Is a Kitkat a chocolate bar or a biscuit? This might not seem an important distinction but when you’re 7 miles in and the “chocolate bar” promised in the hotel packed lunch turns out to be a Kitkat, you can feel cruelly misled. These things matter, is all I’m saying.
Breakfast had been rather good, you see. I had Eggs Florentine and coffee, served in a grand salon with huge mirror panels with fancy glass lights on them and the kind of embossed, gold, fol-de-rol wallpaper which only makes sense in big public spaces like this. Jenny and I were tucked onto a small table against the wall, next to the Cornish Pro Cycling Team, a group of young men with aerodynamically short or shaven hair and those inverted-triangle, lean, super-fit bodies. They were taking their nutrition seriously, and stalked to and fro in their special cycling team sliders over what were no doubt special aerodynamic and/or wicking sports socks. We felt distinctly amateursville (or at least I did), and I was glad to settle up, collect our packed lunches and set out from the hotel. It started raining before we’d got down the drive, so we cagged up and headed back to the bridge to pick up the riverside path. The Tweed was widening. More fishermen, more oystercatchers; lots of lush greenery. Nothing to do but walk and drink in the peace and beauty all around.
But I just couldn’t get into it. You know that thing where the gap between what you think you should feel and what you actually do feel gets wider and wider, and ends up being another shitty layer on top of the not-nice feeling you’re already having in the first place; so that you not only feel bad but also feel bad about feeling bad? Well, it was one of those. Apart from anything else, I was a walking compendium of aches and ailments. Reading from the feet up: bleeding post-ezcema-scratchfest toe on right foot; aching bone-bruised left ankle where I’d dropped a portion of iron bedframe on it a week or so before; sore and swollen knee (torn ligament); angry raw bit on arse where my trousers had got really wet the day before and had rubbed raw on the pant/trouser interface; twinge-y blistered bit on right palm where pilgrim staff was rubbing on burn site from when I’d overbalanced onto the woodburning stove, also a few weeks before; pain, pins and needles and fizzing in hands and lower arms (carpal tunnel)… I mean, let’s call me Boxer and be done with it. I didn’t feel I could complain—here I was on holiday, after all, in a beautiful place, with a lovely friend—but I felt shite. A big blob of unfitness and mess, sore and a little bit broken and a lot ashamed.
Still: left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe. That got us through St Boswell’s, where it was polling day. It was cheering to see Scottish and European flags and an endearing hand-drawn plan in the post office window which named all the houses in the village. How thoughtful and useful. We cut left behind some houses and down to the golf course where the SCW squeezed along the right hand side of the fairways and greens. At the end of the course we noticed how lovely it was to regain the river on our left hand side, as it twinkled along quietly and kept us company. Poplar trees and sandstone pillars in the riverbank where the Tweed swept round in a curve. More fisherman and oystercatchers. A bubbling weir. Jenny was telling me about something she’d read about swan upping, in which the writer described how a swan had come to nestle beside her as she sat on the riverbank. Immediately I had a Violet Beauregarde moment—“I want a swan! Get me a swan, Daddy!”—and was struck all over again by a sense of my alone-ness in the world, and consequent hunger for closeness, since Mum died. It shows up in all sorts of unexpected ways. Never thought I’d have acquisition fever for a Swan Experience.
Ron the guidebook man didn’t mention any of this, but he did tell us about The Pot and The Crystal Well which were to be found on this stretch of the Tweed. Richard O’Brien was not available to help, so we sat on a bench for a swig of water and tried to figure out where these might be. We never did find the Pot but discovered we were only feet from the Crystal Well, which turned out to be part of the plumbing arrangements for a nearby Victorian house. There was a little decorated grotto where water sprang out, and a rather grim underground chamber where a donkey had been required to walk in endless circles, harnessed into some contraption which enabled water to be drawn up to supply The Big House. Better for the maids, who no longer had to trip up and down to the river; bit of a raw deal for the donkey.
