Monday, 24 June 2013

Harestanes to Melrose

I had certainly felt tired following a pretty gruelling 28km the previous day, and had even had cramp during the night. Irvine had also been pretty exhausted, so he decided to walk only for half the day with me, and visit some of the grand houses in the Borders in the afternoon. So when John took us back to Harestanes we asked him to pick up Irvine at St Boswells, which we would comfortably reach by lunchtime.

From the Visitor Centre at Harestanes it was back the way we had come the previous evening, and then off through woodland to reach Dere Street. This was a long stretch through farmland, conforming with the Roman ideal of being absolutely dead straight. There is no sign of the stone base that must have been laid originally: there was no way of knowing whether it was taken over the millennia for local building, or whether it had simply been covered with soil over the years. The footpath meanders through a forty-metre wide avenue fenced off from the fields on either side.

Information board at Lillian's Stone
Half way along this stretch we came across Lilliards’s Stone, right at the point where one switches to the next OS sheet. This celebrates “fair maiden Lilliard” who fought in a battle against the English. The stone bears an inscription:
Fair maiden Lilliard / lies under this stane
little was her stature / but muckle was her fame
upon the English loons / she laid monie thumps
and when her legs were cuttit off / she fought upon her stumps.

An information board nearby suggests that the rhyme had originally been associated with an English knight at an earlier battle, and been taken and adapted by the Scots. Whatever. It certainly serves to underline the brutality of medieval warfare.

At the time we thought that the battle of Lilliard’s Edge, which was where we saw the stone, had probably been one of several minor skirmishes, with relatively small numbers of combatants and casualties. I have since learned that this was not so: it was actually the battle of Ancrum Moor, where after sacking all four of the great Border Abbeys at the behest of Henry VIII, the Earl of Hertford’s army finally met its match and was roundly defeated. Some 800 English soldiers perished, and almost as many were taken prisoner.

This border country was really the focus of 500 years or more of fighting between England and Scotland, and lawlessness when it wasn’t actually a war. So our thoughts, as an Englishman and a Scot, turned to current affairs. After all it’ll be time for Scots to vote on potential separation in just 15 months.

Neither of us believe that Salmond will win the argument. Irvine hopes that he’s roundly defeated so that he can’t make any special pleading (“it was raining”) and ask for a re-run a couple of years later. He also pointed out that Scotland simply wouldn’t have the resources to handle all the administration that would be required after independence. And what would happen to all the treaties to which they are party as a result of being in the UK? With NATO, with the EU, with others? How would the National Debt be apportioned? What currency would they use? Irvine also points out that some pretty heavy international pressure will be against separation. If Scotland succeeds, what about Catalonia and all the other parts of European countries “yearning to be free”?

Meltoun Bridge over the Tweed
 After turning off Dere Street it was down to the Tweed valley shortly after Maxton. There Irvine left me to make his way to the Buccleuch Arms hotel (and a welcome sandwich and beer), where he was to be picked up to go back to Jedburgh for his car. My route then took the pretty way, following the Tweed around a great bend to reach a point not more than a quarter mile form where Irvine had gone to meet his taxi. This is a beautiful stretch of water, with what are obviously fine pools for salmon. Nobody was fishing, though: the Tweed is, I think, essentially a late river, and in any case the water was pretty low. In these conditions I would certainly hesitate to invest the several hundred pounds a day that a good beat on the Tweed costs. I’d want to know there were fresh-run fish.

Dryburgh Abbey Hotel from across the Tweed
The point where I finally left the Tweed was directly opposite Dryburgh. The Hotel where we’d eaten a couple of days earlier was clearly visible, but the Abbey was still hidden behind trees.

