February 13, 2011

Sunday morning dawned some three hours earlier for me than Huw which allowed a mass of expenses to be sorted into date order and entered to a spreadsheet (sad but necessary) and then we set off to drive home (Warwick University for Huw, Lockeridge for me). The day was wet, so a tourist route down the coast to visit Linidsfarne and Bamburg didn’t make sense. Instead I decided to take the Borders route home, heading down to Peebles then across to Moffat. Thence south to Penrith and back East through the moors of Yorkshire and Durham before heading down the M1 and home.

Now this route too and from Edinburgh has many memories for me. When I was entering teenage my father did a post graduate course at the Veterinary School in Edinburgh and we were taken up for a weeks holiday. In those days there was no M6, unless you count the Preston bypass and Dad had found a traffic free route (with options) with some wonderful views.

  DSC_1908.jpg You get a sense of the territory from this photograph. The road, single track in places, sweeps over passes and pass lochs, at times following the infant River Tweed. On a wet day the colours and atmosphere are at their best. There are only a few isolated communities along the way and before mobile phones an accident left you with no way of making contact. One of the main benefits of joining the AA or RAC in those days was that they put phone boxes in isolated places, but you had to carry a key around to get access. I must admit I thought they were all gone but we found one near St Mary’s Loch. I had one scary trip here around fiveteen years ago when I was on my way to deliver a keynote address in Edinburgh and got bored with the motorway so turned off for Moffat. There was some snow in the air but I didn’t take it seriously. I should have, by the time I was half way across the moors I was driving in a blizzard with no road markings. By the time I finally made it to the valley I had to move police barriers closing the road!

My original plan was to stop for lunch in Reeth, but time was running out so the Good Pub Guide app on the iPhone came into play and we found a real treasure in the Gate Inn. Some of the most welcoming bar staff I have ever met, great local beers and marvelous local food. Don’t let anyone deceive you into buying a cumberland sausage if it is other than a fat ring! This pub had the real thing, served on a bed of mashed potato and black pudding with a gravy to die for. From there it was over the moors via Bowes to the A1 and after that the drive was routine, the scenery shall we say lacked drama.

We had been driving the border lands, for centuries a lawless territory between Scotland and England, governed loosely by the Northern Barons who were a law unto themselves. The land is littered with fortified houses and towersDSC_1918.jpg; you had to protect what you owned. Just south of Penrith we came across one example, Broughham Hall (pictured) being lovenly restored by volunteer labour. Like Wales and Cornwall this is roman-celtic territory with a version of Welsh still present in the counting language of the Cumbrian Shepherds. Brougham is home of the badgers in that language.

As you follow the A65 there is solid castles a winter’s day ride apart from coast to coast. This is also Hadrian’s Wall territory, it has always been a border land. The castles are not the elaborate constructs you see in the south, they are small in comparison but solid. They seem to grow out of the bones of the land given the wildness a symbiotic human pattern that seeks to live with the patterns of the land but does not control it. Again this is the weather to see it, patchy mist, fine driving rain and the rivers full to bursting. In the summer it fills with tourists, the rivers are slack and the sun drives out the mystery.

For those who do not know this land, to the south we have the Yorkshire dales, in particular Swaledale and Arthgathendale. To the north we have the delights of High Force and High Cup Nick, the most dramatic sections of the Pennine Way. It is an area that rewards the walker and cyclist alike (for those who remember my cycle story this is the location). It is an area full of accessible history, rich in narrative. Borderlands are always like that, more interesting for their instability over time.

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