cattle that still graze on the high moorlands. The shape of the land favours a swoop down onto some small town or village or isolated farmstead, a sudden attack, pillage, and a clean escape into the largely empty countryside. But soon there would be a retributive raid, continuing an endless cycle of vendetta. There was a complex network of uneasy and unstable cross-border allegiances. This state of affairs continued until at least the mid-1600s. Thankfully the entire area nowadays seems safe and friendly, or at least the inhabitants do. The weather is another matter. I for one would not like to be caught anywhere up in the high Cheviot Hills in winter, with a blizzard approaching.

I was pitched at a small place called Powburn, and the atmosphere of the site, which was near the hills, but not in them, is summed up in this drowsy, warm and leafy shot:

More than once while there I regetted not bringing a deckchair (although having one along usually ensures bad weather!). The local river valley, that of the River Beamish, makes a valiant foray into the foothills of the Cheviots, and I explored it on the very evening I arrived. Here's a few more pictures:

There was also this intriguing sign at a little hamlet called Ingram:

I've never seen a red squirrel, and looked out for hoards of them scurrying across the road. But not a single one obliged.

Next day I embarked on an ambitious tour of the Borders in Fiona. This touched the actual Scotland-England Border at three places, involved 130 miles of driving, and nearly three hours of hot trudging to see Riccarton Junction. I travelled in an anti-clockwise loop, driving first northwards to Wooler, then heading west and south-west, through attractive farmland with a hilly backdrop:

The roads were almost empty. Lovely to drive on. On the way, Fiona, with her Scots registration mark, finally arrived in Scotland, crossing the Border just outside Yetholm:


From somewhere came a roll of drums, a swirl of bagpipes; tartan-clad shepherds sprang up from behind stone walls with a hearty shout of welcome, and we were in. My first real stop was at Jedburgh, which has a house where Mary Queen of Scots lived (I passed this up), and an old ruined Abbey (which I did not). The Abbey was more intact than most, and very impressive:

It also had a modern museum attached, with a fun section where you could try on medieval costume. Here's me, in a hat from olden times:

Ah, the definitive look I've been seeking! At last! From Jedders I struck south on the very driveable A68 to Carter Bar, right on the Border itself, and very high up in the hills. In fact above most of the Cheviot peaks. It was basically a stopping-off point to admire the view, and reflect on the historic difference between Scotland and England. The 'you are entering Scotland' signs were definitely more exuberant than the equivalent English ones:

My goodness, doesn't that look exactly like a referendum ballot paper with a great big 'X' for 'Yes! I want Independence now for Scotland!' boldly written on it? Tsk. Must be my fevered imagination...although I was a little puzzled about this sign, which seemed to imply that in Scotland you drive on the right of the road, and must change over to the left on entering England. It isn't so - yet. Perhaps it's something that might happen - like using the euro for currency, if Scotland ever does get its Independence?

Shouldn't it be 'Links fahren'? Maybe it's a spoof sign. Next stop, Saughtree, where I was going to begin my Riccarton Junction walk. More empty roads, more empty scenery.

I left Fiona (not without some reluctance) well off the road on a gravel track that led up to isolated Slaughtree station (in the distant trees in the shot). The station closed in 1958. Everything you might want to know about it is on the excellent Disused Stations website at The modern restoration seems very authentic, and has reached a point where surely it could be opened to the public as a revenue-earning proposition, complete with afternoon teas. But it has the atmosphere of a big, full-size toy train set, for private enjoyment only. I was careful not to trespass onto whatever parts of the setup that might be considered a dwelling house. But in fact I had the place to myself, and got some good snaps both on arrival and after my walk:

Sadly there is only a short section of track. So far as I know, it has nothing at all to do with the ill-fated endeavour to restore Riccarton Junction two and a half miles down the line. That was my destination. The first mile or so was easy-peasy, along a fenced-in trackbed that seemed remarkably clear of obstructions, and was still dotted with features such as a platemen's or fogmen's hut (dilapidated but standing), masonry bridgeworks, and the odd pre-nationalisation concrete post. It was fine and sunny. I enjoyed myself.

But as anticipated, the going got soft and boggy in the cuttings:

This slowed me down. The breeze fizzled out, the sun got hotter, and by the time I reached Riccarton Junction I was feeling somewhat sucked dry of oomph and energy:

This, this, this, and this, and a stretch of old platform, are really all there is to see:

Well, I've done it, I've made it there, and need not go again. The return slog to Saughtree made me wilt even further, but Fiona's climate control - a blast of cool air - revived me. Consulting the Ordnance Survey maps on my tablet, I decided to return to Powburn via Kielder Forest, Kielder village (for a long cold drink), and Kielder Water, a vast artificial lake. Here's the Water. Fiona reached 50,000 miles here. Well done, Fiona!

On the drive back, I passed through Bellingham (what a pretty place, well worth another visit) and Rothbury: larger, much less remote, a trendy destination for jazz and motorcycle enthusiasts, and surprisingly lacking in charm. But it has on its outskirts the National Trust property Cragside, which I think is unmissable.

Thus was my Borders Day Out. I saw no raiding-parties, nor naked swords, nor was I kidnapped and held to ransom, and nobody stole my cattle. I did get a nice suntan and a heat rash on my ankles. But all told, it was a great start to the real northern part of my holiday!


  1. Lovely photos, Lucy, and well worth clicking to enlarge them.

  2. Hi Lucy came across your blog quite by chance and enjoyed the read very much. It brought back happy childhood memories as my family originates from that area and I spent many summers there in the 70s and 80s. If you had continued north from Riccarton for a few miles you would arrive at Whitrope Summit where part of the old Waverley line is being restored.


This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford