Three Days and Four Nights in the Borders
Ten of us met at Chingford Mount on Monday 28th January for a 09.30 departure to Melrose, in the Border Region of Scotland.
After the inevitable interchange at London Gateway, our main coach eventually got us to our hotel at Darnick, near Melrose, after 8pm – a somewhat long journey time. Having been regaled by some somewhat sexist jokes and some rather dubious facts about places of interest by our driver during the journey, the evening meal was welcome.
Although having been renovated since our last visit in 2016, the hotel nevertheless was rather less than warm. Decent enough overall, though, and the self-service breakfast the following and subsequent mornings was good.
So – the first morning. After breakfast we had opted to join the included coach excursion to Edinburgh. There had beensome snow in recent days, and if not snow at least a heavy frost overnight. The views from the coach were somewhat obscured by heavily-tinted windows, making the day seem more dreary than it actually was. Edinburgh was cold and damp, though with no actual snow or rain. We paid an extra £8 per person for a guided coach tour around the city, which gave us a good overview, and then walked up the Royal Mile to the castle. The same excellent piper was busking in full dress at the same point as last visit. We walked up the Royal Mile, and we walked down the Royal Mile. We had a snack in a cafe, and caught our coach back to the hotel.
Wednesday dawned – eventually – minus 5C. cold and brilliantly bright. Some of our group had decided on an optional coach trip whilst five of us began a walk towards Sir Walter Scott’s home at Abbotsford, about 2 miles away. The route – into the village of Darnick and along a little-used country road – was lovely, with a nice frost, pleasant views and no traffic. We paused at a barn to pass the time of day with some cattle, and left them feeding on some of their out-of-reach foodstuff. A bit naughty of us perhaps, but they were happy.
Reaching Abbotsford House, the staff of the visitor centre seemed pleased to welcome a group of visitors to boost their small winter numbers. There is an excellent display of the life of Sir Walter Scott – who had the house built in Scottish Baronial style, and the grounds laid out, in 1824. It bankrupted him, but added to his novels in consolidating an image that persists now and is what people around the world expect of Scotland. There is also a nice cafeteria, which, as you will imagine…
Although the house itself and the walled garden is not open at this time of year, the grounds and their pathways are, so we walked around the outside of the house and made our way to banks of the River Tweed, heading back to Darnick by a riverside path. Ken left us here to catch a bus into Galashiels, his childhood home, and the rest of us passed under the road-bridge over the Tweed – where we immediately encountered some difficult terrain. The Tweed is a large river, and subject to erosion of its banks. Hence footpaths may be made and lost. And at least at the lower levels where we were, they had been lost. A steep and hairy climb up to higher levels brought us to a better path and from then on the going was relatively good. The day continued bright, and the low temperatures meant that the ground was firm, although not particularly slippery.
The attractive route was enhanced by sightings of the incredible little water-bird – the Dipper. These are somewhat like a black-and-white Robin, fly above the water surface like a Kingfisher, and bob up and down on rocks waiting for an opportune moment to jump into a fast-flowing stream, or river, to swim under the water, or even walk along the bed, using their wings as propulsion. They feed on small water creatures such as crustaceans or insects. We sighted a few Goosander ducks flying along the river, with an occasional Buzzard overhead.
Nearing the access lane to the hotel, we decided that the walk was so pleasant - and that we had only walked about 4 miles - we should carry on towards Melrose. This added another 3 miles or so to our walk, and enabled us to visit the small town and have a nice stop for a snack at a cafe. The butcher/pie shop was not yet offering the dawn haggis-hunting opportunities as per last visit. Too early in the season, perhaps?
We walked back to the hotel via the slightly longer, but considerably quieter, back road, passing Darnick Tower, a 15th Century peel tower, which is a fortified style of house common on the borders of Scotland and England.
The following morning, Thursday, after breakfast, seven of our group left the hotel for a walk on another cold and frosty morning. Unlike the previous day, there was no brilliant sunshine, and instead a cold mist gave an eerie light to frosted trees, particularly as we walked down the footpath from the hotel grounds to the Tweed. On the river bank, tall grasses and the left-over seed-heads of umbellifers were grey-white with hoar frost. We soon saw our first Dipper of the day, standing on a nearby rock and giving us a good view before flying away upstream. The tributary stream that I had videoed yesterday afternoon after the ice had melted was now almost ice-covered. We were walking, with Ken as leader, towards Melrose.
