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The desolate and dazzling English-Scottish border

Desolate, dramatic and at times dazzling, the area around the English-Scottish border is a land of dormant volcanoes, fortified towns, vast saltmarshes and some rather horrid history

By Mark Rowe
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:20 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 14:51 BST
Northumberland National Park

Northumberland National Park

Photograph by Annapurna Mellor

"The weather's decent. Let's pop up to the border and look at the volcano." It's not really a proposal you expect to hear in Britain. An hour later, having hiked from the small Northumberland town of Wooler to the summit of Humbleton Hill, we arrive at a cairn and are greeted by two cackling black grouse and the hunched silhouette of our volcano: the Cheviot. It's the highest peak in an eponymous range of mountains that forms part of the border between England and Scotland.

Dr Ian Kille, who specialises in geology walks (and also happens to be an outstanding potter), patiently explains exactly what we're looking at. Around 400 million years ago, he tells me, the Cheviot was a full-on volcano, the size of Mount Etna and busy spewing out magma; the hill we're standing on is made up of ancient lava flows.

The landscape certainly fits the job description of a border. After our volcano calmed down, periodic ice ages left a legacy of enduring glacial hardware. Among these hills lurks intriguing rock art, such as cup and ring designs. It's hard not to imagine the clanking ghosts of Picts, Romans, Scots and English soldiers, as well as smugglers and other ne'er-do-wells. "This is a landscape that's been fought over in many different ways, both by nature and man," says Ian cheerfully. "The landscape has governed the people and how they behave."

Ian points out that, while we're currently in England, we're actually looking south into Scotland. "In places around here the border is almost straight north-south."

My journey is taking me north-east to south-west — from the River Tweed to the Solway Firth — along a border that's remained largely unchanged since it was agreed in 1222 by English and Scottish knights.

I'd begun the previous day in Berwick-upon-Tweed, maybe best known as the English town whose football team plays in the Scottish leagues. But Berwick should be better known as a mini York or Chester; it enjoys a superb setting on the mouth of the River Tweed — those who arrive by train will sweep across the Tweed on the magnificent Royal Border Bridge. 

Having explored the fortified city walls (Berwick is the only completely walled town in Britain), I climb up Meg's Mount, a gentle rise at the west end of town. The river Tweed squeezes underneath two attractive road bridges — the Royal Tweed Bridge and the 17th-century Berwick Bridge. The latter appears to be sinking into the water as it makes for the southern bank, the result of quirky engineering designed to counteract a sloping riverbed. Most gracefully of all, the view down the coast opens up to Lindisfarne, 15 miles away as the oystercatcher flies.

Berwick & beyond

Berwick-upon-Tweed is a Georgian wonderland, extremely easy on the eye with cobbled, steep streets boasting evocative names such as Foul Ford and Easter Wynd. I wander the walls high above the quayside. The houses along Quay Walls are all graceful, all differently sized and dominated by a beautifully restored customs house.

The town captivated LS Lowry, whose paintings of Berwick form an unexpectedly sizeable part of his oeuvre. Along a Lowry trail, plaques compare today's little-changed view with the artist's impressions of places. I stumble upon Bridge Street, a sleepy, eclectic lane dominated by Victorian fixtures and fittings. Here, a small but captivating ensemble of coffee houses, galleries, antique and interior design shops await discovery.

"The best way to understand what makes Berwick tick is to realise that it existed before England and Scotland," explains Derek Sharman, my guide. Once part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, it was hived off by Scotland in the 11th century. Berwick soon became Scotland's richest town, exporting wool from monastic centres. This didn't go down well with the English kings and in 1296 Edward I besieged the town. Known as the 'Hammer of the Scots', Edward hammered Berwick more than anywhere else. The town became English but was to change hands 13 times before becoming English once and, one assumes, for all in 1482.

Not all the border points are quite so dramatic. Five miles west of Berwick near the village of Paxton, I seek out an innocuous grassy lane, a dead-end that runs into the Tweed. Barely four yards from hedge to hedge, this is the Bounds Road, the west verge Scottish, the eastern English. It's a border you can jump across. Should a hard border ever be established between England and Scotland — an idea not quite as preposterous as it may have seemed even two years ago — this spot is the sort of place that will simply disappear.

