A walk in the Eildons

During EFOG's break in the Scottish Borders, staying at the Waverley Castle Hotel near Melrose, whilst the rest of the group went on an organised tour Ken and I – together with friends Jenny and Garry – left the hotel to walk towards the Eildon Hills.

These hills form a prominent backdrop to the south of the small town of Melrose on the River Tweed. They consist of three peaks, and are distinctive enough for the Romans to have named their fort at the base of the hills “Trimontium”.

Leaving the hotel we crossed the road and entered the village of Darnick. It is a pretty enough little place, at first reminding me somewhat of some inland Devon villages, with twisting streets and oddly-placed houses. However, there are some nice detached villas on the road towards Melrose itself, and presumably quite costly ones – especially since the new railway line to Edinburgh will have made commuting a practical consideration. Really, Darnick is part of Melrose, and probably will lose something of its own identity as the town expands. It's a shame that we missed seeing Darnick's oldest building: Darnick Tower, which was built around 1425. This looks to be a bit like one of the border area's Peel towers, which were fortified dwellings somewhat necessary in a region which was somewhat lawless!

Melrose Abbey 20160226The area doesn't seem very lawless now, in fact it is quiet and the people we met were friendly, which is always a good thing if you are English and in a foreign country. Ken would probably have been OK anyway, as his origins are from this very part of Scotland. Melrose is a nicely situated town, lying in the Tweed valley with pleasant hills nearby – and considering it was February and bright and sunny, apparently an admirable climate. We walked into Melrose proper along a main street with a nice selection of shops, eating places and a pub or two, then turned right towards the Eildons to look at Melrose railway station. This is not the railway station that serves as the junction of the new railway, but a remaining vestige of the old Waverley line route through the Scottish Borders to Edinburgh. It is a Grade A listed building, so ranks very highly.

Returning to the market square – which I noted was not square, but more triangular – we continued down towards the Tweed to view Melrose Abbey, which not surprisingly is also a Grade A listed building. Our path took us alongside the Abbey, then closer to the river as far as the village of Newstead which – according to an information board – is the oldest continually inhabited settlement in Scotland. Crossing under the Melrose bypass and the disused Waverly railway line, we began to make our way slightly uphill towards the Eildons, through gentle sheep-farming country.

Melrose Thomas 20160224One of the reasons we hadn't headed directly for the hills from Melrose is that I wanted to see the Rhymers Stone. Having read an account by another walker of his being unable to find it, I did not put a lot of effort into searching. As we emerged onto the now defunct old main road – barriered to through-traffic – it was lucky that Jenny looked to the left as we turned right, and spotted a distant road-side artefact. As she pointed it out I knew that it would be the stone, as it appeared to have a nice new tree planted alongside. I suspect that the original one where Thomas the Rhymer met the Fairy Queen back in the 13th century would not have survived. We made our way back to the commemorative stone, and just failed to see the bridge that Thomas had predicted would one day cross the Tweed and be visible from this point.

Nearby was a notice board which gave a fuller story of that chance encounter, and the outcome, with a rather nice pre-Raphaelite-style painting or photograph of the Fairy Queen seducing Thomas from her milk-white steed (or was it a dapple-grey?) by means of flowing hair, pursed lips and a somewhat busy bust-line.

To the hills. Along the road a short way, then along and up and down a farm track, then up a stony path which is possibly a stream at times, and onto the hillside. Already the view looking back was becoming more expansive, and as the route became steeper the predicted bridge came into view. It is not a difficult climb onto the Eildon Hills, but is somewhat strenuous, and underfoot the track is lined with heather and thus gullied in places. There are lots of chance steps, made casually by human feet trying to find the best purchase, but also some slippery slopes and ruts where I found getting a grip or leverage a bit of a problem. I was glad of Jenny's hand on my back a few times as my less-than-muscles and worn-out joints were threatening a downhill trend.

Melrose eildon 20160224We reached the summit of the north hilltop, on which during the Bronze Age was a hill fort but now there is just a cairn. The views are extensive in most directions, with Teviotdale and the Cheviots to the south and south-east, and the Lammermuir Hills to the north. To the north-west, looking across Melrose and beyond Galashiels, are the Moorfoot Hills. We were lucky that – although cold – the weather was clear and sunny.

Descending into the saddle between the north hilltop and the middle hilltop, Jenny and Garry decided that they'd like to reach the summits of the other two hills, whilst Ken and I made our way down. As I'd supposed, in some ways going down was harder that going up, particularly as the way was very slippery. The path was actually less steep and less rugged than the one we'd ascended, but the red earth had just defrosted and so had a combination of icy patches, slidey patches and clingey patches – mostly all at the same time. There were also some wet patches, too. There may have been one dry patch. Coming off the hillside proper, an easy between-the-fields lane led us to a long series of steps which descended into Melrose, where Ken and I searched for a refreshment place. They are not hard to find, but we were concerned about our accompanying mud, and eventually plumped for a small music store/scone and tea shop near the old station. It was a relief to sit down – and even more of a relief to have sat down with having fallen down.

After tea-and-scones we made our way back along pavements (ie the easy way) to the hotel. I was somewhat surprised to find later that we had walked a little over 6 miles, which included 1300 feet of an Eildon hilltop.

Paul Ferris, 29th February 2016