Ron wittered on—at times he got so verbose that it was hard to pick out the actual directions among the blether—and we followed him along more up and down -y riverside path until we got to Maxton church, where some deliciously time-worn steps took us up into the churchyard. No-one turned up to let us in to have a pee and a look round, so after a short rest we walked on, through Maxton and along a rather dull bit of road which would take us to where we’d pick up Dere Street, a stretch of Roman Road constituting the next chunk of the SCW. Having a straight stretch of road ahead caused us to speed up without noticing it; so easy to slip out of process mode and into product, so that getting there becoming The Aim, rather than the activity itself. All in all it was a relief to turn off onto the footpath again. Not far along we stopped for lunch—crisp sarnies, a 104kc “chocolate bar” and rock hard plums, which we tacitly agreed to re-pack—and a pee behind an Arwen-uprooted tree. A long stretch took us in and out of copses and through open pastures; the zip and hum of the A-road on our right got quieter as we tacked away from it. Larks chirped and strobed as we crossed the fields; in the trees robins and chiffchaffs burbled and peeped. We passed Liliard’s monument, and I took great delight in the poem carved thereon. A woman who “foughht on her stumps”. I could relate.
We had a good view for the rest of the day of some monument or other on a hill top way over to the left. Jenny consulted Ron. “Seems like it might have been a deer-shooting lodge” she said, not sounding at all convinced. “What were they using, AK47s?” I rasped back, perhaps a little more acidly than usual given that I had added a dodgy-feeling tummy to my list of physical woes (trying not to shit yourself does not make for a relaxed sense of presence). The local laird had had some gaff hereabouts where (so Ron said) he’d tryst with local lasses, but it turned out not to be the Shagging Lodge but rather but some kind of Waterloo Monument. Like the three peaks of the Eildons, the monument came to feel like a friend as we wound our way across the land south and east of it over the next days, catching a glimpse of it every now and then. There was a familiar and comforting feeling of having claimed the landscape and its features by walking it.
Divet Ha’ woods was shimmering with new beech and bluebell mist. We surprised a large deer which boinged off into the trees and, after crossing the Marble Burn (where do they get the names?), were delighted to stumble into the Woodside Walled Garden Centre Birdbox Café. Jenny had a scone and I a piece of Border Slice, a stunningly sweet confection of nuts and sugar and dried fruit and who knows what all. It was essentially IV glucose and I was glad to feel it coming onstream as we sat sipping our tea and watching a treecreeper and some tits at the birdfeeder stuck to the window. With a comforting sense of knowing where we were going next we wound through the lush woods of the Mounteviot Estate to Harestones Visitor Centre where we were (foolishly it turned out) expecting some tourist info.. Nope. A kindly stained-glass artist broke the news that no buses passed here—we’d have to get to Ancram—so we trudged, or at least I trudged, along to the main road. We only had to go a few hundred yards to get to the Ancram turnoff, but it was far enough to be stunned by the noise of the traffic and the astonishing amount of air displaced by a lorry. Only one vehicle did us the courtesy of pulling out slightly to go round as we stumbled along the narrow, littered verge. We were reminded that the walker is a second-class citizen in the normal world.
We got slightly hysterical waiting the hour or so for the bus at Ancram. The first bus was going in the wrong direction. Would the second bus turn up? Were we at the right stop? A local decorator drove past us three times—Graham Macdonald, I’m talking to you—and why didn’t the bastard stop?? The police went past a few times too, and just as we were beginning to wonder what we’d have to do to get them to arrest us rather than wave cheerily as they zoomed on by, the Jedburgh bus finally turned up and, boarding it, we were absorbed into that noisy stream of traffic heading for home and supper. In Jedburgh itself we were greeted with a fusillade of instructions and information by our landlady, who was intimidatingly particular about her (admittedly pristine) establishment. She took my stick from me lest I import Foreign Matter; she would only allow me to fill my water bottle at the outside tap. Yet she also arranged for a table for us at a local restaurant and was kind enough to give me a tube of E45 when I discovered I’d left my eczema cream at the Dryburgh. Clearly a dame of two halves. In a large bathroom gleaming with chrome and chemicals I sighed with deep pleasure getting into a hot bath, collapsing onto the bed to rest afterwards before checking my watch and discovering it was less than a minute till we needed to set out for dinner. Sigh.
Capon Tree House turned out to be very swish indeed—the kind of establishment where you’re offered a perfect miniature loaf, rather than a roll—and we ate delicious, delicate food, sipped at our wine and looked at maps/wrote up notes. The comfort of our evening pilgrimage routine helped me be brave enough to share with Jenny some of my physical pains, my struggle with the walking, how grotesque and disgusting I felt. “You say, ‘this is what I’ve done to myself’”, she said. “That’s so harsh. How about saying, ‘This is what’s happened’?”. The tablecloth and truffled chip remnants wobbled before my eyes as I teared up at her kindness. It was a softer, gentler thought to take home and to bed. Perhaps it would be an easier day tomorrow.
*You can read the poem from which this post’s title is taken here.