Oh, I’d forgotten this—how a day, lived through this slowly, can have so much to give you; how hardly moving at all gives you the chance to register worlds, interior and exterior, so full of texture and difference and riches. Oh. Oh, how wonderful.
Mind you, I wasn’t feeling so blissed out as we set off. Crossing Melrose’s market square—there were quite a few unicorns (stone ones that is) around in the towns we went to; anyone know why?—we headed up the delightfully named Dingleton Road and took a footpath left just after the road dipped under the old railway bridge. Soon we were into woods, where I stopped to breathe in the last of the bluebells and wake my palate with a bite of tingly, lemony wood sorrel. We were at the foot of a very intimidating set of steps. Intimidating to me anyway; and I have to record that alongside her exemplary degree of fitness and stamina Jenny displayed extraordinary patience with one so much less “in condition” than she. Not once over the whole pilgrimage did she give me cause to feel judged, or that she was frustrated or impatient. Mind you, she didn’t need to: I was all over that myself, stomping and berating and puffing and judging, all the while monitoring myself for severe tachycardia. In the face of such foul self-treatment I was more grateful than I can say for Jenny’s acceptance and kindness. Lean on me, when you’re not strong…
We took the steps, and the footpath they gave way to, slowly, passing between green fields and close, starry banks of blackthorn. Aiming for the saddle between two of the three Eildons, we soon gained a lovely view back over Melrose and Galashiels (with which Jenny became strangely obsessed over the next few days. I never got to the bottom of why). There were large patches of gorse, which was emitting delightful waves of its coconutty fragrance (or is coconut gorse-fragranced? Think on that, friend!). After not as long as I’d feared, we’d gained the saddle and paused for breath at a crossroads in the grassy paths to decide which, if either, Eildon we were going to “nip” to the top of. The smaller, Eildon Hill North, was a former fort site, which sounded interesting, but the larger Eildon Mid Hill was going to have a longer view and was, well, larger. On the grounds that if I needed to be air-ambulanced off the top I could at least know I’d got Maxiview before I collapsed, we opted for Mid Hill and were soon on a rock and scree path so steep that, as Jenny put it, you ‘had to make sure your feet were in the right order’. The track ran through heather punctuated with many Christmas trees (seeded by birds?). I was doing ten steps, stop, breathe, ten steps, stop, breathe. On all fours at times, I hauled myself to the top where I had an immediate sense of exhilaration. I’d done it! I’d done it! There was one of those panorama 360° these are the mountains you’re looking at things at the top, in which Jenny took an intelligent interest (‘Look! There’s Galashiels!’) while I just enjoyed having made it. I was breathless but not entirely desperate. Perhaps the Pilgrimage would be less traumatic than I feared.
Buoyed by a renewed sense of confidence—I hadn’t realised how much it had been knocked by pandemic/grief induced lethargy and unfitness—I tripped, almost literally, back down the hill. I stopped at one of the more lumpily rocky sections of the path to allow a group coming up to go first, and made one of those bland-but-benign comments you make while you’re walking (“Looks like the weather’s picking up!” “Nice day for it!”) to the bloke at the front of the group about wondering how I was going to get down. D’oh! Back came some po-faced Mansplaining about how I might achieve it. ‘Oh, fuck right off, you insufferable knob,’ I said. I didn’t really. But I wanted to.
Back at the crossroads we turned south, down into some brilliantly pale green, gently dripping beech woods (the weather had come at us as we came down the hill and it was the first of the day’s Cags on/Cags off again moments). We paused to let 3 lads go past. They had Serious Packs and one had a fine pair of proper Scottish luminous legs to go with his bonnie red hair. Something about recognising his Scottishness warmed and pleased me greatly. I forget sometimes I’m only half Sassenach and over the walk I really enjoyed reclaiming a sense of (half) belonging. The combo of Mum dying, Brexit and the current government leaves me with a sense of not knowing where to be, literally and metaphorically. Right now, Scotland was seeming like a good answer to that question.
There were some trees still down post-Arwen and during an enforced detour Jenny slipped and fell down a little muddy bank. So impressed was I with how she styled this out that I forgot to think about wayfinding. After a while I had the sense that we were contouring round the third of the Eildons instead of making our way down to “floor” level (you know what I mean). Turning back, we re-found the path (satisfying), and strolled through a lovely avenue of trees at the edge of the wood which led us over a road and into a copse not far from Bowden. It felt like time for lunch and we sat on a rudimentary bench, eating our yummy bagels. My legs didn’t reach the ground and as I chewed I happily swung them to and fro. Such is muscle memory that suddenly I was 7 years old and on the bus to school. Time travel is a real thing.
