The Border Abbeys Way is a secret delight. I have been enchanted by the parts I have walked, and one day intend to walk it all. It winds through the Middle Shires, visiting three counties in a circular walk of 65 miles, between the abbeys which give it a name.
The Border Abbeys Way is a secret delight I have long been enchanted by the sections I have visited, and one day intend to walk the whole way in one. It is lovely way to explore the prettiest aspects of some of the prettiest shires in the land. It winds through the Middle Shires, primarily in Roxburghshire, but visiting three counties in a circular walk of 65 miles.
The theme of the way is in its name: in the Twelfth Century, King David I built a series of monasteries, in his southern borderlands – they were unlike anything Scotland had seen before: they were modern, of the European pattern that was now established across England, and the great estates the King gave them made the abbeys wealthy. In later ages they became the soaring, Gothic wonders whose denuded bones now stand in the towns to which they gave birth.
Through three shires, Roxburghshire, Selkirkshire and Berwickshire, by the Teviot and the Tweed and the lands between, this is a ring of delights.
“There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” It is snowing now even in those parts of Britain that were not affected last week, but a wee bit of snow is not a challenge: your wardrobe is.
(I will let readers argue whether the quote at the head of this page was first said by Alfred Wainwright or Sir Ranulph Fiennes, but both knew their business. Sir Ranulph knows every extreme of weather having walked to both the poles, through the Himalayas, across the Arabian deserts and so who can contradict him? In Norway, incidentally, the snow would just be considered a light introduction to autumn.
First thing, get yourself a good pair of shoes: when you go into work in the morning you cannot wear those smart black patent-leather work shoes full of holes that you usually do. Smart work shoes that don’t fall apart at the first blow of winter are available
(In Norway, where they know a thing or two, shoe shops are not hidden round the back, at the cheap end of the high street and they are not 90% impractical women’s shoes with a corner for men as a concession – they are prominent. They understand the need for shoes that stay dry and stay in one piece.)
Those thin socks won’t work either: get some oversocks.
If you get stares when you wander in with solid shoes on your feet, be comforted that you are the only one in the office who is not about to lose their toes to frostbite. It is good weather out there, when your wardrobe is right.
Endless rows of identical semi-detached houses on roads laid down by compass and set-square built for the station – get up, get the train out, work, get the train home, sleep. The Victorians hated the new suburbs their industry created: the “Dark Suburbs”, a metaphor for a land separated from culture doomed to ignorance; but then those left in the towns would say that. What were these new, amorphous neighbourhoods obliterating the green fields? No seats of learning, no theatres, no ancient churches – all the necessities of civilisation – and only the means to get out.
That is not true though, is it? The rivers are still there, and the little countryside brooks, and village greens, if hemmed in by habitation, and the churches and the theatres which have sprung up. The pretty, well-tended park is not a gift of municipal benevolence, but a reserve surviving from what was always there. The foxes that run though the end of the garden did not come in from the countryside: it was the town which came into their countryside.
Create your walk through the suburban countryside: this is what the Middlesex Greenway is about, the walk which I will be reopening at the weekend, and there is room for many more explorations to find the suburban wild places.
The suburbs everywhere took a pattern from the planned development of “Metro-Land“, where the ideal was rus in urbe: the countryside in the town, to each house a preserved plot of meadow as its garden; and between the houses the countryside remains. Of those footpaths that strung the old villages together, many remain, but you have to go to have a look. If you are missing all this, you are missing the very point of the suburbs.
Switch off Googlemaps and satnavs and whatever: they are only interested in drivers and roads. Step into the open and breathe, and find those little paths that were here long before the encroaching suburb. Locked in a charging steel box you go from town to town, but a good map, a paper, Ordnance Survey map, shows the actual landscape, deep in the conurbations.
Even in unrelenting streetscape, there is variety and detail to be found on foot that a driver misses, and yes you can take joy in the presence of your fellow man, in all his quirky variety. Those once identical houses are not identical any more, after generations of individualisation. The bland conformity is found in cheap, concrete council estates – a pile of bricks, a slab of concrete, a square of scrub grass behind a two-foot plastic-coated chain-link fence – but even they have not blunted the human spirit and those who have bought their houses have shown that they can be made beautiful.
This is what the Middlesex Greenway explores in the most suburbanised county of them all; Middlesex. It finds the green western edge of the county by rivers and farms, but then plunges into the suburbs, finding the parks, the paths by hidden country streams, even farms in the conurbation, and many forgotten places. It then steps into the relentless streets but not to rush by, so they too can be appreciated in their variety, from the ground. There too are parks and pocket-parks known locally and there for you to walk. Eventually the Middlesex Greenway emerges by the River Lee, canalised for industry but where its banks are bursting with fragrant nature which will not submit to the slide-rule. All this is there to be found.