St Cuthbert rolled his eyes as we viewed yet another abbey from a distance, through railings; Jedburgh Abbey, this time. We managed to be both late and early for the bus, having sprinted through town to buy lunch (our bus sweeping past us as we sped) only to wait three quarters of an hour with Betty at the bus stop for the next service to “Gala”. Betty told us all about her dead collie, what it was like to have ten cats, and what Aunty Bunty had said about it all. I’ve always had the kind of face that people tell their life story to at bus stops; this time was no exception. Betty was warm, garrulous and very Scottish. I hadn’t heard the name Bunty since my Granny died. It was strangely nice.
Back in Ancrum we retraced our steps along the road to revisit the Bird House Café (mostly for the loo, really), then picked up the SCW proper, winding through the Monteviot woods and getting increasingly irritated with Ron, who seemed unable to keep his mind on the job of directing us, and was wittering about (variously) ‘The Linton Worm’, dragonslayers and what happened back in the Ice age; all of this when we were keeping our eyes peeled for a cattle grid which turned out to be at least a mile further on. A long and disconcertingly wobbly suspension bridge took us over the Teviot and to a long, flat section through pasture and arable land, the river on our left and the cags going on and off, on and off… I had a wee behind an ominously creaking Arwen-damaged tree and then there was a section with some steep steps. My right leg was like something I’d got second hand from Age Concern and almost refused when I asked it to climb over a crash barrier—yup, pedestrians really are lesser citizens—and scuttle across a busy road. Like the heron unsuccessfully fishing beneath the flyover, I felt disgruntled.
But I was managing to take things more steadily, instead of expecting myself to Ironwoman stoically through it all; hence when the section ahead undulated upwards like a grass version of one of those bumpy slides from a waterpark, I was able to do it one step at a time instead of falling to the ground weeping. My legs were feeling used, though. A cyclist friend of mine has since told me that it’s always day three when You Feel It: when your body is facing the fact that you’re not just asking it to do this once, but again and then again and then again after that. So I guess I had Day Three Syndrome. At last we made it to the top of the rise and turned left through the first of the day’s strips of woodland on top of a rise. There were beech leaves to stroke and bluebells wetly shimmering; there were views of the Waterloo monument—the friendly Eildons tucked behind out of sight at this point— and strangely fluorescent fields of rape rolling gently down the valley’s side. Simultaneously we both realised why there is a brand of rapeseed oil called Borderfields. We passed some cows for whom we were clearly the most interesting thing to have happened for a long while. Never keen on cows, Jenny scuttled ahead, but I stopped to say hello. The cows looked at me expectantly, but didn’t really give me much to work with. After a while I felt like I was at a party, out of conversation but not knowing how to get away from my fellow guest. Awkwardly I moved off. Just going to get another drink. I’ll see you later…
A steep descent down a road and my knee was now something Herman Munster would have sent back with a stiff note to the manufacturer. Fortunately lunchtime was upon us and, down where we were to cross the Oxnam, a chair and table were waiting under yet another dramatic, gnarled ancient beech. We ate our sandwiches and took the decision to eject yesterday’s plums which by this time were both hard and squishy (like the sort of pears which are bullets, then rotten, without ever being ripe). We luzzed them into the peaceful, coppiced woods, trusting that something would enjoy them. A pee behind the shed, and we were off.
I’d been reading a book about women walkers which a friend had given me as pilgrimage reading material. It was a bit overwritten but there were some interesting ideas about possibly gendered approaches to walking: walking as conquering vs walking as getting to know; marching straight up vs traversing more gently and slowly. I was too tired when reading to make any kind of coherent notes, but as Jenny and I had talked about the gentler, tacking to-and-fro as you ascend version of gaining height, it came to be known between us as the Nan Shepherd approach (oh, read the book if you want to know more). We Nan Shepherded our way up the steep field on the other side of the footbridge, passed wide round a cottage, and met three fellow pilgrims who were lunching at a stile. Stopping to chat, I noticed at this point that I had my cag on inside out, but they were kind enough not to point this out (thank you, lads). The SCW’s most serious rain came on and it was head down for trudge and slither, up, down, round: through leg-soaking long grass and mud and fields and straggly, thinning copses. I was so glad of my pilgrim staff to lean on as D3S came on stronger and stronger.
Well on in the afternoon we met another pilgrim who, coming the other way, told us that he’d lunched at the hotel where we were stopping the night. “Let’s hope he had a late lunch,” quipped Jenny. I looked at her in a bovine, uncomprehending way. “So it’s not hours till we get there…?” she explained. Ah. Conversation was going to have to come with footnotes for me at this point: no tricksy subtle stuff, I was at basic functions only. I was getting slower and slower, and more hysterical, alternating my attention in turn between all the different bits of me which hurt as a means of distracting myself from at least some of them at any given point. We passed Cesspit, sorry, Cesspool Castle (I was embittered by this stage) and I had to stop for a rest. While I flopped in an ungainly manner on the verge, eating my last emergency mint toffee, Jenny squatted in an alert and fit-looking way, consulting the maps and reiterating the encouraging fact that we would have an easier day tomorrow. I hugged that thought to myself as I struggled the last section, on roads, towards the Templehall Hotel where I was at last going to be able to take off these bastard boots (if someone did a cartoon of my feet at this point, they would have Rhubarb and Custard– style throb lines around them). Ahead of us the Cheviots were mellow and undulating, a sleeping thing’s spine, but I was on mission arrival.
When at last we got there, we were welcomed with free fluffy slippers to shuffle around in, and while friendly staff took our boots away to stuff and dry for us we repaired to our clean, comfy rooms (pleasingly under-upholstered, none of that seven sets of cushions to take off the bed before you can lie down malarkey). I was pretty appalled to find I had no bath, and discovered that the Revitalising shower gel I’d annexed from a previous hotel failed to live up to its name. I flopped on the bed to send out a series of emergency texts to friends who would encourage me. “Ibuprofen, mate”, responded one, “the walkers’ friend”. Great idea! Better living through chemistry! I’ll take it.
Suitably dosed up, I gathered my notes-writing equipment and purse, and shuffled along the tartan carpet to Jenny’s door. She opened the door looking nervous and more desponding than I’d seen her. “It’s about tomorrow,” she said. Oh? “Erm… well… it turns out it’s not a shorter day. In fact it’s a longer. With the most climb we have on the Way”.”
It’s hard to turn on your heel in a fluffy towelling mule, but I managed. The only place to go was the bar. A longer day. Shit shit shit. I don’t think I can do this.
*You can read the poem from which this post’s title is taken here.