Kirk Yetholm to Berwick, via Kelso and the River Tweed.
…in which I recall a Balsamic Border, the Cambusnethan Pippin, the Sticky Haggis Bandit, the Most Dangerous Place in England, the Tweed Dolphins and a welcome Barber’s Chair.
Pennine Way blogs are so often tales of pain and misadventure, you may be surprised to hear anyone might casually stroll onwards into Scotland after completing England’s premier long distance trail. In fact, if you walk The Way at the right pace for you and with sensible lightweight gear, by the time you get to Hadrian’s Wall you should be fitter than you’ve ever felt in your life. I’m no tough guy, but even in April 1999 when I’d no idea what I was doing and hence had a huge pack, feet rotting in ‘waterproof’ boots and frostbitten ears, I remember bounding into KY like a spring lamb and feeling I could have walked further.
What stopped me then was having to get back to the office. Only through pleading and unpaid overtime had I scored an extra three days’ leave over a standard two week vacation. In September 2018, retired, I had no such constraints. Good-oh.
When in May 2017 I set out to walk the Scottish National Trail my train was late and I missed the bus from Kelso to KY. Now I was back, with a chance to fill in this section. While lying in a plastic bag on the benighted, rain-lashed and gale-wracked summit of Windy Gyle, I’d randomly booked myself into an hotel in Kelso, on the tenuous grounds it allegedly had a sauna. For some reason this had appealed to me in the circumstances.
It then seemed a reasonable, if somewhat vague, plan to walk down the Tweed from Kelso to Berwick. I’d no idea whether this was actually possible, which added to the allure. Many things in my life have felt as if they ought to have been possible.
As it turned out, the SNT route from KY to the A698 at Crailing is a lovely walk, interesting, not too strenuous and with extensive views. No, really. It took me about seven hours at a very gentle pace with a long stop. Navigation is easy as you can download the directions and GPX points from Walkhighlands and you’re following the St Cuthbert’s Way which is popular and waymarked.
From Crailing you can then simply get a bus to Kelso. Ahem. That’s if you bother to work out the distance, research the bus times and, having correlated those data, get up early enough. The buses are not frequent. Having failed to do those things I ended up walking to Kelso, which took another couple of hours or so. This did feel like hard work but might have been more interesting had I chosen a different route option – see below.
Everyone in Kelso then told me there’s no path along the Tweed between there and Coldstream and that to try and freelance it at the height of the fishing season would make me extremely unpopular. Consequently I caught the bus to Coldstream from where on the English side there is a legitimate riverside path running twenty miles all the way to Berwick. The terrain is completely flat so if you got an early bus this could be done in a day, but I had two days to kill so that’s how long I took.
Day One: Kirk Yetholm to Kelso
But first I needed to find somewhere to stay at KY, and when I realised I’d doubled my total accommodation spend for my entire Pennine Way by booking the following night’s hotel I figured this had better be camping. I’ve always been intrigued by Kirk Yetholm’s mysterious twin, Town Yetholm, and as the SNT passes that way I finally had an excuse to investigate.
It turns out Pennine Wayfarers can camp at a small caravan site with showers close to the village centre. There’s an excellent village shop with long opening hours and another very good pub. In fact, although I’d never have a bad word to say about the Border Hotel with their lovely staff and generous free halves, (whisper…) the food at the Plough Hotel round the corner was less pretentious and better value. Their Mac’n’Cheese was superb.
You can walk the bus route past the eponymous Kirk and along the road, but the SNT takes you instead over the pixie bridge by the hostel and across the fields, which unless it’s soaking underfoot is obviously nicer.
Next morning I ambled off, along what after the rigours of the Pennine Way looked like a very easy country walk.
Eventually you gain a bit of height on Crookedshaws Hill, Wideopen Hill and Grubbit Law which as well as being evocatively named form, I should think, one of the nicest short ridge walks in the Borders. Wideopen Hill provides, as the name suggests, genuinely extensive views. In fact this whole area is very scenic, although quite intensively farmed.
The path descends to the pretty Kale Water, which I fancied might be something I could bottle and sell to Waitrose until I came across a friendly woman from New Zealand washing dog muck off her boots in it. As I’d met no one else all the way from KY, I made the most of a chance to chat but in fact this was just the first of a dozen international encounters. To my surprise the St Cuthbert’s Way turned out to be really quite busy, although people who walk it typically get up later than I do.
Walking down into Morebattle the sun came out; looking back to Wideopen Hill I realised if I’d got up later I’d have had better views. Ah well. In compensation, Morebattle was an unexpected cornucopia of refreshment, not only is there a shop and a pub that does coffee and meals, even the church has been rebranded as the ‘St Cuthbert’s Coffee Stop’.
This was a very sociable and indeed educational place. Somehow I ended up discussing naval gunnery with a retired Commander, then a lady Churchwarden kindly gave me a juicy and delicious Cambusnethan Pippin, one of the nicest apples I’ve ever eaten. I’d never heard of this beautiful eighteenth century variety, also known as the Scotch Redstreak, and had no idea there was such a rich and now once again thriving horticultural heritage in the Borders. English people think apples come from Kent or Herefordshire but it seems the Clyde Valley also has their ideal microclimate.
Morebattle shop didn’t sell pies or other portable savouries in order not to compete with the butcher a few doors down. This is all very well except when the butcher is away on holiday. I plodded on pieless. Nothing that ate hips, haws or crab apples would have gone hungry as the hedges everywhere were weighed down with autumn fruit.
Topping up my vitamin C with blackberries I bumped into a shepherdess in the bushes, which could have been fun in a fairy tale but in unromantic real life we just chatted about the weather and gin, a modern shepherdesses primary interests, it seems. I knew she was a shepherdess not because she was wearing a smock, carrying a crook and accompanied by winsome lambs, but because she told me so. She was wearing jeans and a fleece like the rest of us and carrying a Lidl bag which she was stuffing with industrial quantities of sloes, for the gin.
