The first person we met over the border in Scotland was a retired man called Norman from Portsmouth. He was working in his garden and was curious to know where we were walking. When we told him he kindly invited us to sit down and offered us a cup of tea and a Kit-Kat. In all the long miles we have walked Norman was the first stranger to invite us in and offer us a cuppa.
Further on near Newcastleton we were treated to a delicious dinner and a comfortable bed by Isabel’s family friends Emma and Toby; a treat to be in a welcoming home, having been on the road for nearly two weeks. Toby told us about farming in the borders and the terrible days of the foot-and-mouth disease. Emma taught us about the Reivers and something of the history of the Scottish Isles with their remote communities of diminished populations. We wished we had longer to learn more from them both, delve into thier library of fascinating books and wander around the garden.
In Langholm we drank from the White Well and saw a huge monument built by Freemasons in honour of a Sir John Malcom, a Victorian Scot who spent his working life in colonial India. Later we were button-holed by a man called George, a proud Scottish Tory who had been a professional gambler and a ‘face’ around the racecourses of Newmarket in South East England. Like so many other strangers we have met he was quick to share tales of loss and illness. Is it because we are passing through that folk feel able to confide in us?
As the news of the atrocity in Manchester reached us we were on our way to the small town of Lockerbie, famous for its own appalling terrorist attack. In Lockerbie we found a cheerful bustling community with little sign of the deep wounds inflicted thirty years ago. It was quite by accident that we stumbled upon a memorial to the families killed in their homes when parts of the stricken airliner fell from the sky. The stone was in a peaceful garden in a rebuilt cul-de-sac.
A local lady walking her dog told us that the town had healed itself in the intervening years, but she remembered her own fear of flying in the aftermath of the bombing. We learned how local residents took care to gather up and wash the clothes and possessions that had rained from the sky, sending them to the families of the 250 victims on the plane. If this tiny community could recover from such shock and devastation, there is hope that Manchester too will find its way out of the dark days of grief, despair and anger.
As we walked the Annandale Way to Dumfries the green land was bathed in warm summer sun. We discovered the ruine church of St Mungo’s near Milk Castle and recognised the names on the family tombs- my paternal grandmother Beatrice had once lived and worked here as a servant and travelling companion to the local noblewoman. Together they had travelled the Mediterranean between the wars. I never met Beatrice and it was strange to think I was perhaps walking in her footsteps quite by chance.
Soon we would cross the ultimate wall, built by the orders of Emperor Hadrian to mark the Northernmost limit of the Roman Empire, but first we had to traverse some tough terrain on the first long distance walk in Britain, The Pennine Way.
On Great Shunner’s Fell we ate our lunchtime sandwiches in company with brothers David and Kevin. David was retired, Kevin was unable to work because of mental health issues. They kept each other company on long walks, using their free bus passes to bring them out of Bradford to the majestic hills and huge skies of the Pennines. I suggested it must be rewarding to live in the official ‘curry capital of Great Britain’, but they both made faces of distaste. Bradford is what David calls ‘a conquered city’, referring to the numbers of Asian migrants who have arrived in his lifetime. It seemed an uncharitable sentiment, but he was clearly a charitable man, acting as guardian for his brother when the rest of their family had move away. We watched them stride off in single file over the empty moors, struck by their mutual dependence and their deep immersion in a wild but nourishing landscape.
That evening we stayed in the Highest Pub in Britain, the Tan Hill Inn, a converted mining building. The walls bore legends of a gun-wielding landlady who use to keep the tinkers in line, and visits from the ubiquitous Dick Turpin. A snow plough and caterpillar tractor were parked outside ready for the inevitable winter snow-ins and the clientele consisted of caravan nomads and the odd intrepid walker. It was here we heard our first Geordie accents, mingled with those of Yorkshire. The Tan Hill guards the boundary with Cumbria and Northumbria and in the pre-Norman years would have been part of Scotland.
