A Weekend on Hadrian’s Wall & the Scottish Borders

On the drive north from York we spoke to a very old friend on the car phone. We said we were going up to Hadrian’s Wall and then onto Scotland. When we threw in that we were both taking bicycles there was a short silence when he contemplated Anna dealing with inclement weather and lots of hills. When we added that we were staying at a Youth Hostel he gasped and we had a longer silence! I wondered whether he thought we were broke or had lost our minds.

We went up to Hadrian’s Wall in January and stayed at a plush B&B. It was part of a trip that saw us on the guest list at The Sage in Gateshead for Brandy Clark, who’s concert I reviewed for Country Music People. However over and above our time in the city we’d enjoyed our walk along the wall and made a decision to return.

Hadrian was the Roman Emperor at the time the wall was built AD 122 to AD 128. This 73 mile construction stretched along the top of England to ostensibly control or keep out the Ancient Britons (Scots to you and me) on the north side of the wall. This 10 foot wide by 15 foot high wall was built of stone apart from the western end which was turf. The Roman soldiers, all 15,000 of them built it. Along its length were stationed garrisons of French, Belgian, Spanish or Dutch ‘Roman’ soldiers. The wall was a partial barrier that controlled immigration, implemented customs and stopped the Picts stealing cattle.

Today the wall is more of an outline. Over the years the stone was taken by farmers, house builders etc and little remains today.

You can tell this was taken from a library as it is sunny in this image

However there is an industry today in restoring the sites and archaeological digs. This has proved vital for understanding British history and for tourism in Northumberland. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site not least because it was the most northerly border in the Roman Empire. In January we walked on the wall but longed for accommodation not so isolated. The Youth Hostel offered a great cafe, a pub next door and modern accommodation.

The Sill – Bardon Mill

The hostel had become a victim to Covid-19 and so there was no communal sitting area inside the building, no access to the kitchen and no furniture in the room other than the bed!

Guess who was told to get comfy upstairs? You’ll note, on the right, that the present Mrs Ives had brought a bottle of white wine just nicely within reach!

Fortunately there were few problems with the pub next door and I made sure Anna ate heartily to build up her energy for tomorrow’s velo expedition to Hexham.

Anna deftly sidesteps the USB socket to plug in an adaptor to take a USB plug….

The next day there was a difficult conversation that started with the declaration that she wasn’t going outside to ride her bike because she didn’t have any leggings. With the promise of several mintoes and chocolate limes she was lured out of the room and onto her bicycle. (I did point out later that we never met another cyclist wearing leggings).

Grey skies but not raining
First short sharp climb of the day with an appreciate audience monitoring Anna’s progress

The ride to Hexham was lovely: little traffic, splendid vistas of lakes, rivers, forests, gardens and small settlements. Anna was exceptional applying herself to the job in hand and the promise of lunch in the bustling market town of Hexham.

River Tyne

As tour leader I rewarded myself in Hexham with some Sticky Toffee pudding.

By the time we got back to the hostel we’d ridden 32 miles and climbed 704m (2,300 feet), which by any standards is a brilliant effort by Anna. It was a quick turn round at the hostel with a shower and then out to the world class museum a mile away at Vindolanda. This was a fort at the time of the Wall. The settlement was for soldiers but also many Britons who lived outside the fortress walls and provided the many services the soldiers needed. Nowadays it’s a fabulous museum. Much of our ancient history is deduced by studying what archaeologists can excavate. This is mainly items that can survive the centuries under the soil. Written history is very scarce and the earliest writing isn’t a reliable guide to the facts! (Often the early writing are accounts of events commissioned by important people. As they say ‘the victors get to write history’ even though it may not be true).

At Vindolanda there are discoveries of written remnants, not of history but mundane instructions or communications that show how the Romans conducted themselves. The writing is in Latin. These are amongst the first known pieces of writing in the country. (There were discoveries recently in London dated back to AD 43).

