The Eildon Hills and the Tweed

They stand stark in the view from many miles around: three mountains alone. In the lands of the Tweed the three peaks of the Eildon Hills command the attention.

The hills rise up to the south of Melrose in Roxburghshire, and there is a good path leading up from the wee town to the top, which is part of the St Cuthbert’s Way (running from Melrose to Lindisfarne). Melrose itself is a fine town to visit: its main attractions are Melrose Abbey (which was closed for the COVID-19 thing) and the River Tweed (which isn’t).

We started in the town; a mediaeval town graced by the shattered ruin of Melrose Abbey. Climbing from the market square past the ring-road viaduct (a road the town tries to ignore, the feeling being mutual), there is an almost hidden path on the left between houses which plunges into woodland, to emerge onto the straight haul up the slopes.

The day was sunny and the hills were quite popular, by local standards, as we got higher: there was even a cyclist coming down at one point – he must have had very good brakes, as the path is unrelenting.

The first haul up comes to the saddle between the two highest hills – Mid Hill and East Hill. To continue round would be to head for the East Hill, but we turned right to climb the steep path up to Mid Hill – the highest of the Eildon Hills. It was worth it as the view from here extends far out over the Tweed valley to the north, to the Southern Uplands, reaching far to the horizon, and over Teviotdale to the south and the Cheviot beyond. South Hill looks up from just t the south: we did not descend to climb it, but there is a longer route which does take it in.

Then we clomped back down to the saddle and climbed East Hill. East Hill is lower than Mid Hill but is a greater bulk of mountain with a broad top. This was the site of a Roman signal station in that era, signalling down to the Roman fort, Trimontium, which was laid out in the fields below, where Lauderdale comes down to the Tweed.

Down runs the winding path off the hill, between heather, gorse and bilberry (it’s paved after a few hundred yards as the hill above that is a scheduled ancient monument). It is a delightful wander down towards the valley, eventually to a path that forms part of the Border Abbeys Way (that’s another season’s challenge). Then the latter path strolls down to the old road, close to the Rhymer’s Stone.

There are variations on the tale of Thomas the Rhymer and his meeting with the Queen of the Faeries here, and which you tell depends on how innocent or lascivious you like your tales….

Here within sight of the River Tweed we followed down and under the bypass to Newstead, the village next to Melrose, and through it to the deep, head-high reeds that fringe the river.

It is a beautiful river – broad, peaceful, shallow enough for fishermen to stand it its midst up to their waists. A path led upstream. At one point it encounters a wall, the Battery Dyke, the top of which was once the public footpath along the riverside, and which is still perfectly walkable, though a less perilous path is provided now behind it. It leads eventually to the back of Melrose and the Abbey and the market square again.

Had we carried on a couple of hundred yards we might have tried the Chain Bridge or Gattonside Bridge; a footbridge over the Tweed – but that may wait for another day out.

Route map

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Lockdown walks

Keep walking – keep healthy. Walk locally perhaps, but then discover the little parts of your home you never knew were there.

Those who wanted to lock us in our homes concede that we may go out and walk or cycle – so go out, as if commanded.

I like to find the wilder ways, far from home or deep in the wooded hillsides, standing where I can look for a mile and seen not another soul. This is a different, stranger time we are in though. We are told to stay local. It makes little sense really – walking out of your door into a hugger-mugger street and a busy urban park is permitted, but driving for three hours to an empty landscape with no one to breathe on is deemed criminally dangerous Rules are not set up to be logical though. So here we are, walking locally.

That may be a challenge, but actually it can be a helpful application of ingenuity. There are, in every corner of the land, paths to be explored. At the edge of the country it may be easy to disappear into empty places for hours on end, as I have, but even in the city there are unexplored ways. I keep thinking of Edinburgh and the snickets tumbling through the town, and its urban hills, but in the heart of London too there are endless little paths and alleys such that in the narrow confines of the square mile of the City itself you can get thoroughly and delightfully lost, even before exploring the rooftop walkways. Every town has its secrets to find and find afresh.

I am not going to publish an internal walk for every town and village I know – you go and find them. Get a map, and see what you didn’t know, the patterns you did not see before, the back ways and paths that never seemed to join up when you worked them out in your head (it’s because the roads are not straight and not level that they meet and miss in unexpected ways). Find your local walks.

Do it quickly too – the lockdown will be over before we know it.

Quiet, worshipful exercise

In the Easter holiday, the centrepoint of the Christian calendar, we are amidst the great glories of spring, of the earth reborn. This is an odd Easter though, bundled at home, and we never thought that here we would see the Government locking churches at Easter, but this is a strange time.

We can still go out though, to exercise. I have seen more folk out on the footpaths than ever before, as well they might, and to greet the spring. The lockdown is all about health, so be healthy and strengthen yourself. If within the rules you can, go and walk the old paths to greet the new birth springing all around you in the fields and woodlands.

It is hard to write a long narrative of familiar walks when we are kept close to home, though I am fortunate to be in a place with countless walks which open out into the open fields, and on these I am exercising every day, as we are encouraged to do, filling my lungs with fresh air, and this, while eating healthily, is the best medicine of all.

Stay safe, stop the bug from spreading if you can, and keep healthy.

Have a glorious, a holy and blessed Easter.

The Borders Abbeys Way

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.

Main article

Route map

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There’s no such thing as bad weather

“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

  • [amazon_textlink asin=’B00EHE5OBA’ text=’Shoes for men’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’agbwildthing-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’c2d59e4a-ddb8-11e7-9b47-b7d3681cd82c’]
  • [amazon_textlink asin=’B01AFYLGL2′ text=’Shoes for women’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’agbwildthing-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’02ee9e35-ddb9-11e7-a1a2-0d98f67d6606′]

(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.


Hiking the suburban wild places

Rupert Barnes

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.

Follow my route on the Middlesex Greenway

I am told that it can also be followed on Twitter: @wildthing_uk

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Rupert Barnes