When we left the next day it was the first full day of downpour since we departed London five weeks earlier. The wind howled and kept our umbrellas furled and Issy’s ‘splash-proof’ anorak gave the icy waters free passage to her skin. We trudged over tussocks which in other years would be deep bogs but were mercifully firm after the droughts of April. The birds were our only company, keening plovers guarding their chicks and infant grouse by the dozen dodging our feet to grow into twelve-bore fodder.
We finally found sanctuary in a farmhouse bed and breakfast where we interviewed Fiona and Simon who had made their careers in the coal industry in Leicestershire. We had passed through their homelands a few weeks earlier and they were able to shed some light on the questions of changing energy use and the impact of industrial upheavals over the last few decades. They were keen walkers and were traversing the entire Pennine Way. We were to bump into them a few days later on Hadrian’s Wall, but whereas they had tackled more lofty peaks in nasty weather we had descended from the high moors for a pleasant short-cut up the valleys of the Tees and Allen.
Crossing into Northumberland, our 14th county, we noticed immediately a change in the landscape. Aromatic conifers with fresh green tips gave the valleys a darker Northern tint and we were on the look-out for red squirrels, but Britain’s most endangered mammals kept well hidden.
In the old lead-mining village of Allenheads we met David from Castle Rock, Northern Ireland and his huge Labrador companion Jake. The two of them keep each other company on long walking tours, booking ahead to dog-friendly b’n’bs and sending Jake’s hefty bags of food, his bed and his favourite toy ahead each day by van. David told us that in his travels around the UK he found Northumbrians and Cumbrians to be the friendliest folk. He had no time for the South of England which he saw as overrun with hordes of distracted people living life at a frantic pace.
Just up the valley we discovered Allendale, a self-contained community which used to boast five pubs and rejoice in the nickname ‘alchy-dale’. They still have three great pubs which host an annual fair with a local strong-man competition. It was a tight-knit town though not obviously diverse an one lady confided that there were still members of the older generation who used the term ‘darkie’ in an innocence unthinkable elsewhere.
At the top of the Allen Valley we came out into open country where Hadrian’s Wall crossed a high ridge from East to West. Our thoughts turned to borders once more and it was here we met and interviewed two young women from Minnesota who were on their own walking tour along the wall. Laura was a beef farmer and Sonia was a budding politician, they were both Democrats and ashamed of the current White House occupant. We spoke about walls as symbols of power and hostility and also about Sonia’s work as a volunteer on Lesbos last year, one of the epicentres of the Mediterranean migrant crisis.
A few more miles of England along the Roman Road the Via Puellarum- ‘the Maiden’s Way’ brought us to Bewcastle at sunset. This ancient hamlet once guarded the main route in and out of England. We slept that night in a tiny visitor centre, watched over by a Victorian church and an ornate Anglo-Saxon cross. Nearby there stood a medieval castle built out of a ruined Roman fort on the site of a ancient British stronghold devoted to a pagan god.
In Skipton we bought waterproofs and upgraded from trainers to boots in preparation for the Pennine Way. We ate a pie by the canal in dazzling sunshine, enjoying the warm hospitality and good humour of Yorkshire once again.
Yorkshire has such pride in itself, its ways and traditions. Britain’s biggest county by a long chalk, it has a big personality to match. This T-shirt we saw stretched across a large belly in a Leeds sums it up:
A short walk took us out to the home of Isabel’s friend Piers. His ancestors have maintained their Catholic faith and practices since Norman times, enduring and evading the waves of reformation, sectarian violence and purges through a combination of luck, tenacity and geographical seclusion in the Yorkshire Dales. On the hillside by their family home there are a cluster of standing stones, one for each generation raised there.
On the morning we set out there were two sun-dogs glowing in the sky, an ancient sign of good fortune. We have dedicated this leg of the pilgrimage to the memory of Isabel’s father Stephen Freer.
We picked up the Pennine way in Gargrave, a charming and friendly town on the banks of the River Aire. We stepped into the church for a nosey around and found an unexpectedly lively scene. Every second Thursday local volunteers cook and serve a two course lunch for the village elders. Men and women who might otherwise be lonely and isolated were gathered together around tables set up in the nave. We were encouraged to sit down and for £4.50 we enjoyed Shepherd’s pie and veg with rhubarb and custard and several cups of tea.