A few minutes later I cross the Tweed and the border again, this time by the diminutive Chain Bridge. Just above the bridge, in England, is the Robson family's Chain Bridge Honey Farm, which deserves a place in the pantheon of the world's great little visitor attractions. The farm has 2,000 hives scattered across both sides of the borders. The photographs of bee beards, where members of the Robson family attract vast numbers of bees to settle upon their chins, is a highlight.

Border and Tweed are conjoined as they head west, passing underneath another bridge of honeyed stone at Coldstream. Here I make a brief diversion to nearby Branxton, where a monument pays tribute to the defeat of Scottish forces at Culloden in 1513. Returning to my car I pass a redundant red telephone box full of leaflets and maps; it proclaims itself the world's smallest tourist information centre.

Kelso to the Otterburn Ranges

Next stop: Scotland. Kelso is an immediately likeable town, at its heart a cobbled Flemish-style square lined with shops specialising in country clothing, fishing tackle and Tweed interiors. The butchers look the part too, selling black pudding, white pudding and haggis parcelled up in bacon. Nearby, The Cobbles pub produces excellent Tempest ale from its microbrewery, while a few paces away lie the modest but impressive ruins of Kelso's 11th-century abbey, its sandstone tinged with the malachite green of lichens. 

Now it's time to head south. I cross the exhilarating border crossing of Carter Bar — 1,370ft-high, big skies, bog, little else — and head for the Otterburn Ranges. Pushing up hard against the Scottish border, Otterburn is England's Empty Quarter, a region of staggering isolation, home to ravens, peregrine falcons and the British army. 

Otterburn happens to be the UK's second-largest military training area and up to 30,000 British and NATO troops train here each year. Despite frequent pummelling this remains a land of great beauty, brimming with nature reserves. The Ministry of Defence claims Otterburn's wildlife is more special because the public has limited access; environmentalists aren't so sure, pointing out that areas of heather have been ignited by ordnance.

When the red flags are up you can't enter the interior of Otterburn but instead must stick to the Upper Coquetdale valley. I follow a sensational single-track road from Harbottle to Redesdale that doughtily contours alongside the river and the northern rim of the training area. Steep hills rise at the angle of repose to unseen summits. In summer, internationally rare upland hay meadows are transformed into sparkling colour, bursting with wildflowers.

The red flags are up and rather surreal interludes follow. Military helicopters whirring at disconcerting angles above razor-sharp crags; soldiers on manoeuvres who nod politely; notices that caution me to 'drive slowly, children playing' (a reference to the super-remote hill farm families that rear sheep here); and a sweetshop in the Star Inn at Harbottle. Another sign, an MOD one this time, invites visitors to 'enjoy your visit'. On closer inspection this turns out to be a useful interpretation board, which not only explains the dos and don'ts of access to military land but invites me to walk it, highlighting trails and Iron Age and Roman camps.

At the old Roman camp of Chew Green, I hike uphill for 10 minutes to reach the border ridge and come across the Pennine Way. This feels, and looks, how the edge of two nations should.

Whoever said that Britain was densely populated? They clearly haven't stood here. I continue to wind my way west, past the emptiness of Kielder water, with nothing but conifer forests, wild fells and gentle farmland for miles around. At a wildly winding and pot-holed road in the hamlet of Deadwater I cross the border for the umpteenth time, and soon afterwards am confronted by the M6. I feel like a member of a first-contact tribe emerging from the Amazon rainforest.

Carlisle to the Solway Firth

Unable to resist an urge to become reacquainted with my fellow human beings, I spend the day in Carlisle. Like Berwick, the town has changed nationalities a dozen or so times and my guide, John Robson, believes this historic schizophrenia remains in the town psyche. "Carlisle has always been a Royalist town with loyalties to England," he says, "but speak to people who have lived here all their lives and many will say they feel neither English nor Scottish, but see themselves as borderers."