The distinctive Eildon Hills from the East
As with the Pennine Way, St Cuthbert’s Way never takes the easier options, so instead of a more direct route to Melrose it crosses the Eildon Hills. These are three rounded peaks, not particularly high, but isolated and visible for miles. The path goes inland to the attractive village of Bowden, and the climbs up through woodland to cross the hills by way of the col between the Middle and North Hills. Then it’s a fairly steep descent into Melrose itself. I arrived half an hour before the appointed time, but the coffee shop near the Abbey was already closing at 4:30. I don’t begin to understand. This was the tourist season; people were leaving the Abbey as it closed; surely there would be customers? Or has enterprise died in the Borders?

Irvine met me at Melrose, having visited Mellerstain House and Floors Castle. Mellerstain is the work of William Adam and his son Robert, and has some of the finest Adam interiors, which Irvine had long wished to see. However, he reported that it now seems somewhat run down, no doubt through lack of money. Irvine hadn’t had time to go into Floors Castle, but the building itself – Scotland’s largest inhabited castle – is quite magnificent. It’s one of the principal Roxburghe properties, further evidence of how the Kers, as former Border reivers, benefited from ennoblement after the Union.

The view over Melrose from the Eildon Hills
We drove back to our B&B. Irvine reported that the Buccleuch Arms seemed to have a good restaurant, so (with confirmation from Tripadvisor) that’s where we went for our last dinner in the Borders. Excellent starters, excellent steaks, and reasonably priced, so it exceeded expectations.

I was interested to know what Irvine’s ambitions now are. It seems that they very much revolve around the schools he is supporting in Newcastle. They’re really making a difference, and are improving outcomes significantly. He supports a secondary academy, divided into four separate units, and more recently has become involved with three primary schools, so that kids are helped even before they reach secondary level. There is a rigorous system of measuring teachers’ performance through added value, and excellent management. He is a great believer in making sure that kids from hugely disadvantaged backgrounds aren’t handicapped by starting the day hungry, so they provide breakfast. For later in the day they provide what he believes is the best school food in the country. This is supported by his own experience when eating there.

Irvine had talked with one of his friends, also a major philanthropist with an interest in schools, about when he could expect to achieve his objectives. The answer is – never. Once one starts to support a school there is no limit in time or cash as to what can be done. One of the issues he is now facing is how to manage his schemes. He has an excellent former headmaster working for him, but he is much the same age as Irvine, and succession is likely to become an issue. I suggested that management training for good teachers might be necessary, which got Irvine thinking that it might be something he should discuss with Michael Gove as an area where he could also contribute.

Irvine and the Welsh Cob in Jedburgh
On the way back into Jedburgh Irvine spotted a horse rolling on the roadside verge; nearby was a colourful tinker's caravan. We spoke to the chap in it, who had seen us with his (as it turned out) Welsh Cob. They had made their way from Cornwall, had sold a horse at Appleby in Westmoreland, and were going on to Brighton and then to the Camargue. Afterwards I wished we had interrogated him further. Does he have a home, or is the caravan it? How does he finance it? How do you get a caravan and a couple of horses across the Channel? How long has he been doing it? And many more questions that sprung to mind afterwards. We mentioned our discovery to Walter and Jean, and suggested that they might get a local journalist to find out more. I shall be interested to find out if they succeeded.

Walter, Jean and Irvine
The following day we were up early, and drove to Edinburgh airport where Irvine had left his Gulfstream 550. My week’s walking was rounded off in style by being flown in his plane back to Northolt, from which Irvine was to go to Cliveden and then to Mozart’s Die Entf├╝hrung aus dem Serail (Il Seraglio) at the Garsington opera – now at the Wormsley Estate, which used to be one of my favourite walks when my parents lived nearby in the Chilterns. He expected to be lobbied to contribute to Garsington as he does to the Royal Opera, ENO and Glyndebourne.
It had been an excellent seven days of walking, with splendid company, and except for one horrible rainy day, pretty reasonable early summer weather.

Cloudy but dry. 13-16C. 24.5km, 534m ascent and 544m descent. Maximum height 318m in Eildon Hills. Mostly good footpaths, but about 15% on roads. 

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