Layout of the building outside the fort at Vindolanda
Live exhibits
A reproduction of what the fort looked like

Later that evening we drove out to Corbridge for a meal. The next morning we were heading to Kelso in the Scottish borders. As we had time on our hands we visited Kielder Water. This is a man made reservoir opened in 1981. Around the reservoir are some holiday cabins along with some great walks and bike rides. The road to and from the estate seemed empty with the occasional holiday maker.

Kielder Water
We prepared for missionary work…

The roads through the Borders to the settlements was winding and empty. Much to my frustration the most direct route was closed for road works and we detoured westward. These empty roads are attractive to motorbikes and the occasional convoy of fast cars. We eventually arrived at Hawick and found a larger road to Kelso.

Here we met up with Peter and Jude who’d cycled down from Dalkeith to join us for a spot of lunch. They were on a tandem! Peter is an old friend, he introduced me to cycle touring. We did our first trip in 1994 from St Malo to Bordeaux. I forgot to take a photo of them on the bike but I did take the camera into the Gents…

Welcome to Kelso

After our lunch and their departure (to find a train station to get back to Edinburgh) we visited Flowers Castle, the home of the Duke of Roxburgh. This is within Kelso.

The walled gardens
That’s the Head Gardener’s house. Once upon a time there were 40 gardeners looking after the estate. Today there’s five.
A wonderful castle but I cannot imagine how much it costs to keep it waterproof and heated.

In Kelso we checked into our B&B. Sadly there were no bunks this time as it would have been Anna’s turn to be close to the ceiling. As the day ended we went for a stroll.

From the banks of the Tweed river in the town this is the view toward Flowers Castle

The host at the B&B didn’t look like a David Bowie fan but had several books on the man. A conversation started over breakfast and it turned out that Robin was a fanatic. He had all the biographies and albums. He also had all the boxsets, out takes and knew the minute details on the Thin White Duke’s life. Very impressive. His other “Mastermind’ specialist subjects would have included Cockney Rebel and Mott The Hoople. Needless to say breakfast lasted an hour and half as we also ruminated on the merits of spam, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and his succession of American guests. He was a wonderful mimic to add to his stories. You’re thinking that he’ll be talking about me to other guests, I doubt it. We sat there quietly enjoying the ‘show’.

When we departed he gave me an alternative version to the released ‘Young Americans’ by Bowie on CD. If it’s as good as I hope then it may end up as a ‘Record Of The Week’ elsewhere on the site.

The next day despite some half hearted protests we found our way back to Hawick for a little retail therapy at one of the cashmere mill shops. We spent £194 and I’d like to declare that I got a lambs wool hat for £9.99 to keep me quiet (fat chance of that).

Returning via Melrose we had a splendid lunch of halibut sat on samphire and peas with tortellini filled with crab meat and took some photos of the abbey.

The abbey in Melrose
First World problems

So back in Kelso a man walks into a fishing tackle store to discuss a problem with his jetty and crapping ducks. In fairness the staff were very obliging and didn’t flinch when I asked them for their cheapest fishing line to string along the top of the fence to stop ducks perching. The little blighters are very dirty and the jetty looks appalling unless you can deter them from visiting.

On our last day there were a few more photos of Kelso:

Part of the abbey at Kelso
A not untypical sky.

We had wandered around the town trying to find a pub for a drink: it was not easy. The pubs only had space outside for drinkers whilst any available space inside was reserved for diners. You’ll be relieved to know we did find one in the end that was empty; there was good reason for that if you saw the decor but the pint of Belhaven slipped down lovely.

The town centre in Kelso – memorable cobbles

Our drive back to York was via Alnwick. At the old railway station there is a famous second hand book shop called ‘Barter Books’ we popped in to buy some treasure before heading home to York.

Alnwick, back in England was busy with tourists. In contrast our time in Scotland had been one where tourists were a lot thinner on the ground. The Scottish lockdown has been more severe. It has had a profound affect on the local economy. I hope it hasn’t permanently damaged the businesses affected.

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