We spoke to Susan who was brought up in a lock-keeper’s cottage and remembered the days of horse-drawn coal-barges where now there are tourists on narrow boat pleasure cruises. Helen told us how she was brought up in London during World War Two. She had been allotted a place on a convoy to Canada, but her mother chose not to evacuate the children, preferring that they face the dangers together. In this way Helen avoided the fate of the children on board the ‘City of Benares’, whose tragic story we had seen portrayed in the play ‘Lifeboat’ at the West Yorkshire Playhouse the week before.
It was wonderful to see a community serving its elders and combating loneliness in this way. As one gentleman said he never went to church except for these lunches (and the mammoth Christmas lunch laid on with donations from local shops). The spirit of generosity behind these lunches was not religious, it was a grass-roots movement to help people in need close to home. As strangers passing through we were also welcomed and fed, and we had the sense of a community blessed by kindness.
We followed the river on towards Malham chatting to one pensioner who reminded us to take our time and enjoy each moment. ‘If you haven’t got a timetable, you can’t be late’ was his sage advice.
We also met a florist called Marie-Louise who was exceedingly pleasant and chatty, but somehow managed to slip in her support for Brexit on the grounds that European intervention had prevented Theresa May from extraditing a terrorist to the USA to face punishment. She spoke in favour of the death penalty as being appropriate punishment for killers, then wished us well for our upcoming wedding. We bought some flowers and moved on.
In Malham we reconnected with Judy Rogers, the representative of People in The Dales who I had heard speak in Skipton a few weeks previously. Though we were recent acquaintances, she unhesitatingly invited us to stay with her and share a celebratory family dinner in honour of her mother Doreen’s birthday. Doreen was about to be honoured with a special award acknowledging sixty years of service with Christian Aid. Doreen and Judy had both spent many years in charitable projects inspired by their faith. Judy’s husband, an atheist, had also worked hard to alleviate suffering all over the world. Through his work with DIFD (Department for International Development) he seeks to find ways to help communities to anticipate and prepare for changes in climate that could affect their livelihoods, preparation being far cheaper than always responding late to crises that bring about famine and subsequent conflicts.
Judy told us more about her work bringing people out of cities to enjoy time out in the beautiful surroundings of Malham Cove. Some Syrian women had recently walked with her and other refugee families for a picnic. Their bags strangely heavy, but Judy couldn’t persuade them to unload them and travel more lightly. When they arrived at the cove the weight was explained as the ladies brought out their contributions- traditional Syrian food lovingly prepared and contained in beautiful glass bowls. Who needs Tupperware?
The next few days saw us traversing the Pennine Way, and for the first time we were surrounded by other walkers. In Horton in Ribblesdale we saw crowds of city-folk who had driven out on Friday night and were planning to climb the ‘three peaks’ on Saturday. Walking 25 miles and ascending three hills of over 600m in just 12 hours seemed a bit extreme to us, but we acknowledged that few people have the luxury of walking for weeks on end. The urge to escape the city and the desk and to seek out clear air and long vistas is strong in all of us, but it seems a shame to turn a walk into a race or a feat of endurance, rather than an opportunity for deeper reflection or engagement with the land.
We were now in the border lands which have long been subject to raids and the ravages of feuding families known as ‘Reivers’. Ancient fortified farmhouses known as ‘bastles’ dotted the land, along with some impressive castles and small-windowed, strong-walled churches where folk could shelter from marauding cattle-thieves. Why are border-lands so often synonymous with conflict and lawlessness? Why are borders so often cause for dispute? The Dry-stone walls that criss-cross so much of England and Yorkshire in particular reminded me of Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Mending Wall’. In it Frost shows us two characters whose characters embody two ways of seeing the world, one sees strong walls as necessary for keeping peace and stability, the other wishes we could live without barriers. In debates about politics and migration we see the same two ideologies still passionately opposed.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Coming next: Northumbria, Hadrian’s Wall and crossing into Scotland!