…in which I meditate in a wet sack of feathers, officially certify myself and encounter an equestrian manifestation. With bagpipes. I’m not making this stuff up, you know.
The Schil to Kirk Yetholm, 5 miles.
Zero until KY at which there is The Border Hotel for excellent food and your free half, of course, plus a sweet little hostel, formerly SYHA, now Friends of Nature. KY also has BnBs and buses to Kelso that seem astonishingly frequent to anyone who lives in rural Norfolk, which is to say they run every day and more than once on most days. If you want to check the times online it’s basically the 81, although there’s also an 81A and 81B. I’ve never bothered to work out the difference.
Locals told me that Wayfarers arriving late off the hills sometimes just camp on the village green; apparently in the good old days of The Way this was definitely a thing and it could become quite a sight in summer. KY as a community has a famously strong and longstanding Romany heritage so you might expect them to be quite relaxed about this sort of thing although I’ve never tried it personally and this time I stayed at the hostel.
Well-signed (we’re in civilised Scotland now) and straightforward. There’s two options, but I’d always take the ‘high’ for the last look back at the hills, unless I was actually injured or the weather was absolutely filthy. Or perhaps if I’d just yomped the full Monty from Byrness.
I set the alarm on my phone and so awoke in time for sunrise from a sound sleep on a remarkably comfortable campsite – I love The Schil. It was not however undamp, nor was it uncloudy. Poking my nose outside, I instantly realised there was exactly zero chance of reprising 1999’s dancing shadow extravaganza. ‘Oh well’, I thought, ‘next time’ and fell back into a deep sleep. I was reawakened somewhat later by cold water dripping onto my face, a most unpleasant sensation. The cloud had thickened and an extraordinary design fault in my tent had become apparent.
The inner and outer ventilation mesh panels of this tent are co-located, one directly above the other. In the dense summit cloud the outer mesh was hydrophilic even under its storm flap, large beads of moisture gathering on its threads. These had started to drop straight through the inner mesh onto my face. How annoying. I put my sleeping bag hood over my head, my phone back in its sandwich bag, and dozed, pondered, posted on Facebook and dozed again. For some time, in fact. It was mid-morning before I ventured down onto the ‘high option’ towards KY, driven from my damp eyrie by the ‘water water everywhere, not a drop to drink’ scenario as much as by any schedule pressure.
One should never look back in life, I know, everybody says so, but on the high path into KY the temptation is overwhelming. The weather cleared and the views developed, not just of The Schil and The Actual Cheviot, plus Windy Gyle and all the rest of the Cheviotettes, but much, much further. I’ll swear through my binoculars I could even see blooming awful Penyghent in the far, far distance. It was probably a horrible, fatigue-induced flashback.
Either way, the high way is my way from now on. In 1999, tired and frozen, I’d taken one look at the snow on the remaining tops and chosen the low option. I’d bounded down the frosted but sunny lane into KY like a spring lamb, my soaked and rotting feet as light as Cinderella’s glass slippers, my vast and bloated pack as undetectable as fairy wings on my strong, upright back. 2016’s climactic amble was more sedate and reflective than the average fairytale, but totally in a good way.
‘You’ll be wanting your free half, then?’ enquired the attractive barperson, polishing his glass eye on his hairy kilt – I’d been in the hills a long time. No, seriously, she was kind and lovely and even gave me a PW-completers’ certificate, although I had to fill it in myself. More importantly, I asked to see my log entry from 1999, not really believing that these things are permanently archived. They are, and there I was, in my own fair hand and all of 39 years young. ‘I’ll never moan about Norfolk being flat again’, I’d whimsically inscribed. Well that was a fib for a start.
It was a good job I got to The Border Hotel in time for lunch, not least because the homemade stovies and oatcakes were really good (‘stovies’, by the way, is what the rest of the world calls ‘stew’), but because it enabled me to get the lowdown on that evening’s Stob Stanes ride and celebration, which I’d cunningly planned my arrival to coincide with. Turned out it was a much bigger deal than I’d realised. For a start, it necessitated booking a table right there and right now to have any chance whatsoever of dinner in what was going to be a packed pub. Alarmed, I leapt onto Facebook and messaged my American fellow-Wayfarers, still high in the Cheviots, as I knew they’d been planning to eat there too. A friend of theirs in New Jersey saw the post and transatlantically texted them, they called the pub from Auchope Cairn. It wasn’t like this in my day.
The hostel was unmanned but there was friendly arrivers’ tea to help yourself to in the hall and a whirlygig clothesline in the sun outside which in short order was whirling my tent and sleeping bag through the surprisingly dry Scottish air. Later I had a long chat with the volunteer warden. Friends of Nature, he said, was much nicer to warden for than the new-model YHA. Their volunteers are increasingly aggrieved, he claimed, not least by the outrageous diktat that they must now make beds (‘make beds!’ he spluttered again, shaking his shaggy head in disbelief) for the hordes of domestically disabled and acoustically incontinent teens whose schools pay the YHA’s bills. Old-school volunteer wardens feel that making beds for townie sprogs is not only outside their remit but pathetically contrary to the entire hostelling ethos. Other opinions are available, I dare say.
I have to say the annual Stob Stanes rideout was an amazing thing to see; hundreds of horses of all sizes and shapes, well, basically species-appropriate shapes obviously, but within that a striking diversity. The same could be, and was, said of the riders. All done up in their best grooming they paraded into the village following a properly Scottishly skirling and paradiddling pipe band.
It all seemed even more Scottish for its being misty, darkish, coldish and softly but persistently raining by the time they arrived. In the gloaming the Bari Gadgi and the Bari Manushi (you’ll have to Google ‘stob stanes rideout’ for an explanation) gave speeches, prizes were awarded and the town song was sung. Yes, the awesome town song. Then everybody went back to the pub, which was just fine with me as I’d walked 268 miles and needed another pint. Or several.