The path down into Bowden took us over the beautifully maintained village common, through a lovely picnic area and up into the village itself. Houses of red sandstone with contrast stone lintels had stepped gables and just the right amount of greenery growing round the doors and windows. There was a wide main street and a sense of quiet and calm. Bowden may be the dogging and partying capital of the Borders for all I know, but for me it was coming a very close second to Melrose in the Places to Escape To charts. We detoured from SCW to visit the church where god had arranged for a man to be there working on the boiler, who could let us into the loo for a much-needed pee. Inside the church itself was a fine 2-manual organ and a rather splendid Laird’s Loft from which his Squireship could look down upon his workers. Though there’s been a church on the site since the C12th the current confection is believed to be from the C17th. I was most taken, however, with the churchyard, where found a stone table fit for Aslan and a lovely gravestone which seems to have inspired someone from Starbucks (see below). I sat for a long time, through the lightest of drizzles and into warm sunshine again. I’d wanted the Pilgrimage to give me some time with my various griefs and I was glad to spend time with the very young bit of me which was still saying to my Mum Don’t go!: something I’d just been unable to register at the time of her ghastly, lonely, Covid-confused death. It was painful but important to connect with the fact that some part of me has been saying “don’t go” not just since she died but, actually, since I was a baby—a “bad” baby, left to cry in a room at the end of the house because the noise was unbearable. Ah me. Compassionating myself allows forgiveness and love to flood back in. But there ain’t no shortcuts…
No shortcuts here, either. My legs were starting to feel a bit tired as we followed the path along Bowden Burn. Hawthorn hedges were stifled here (as everywhere on the route) in unnecessary tree guards, about which Jenny fulminated. Orange tips fluttered in the lush verges as we walked past Whitelee and towards Newtown St Boswell where we hoped (vainly) to find a cup of tea. Ron the Guidebook guy (of whom more anon) quoted from some report or other which noted how the Scottish Borders Council building “dominat[es] the village by virtue of its squat cathedral-like scale and utter disregard for its neighbours”. Ouch! We wound through some backstreets and lanes and along a wooded path towards the river, where we met with William, a fellow pilgrim who was camping, doing the route in 5 days. He wanted to walk with Cuthbert, feel what Cuthbert had felt and also find his own vocation; quite an ambitious project for the Tuesday-Saturday slot. We didn’t like to rain on his pilgrimage by telling him that the SCW isn’t really a continuous route SC walked but rather a relatively recent creation which joins up various places Cuthbert had been. Together the 3 of us climbed to a magnificent viewpoint over the Tweed looking up towards Old Melrose, where Cuthbert actually did spend the early parts of his life in religious orders. Down below, between its wooded flanks the river was a dazzling, rippling sheet of gold under the now-blue sky. Oystercatchers skimmed and flashed, and men in nipple-high waders stood in the bright water, flicking and flicking their loooooooong rods and lines. It was unutterably beautiful. We said warm goodbyes to William. I hoped he would find what he wanted, or some of it, on his way.
I was now at the stage where I resented any extra steps, now matter how tempting the diversion. Accordingly I trudged across a suspension bridge, failed to muster any interest in looking at the 3 Graces statue in a “temple” about 25 steps away up a tiny knoll, and carried on down the road towards the Dryburgh Abbey Hotel, our berth for the night. Over the day we had been indulging in increasingly baroque fantasies about what we wanted of the Dryburgh—a reaction to the G&A, I guess—and what we could see as we approached looked reassuring. Hopefully, we pushed open the door to room one. Bath: check. Comfy bed: check. Desk to write at: check. Smells clean: check. Hurrah! I’d visualised generous Victorian basins and baths of time-crazed china, where large taps gushed forth torrents of steamingly hot, rose-fragrant water (I know. But last night was bad, ok?) but even without those we were still well ahead of the game. The neroli soap was particularly lovely and at least as nice as rose. After dumping our bags, which by the miracle of Carrylite had arrived at the hotel before us, we flobbled (at least, that’s what my legs were doing) across the fine lawns to a bench by the river where a kind member of staff met us with the requested ‘bucket’ of Earl Grey. So generous had he been in his efforts to meet our request that I decided quietly to dispense the superfluous tea onto the neatly-trimmed grass, rather than return it. The Tweed was still glinting away on the other side of the fence, and the oystercatchers doing stunt flys-by just inches above the water. A typical Morningside Posh Elderly Couple sat at a bench not far away. She, as Jenny said, looked like a retired GP from the No Nonsense school; he was sporting the pink socks and cords look. They could probably tell we didn’t belong when we carried our own tray back up to the hotel.
We planned to look round the Abbey after supper (delicious, and so well front-of-housed by Donna on her first day back at work post Covid) but, guess what? There was no way in from the hotel’s grounds. So we looked at the Pilgrimage’s second abbey from over the fence, and retired, in my case footsore, to bed. The only curious incident in this night-time was the TV coming on in the small hours and flashing an irritating small blue light at me. I attempted, unsuccessfully, to muffle it with a plaster. Making a mental note to remove that before I left—no point looking any more eccentric than I already did—I had a small-hours pee, stopping to sniff the neroli-ed socks I’d washed, along with myself, in my pre-dinner bath; they were now nicely crisped up on the heated towel rail and could double as boomerangs should I need one. Such are the joys of pilgrimage (or at least, one as luxurious as this): clean socks, and so many gifts already to savour as I lay drowsing through the small hours. Not to mention breakfast with the Cornwall Professional Cycle Team to look forward to! Joy, indeed, cometh in the morning.
*To read the poem from which the post’s title comes, click here.