Carlisle pre-dates Hadrian's Wall and is Roman to the straps of its sandals, with a straight-as-a-dye Roman lay-out to its streets: there's a pint-sized sandstone cathedral of pleasing symmetry and a painted, starry ceiling; a castle once fortified against constant perils by not one but two moats; and two Tudor towers encompassing a citadel. A decent Roman exhibition at the Tuille House Museum and Art Gallery includes one of only three Romano-Celtic vessels in the country. Across the road from the museum I lose track of time at the antiquarian Bookscape, where 300,000 books are sprawled over five storeys, before following the smell of roasting beans to John Watt & Son coffee shop on Bank Street.

While negotiating an underpass I bump into a rounded stone the size of a small car. This is the Cursing Stone, on which is written a monumental and coruscating 16th-century curse — it's really worth seeking the full version out online — bestowed by the Archbishop of Glasgow upon the Border Reivers, a lawless crew who laid waste to the region for the best part of 350 years. The curse invites ill-will on just about every single part of the anatomy of the reivers and with good reason: reivers (a term for raiders of cattle, sheep and anything else they could plunder) were an intimidating hotch-potch of warring clans and families who brought chaos and misery wherever their baleful influence fell. They often murdered the victims of their thieving, and in so doing gave rise to the word 'bereavement'. "I'm of reiver stock," admits John. "Even when there was peace between England and Scotland, the reivers would find a way to fight among themselves."

I head out of Carlisle towards the Solway coast. After so much ruggedness, the scenery changes and I tumble down into wild, watery flatlands where England and Scotland seem to dissolve into the sea. Of the many remarkable fortified buildings my favourite is the stout Cistercian remains of Holme Cultram in Abbeytown. With its eight-foot thick walls (building began when the village was in Scotland, and completed 75 years later, by which time it had turned English).

The skeletal remains of a viaduct poke out across the sands. This collapsed border crossing once enabled local children to go to school in Scotland, and Scots in search of a tipple on the Sabbath to nip the other way. Vast flocks of swans and geese swoop and soar as far as the eye can see. You certainly don't have to be a birder to enjoy a spectacle like this.

Journey's end

I follow Solway's Cardurnock peninsula to its most westerly point where the view across to Skiddaw, the northern summit of the Lakes, is positively cinematic. At the Solway Wetlands Centre at the RSPB's North Plain Farm I take a stroll out across Campford Marsh. I climb a small rise to survey what feels like the whole of the western reaches of the borderlands. There's bog to the horizon in every direction; even so there are endless colours provided by mosses and flowers. I get talking to Naomi Hewitt, from the Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB status means the area is designated by law as an internationally important landscape). "It's more raw out here; not chocolate box country and not to everyone's taste," she says. "The thing about the Solway is the light changes all the time, depending on if the tide is out or in. You do get that in many places, but you feel it very sharply here." I come away thinking that bog can indeed be beautiful.

At the village of Burgh by Sands stands an impressive statue of Edward I, brandishing shield and clutching crown. Him again. I feel the old brute's gaze follow me down a lane towards the sea. At a field edge I strike out across open ground — boggy, naturally, but manageable — to a monument some 500 yards away, gloriously isolated and gated, the only intrusion in a vast expanse of salt marsh. A rather austere plinth marks the place where Edward I died. The Solway Firth was used by Edward I as a base for his Scots hammering, but even he finally met his match in the marshes, where malaria finished what the Scots never could.

A couple of miles further on, I reach my own journey's end: the appropriately named Drover's Rest at Monkhill. The pub offers an open fire and proudly proclaims it has served 553 different beers in the past three years. My kind of pub. It's a remarkably peaceful end to a journey through a landscape that at times has been silently, violently beautiful, and whose history has so often been simply violent.


Getting there & around
Both CrossCountry and Virgin Trains serve Berwick-upon-Tweed, and Virgin Trains serves Carlisle. The 67 bus follows the River Tweed from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Coldstream and Kelso — but the easiest way to explore the Borders is by car, as some places aren't served by public transport. If you want to enjoy the coastal scenery, you can arrange car hire with Enterprise, who are based in Morpeth but will collect you from the station at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Driving can be slow, however, with few direct routes heading east-west.

Where to stay
Walls B&B, Berwick.
Redesdale Arms, Otterburn.
Lindisfarne Inn.
The Halston Aparthotel, Carlisle.
Crown Hotel, Wetheral.

More info
The Marches
, by Rory Stewart (Jonathan Cape). RRP: £14.99

Follow @wanderingrowe

Published in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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