Melrose is a small town by the River Tweed, noted for its 12th Century partly ruined abbey, once a Cistercian monastery. Before entering the town, we had a look at the Chain Bridge, a narrow pedestrian suspension bridge giving acces to the village of Gattonside on the north bank. Pausing to look at the abbey, and for a toilet stop, we continued along a slightly higher path some way from the river and overlooking the river’s flood plain - which stretched away as flat as anything from the Fens - to the village if Newstead, which is reputed to be the oldest continually-inhabited settlement in Scotland.
From Newstead it was uphill, passing under the A6091 road which was built on the line of the old Waverley Route, the railway line from Edinburgh to Carlisle which closed to passengers in January 1969. Beyond the road the land becomes rural, and trends upwards to the slopes of the Eildon Hills.
Our footpath between field hedges eventually merged onto a tarmacked road, but one essentially closed to through traffic. This was the original route between Melrose and Newtown St. Boswell, but being superseded by the opening of the A6091. To our right – although we did not visit it – is a plinth with information about Thomas the Rhymer; we turned left to visit the memorial stone and tree where the famous incident with the Fairy Queen took place. With questions such as “Famous?” and “Who?”, a possibility, perhaps have a look at the article I wrote onto our website in 2016 and reacquaint? (click here)
There was occasional Sun getting through the mist, but it was still very cold as we walked down the road towards Newtown St. Boswells, crossing the somewhat worryingly-named Bogle Burn on the way. On the road – with no traffic apart from once or twice a farm vehicle – the walk was a pleasant experience, enhanced by the views and something I have never experienced before – real fairy dust! This phenomena was tiny, twinkling drops of frozen moisture falling through the air. Lynne had seen it before on ski-ing trips, but never in Britain.Eildon farm settlement was noisy with many House Sparrows as we passed, before entering St. Boswells.
This was a larger town than I had expected, and at least on the edge that we entered, a bit industrial-looking. We had joined by then the Borders Abbey Way, and its signposts directed us underneath the A68 main Edinburgh road. Our footpath was by the Bowden Burn, another Tweed tributary, and the route pleasant enough but obviously well-used by local dog-walkers as well as Borders Way trekkers. Underneath the high road-bridge, a tree covered in hoar-frost, just like a Christmas decoration, encouraged a lot of photographs. It isn’t far to the Tweed from there, but the path goes upwards more than we expected, with a series of steps to assist. Eventually it drops down again to a spot where there is a pedestrian suspension bridge across the river. There were fine and frosty views towards Dryburgh on the far bank, and closer – on the supports of the bridge itself – some amazing formations of frost on cobwebs.
The final half-mile or so from the bridge to our destination – Dryburgh Abbey – was proving to a few of the group to be a half-mile too far, and when we reached the entrance to the abbey some decided to give it a miss and head straight intothe nearby hotel to rest and get warm. The rest of us paid our entrance fee and had a look round the ruined building and its grounds. Then we all repaired to the hotel, had a meal and ordered a cab large enough to carry all of us back to Melrose. That walk was 6 miles, plus - for a couple of us - the extra mile between Melrose and the hotel at Darnick.
Thus ended, apart from our evening meal and Scottish-themed evening entertainment, our three full-days at Melrose. It was a 5am or so rise for us the following morning, for a 6am breakfast and 6.45 coach departure. The weather forecast for the journey home was not promising, and the promsie was fulfilled by overnight freezing of surfaces and snowfall particularly from the Newcastle/Sunderland area southwards. We endured a 7-mile tailback on the A1, due to ice on the road, and thus arrived back at Chingford at something like 7pm. From there, of course, we had to make our respective ways home.
Thanks to Jenny for suggesting and booking the holiday, and to all of the group, who made it such a success:
Jenny, Eileen, Fozi, Fred, Jinan, Ken, Lynne, Marian, Marilyn, Paul
Paul Ferris, 6th February 2019