Cessford Castle, stronghold of the Kerrs, has a short but delightfully obscure Wikipedia entry featuring the words barmekin, escalade and fortalice. It also quotes the Earl of Surrey as observing in 1523 that “it might never have been taken had the assailed been able to go on defending”. Stating the obvious, one might think. Anyway, this is a striking ruin which, for hikers of a slightly disrespectful bent, would make an excellent leave-no-trace campsite. I mention this because back in 2017 had I set off along the SNT in the early afternoon as per plan I’d have needed to camp at more or less this point.
It was Saturday afternoon so the trail got busier and busier although everyone else seemed to be going the other way, towards Lindisfarne rather than Melrose. I suppose a bleak, wind-swept island in the North Sea has to be a more logical destination than a rather chi-chi little town with public transport, paninis and coffee shops.
In September these Borders woods are very rich in fungi, many edible. In my under-pied condition I began to wish that as I had a stove and a pan I also had some butter and a smidge of garlic.
Never mind, I thought, I’ll soon be getting the bus into Kelso, pie capital of the Borders.
I was really jolted to come upon, very suddenly, the exact spot at which I’d nervously ventured onto the Scottish National Trail, a year and a half previously. I’d never hiked alone in Scotland before then and I’d arrived at this unprepossessing portal jangling with anticipation and, frankly, fear. My stepping onto a 470 mile trail at this very point had been, I now discovered, etched into my memory, and I carry very few place-specific memories (which is why I took to writing trail blogs – this is my scrapbook).
Now the vividly recalled portal beckoned me with a strange magnetism. It was as if, having hiked all the way from Edale, this defined, continuous pair of trails had become my only home, my duty. To turn my back now on their reassuring linear jurisdiction seemed an arbitrary and foolish dereliction. Back to England – what was I thinking of? Cape Wrath in late October – hmmm – sounds great. I could so easily just carry on…
I remembered my lack of provisions and snapped out of it. I turned away from the portal and walked, more smartly and determinedly than I’d walked all day, up the road to Crailing.
Here I discovered that had I not spent so much time chatting to New Zealanders, shepherdesses, naval officers, churchwardens, girls’ hiking weekenders, shop ladies, serious beardy pilgrims in sandals, German castle buffs, random Americans and, to my surprise, once again the speedy Sheffielders who were by pure chance crossing my route, I’d just have caught the blessed bus. The next one was in two hours, more or less the same time it would take to walk to Kelso. Oh well, you’re either a walker or you’re not…
The advantage of having chatted to so many people was I’d learnt there is a bridge across the Teviot at Kalemouth, after which allegedly I could then walk along an old railway line into Kelso. The issue was how to get there from the bus stop at Crailing. The shortest way is along the A698. A much nicer way would be to continue on the SNT along Dere Street to Jedfoot then switch onto the Borders Abbeys Way and follow that all the way into Kelso, but I reckon this would be at least 6 km longer than walking up the road from Crailing, quite a lot further on top of hiking all the way from KY.
A shorter alternative is to leave the SNT at the portal as I did and then at Crailing cross the A698 and from the west end of the village find the B6400 to Nisbet Bridge over the Teviot. Here again you could pick up the Borders Abbeys Way to Kelso. Lacking a proper OS map I wasn’t confident about this option, so I’m afraid I just walked up the road. A possible advantage of this otherwise unpleasant choice is that the Teviot Smokery at Kirkbank has a café. Sadly I arrived there at 3.35 and the ‘chef’ goes home at 3.30. Apparently you have to be a ‘chef’ these days to make a smoked salmon sandwich, or any other kind of simple sandwich, for a hungry hiker.
After crossing the Teviot at Kalemouth you encounter an annoying sign which suggests you could indeed have walked there up a route nicer than the A698. At this point you realise that this Borders Abbeys Way leaflet would be very useful. You might think St Cuthbert would equip his Coffee Stop at Morebattle with a few copies of it.
Anyway, you’re there now, so walk round the bend and then after the Old Ormiston station (now a private house) climb up onto the old railway (below).
The Borders Abbeys Way only follows this railway embankment for about a kilometre, then you encounter a confusing sign offering two routes to Roxburgh.
If you choose ‘via Old Railway’, as I did, you end up on an easy but boring walk all the way into Kelso. At Roxburgh a counter-intuitive change of direction takes you across the viaduct (below) but this is the only highlight and the subsequent dull and completely flat trail follows a long curve into a rather unfrequented part of town. With hindsight, I think the Borders Abbeys Way ‘via Riverside’ past Roxburgh Castle would be the more interesting and enjoyable of these two options.
It only remained for me to saunter into Kelso, tireder and later than I’d expected, and to check into the friendly but pricey Cross Keys Hotel, my end of trail treat. Here I found the sauna promised on bookingdotcom was a fib. Guests can access a sauna, but it’s in an affiliated fitness centre several blocks away. What?!
As in order to be able respectably to visit any place of refreshment in Kelso it was necessary for me on arrival immediately to wash my filthy trousers, that would have entailed scuttling through the streets in my shorts, to cries of ‘Andrew where’s your troosers?’ I didn’t bother. Instead I set to drying my trousers with a tiny hairdryer and generally reducing my smart little room to wet and grubby chaos.
It was a warm evening, which was lucky as the hairdryer was pretty useless and due to my overspending on the hotel it was necessary to eat Chinese takeaway on a bench in the square for my supper. I then went of course to Rutherford’s Micropub, where I did a general knowledge crossword in the company of a random drunk whose job was loudly to shout out completely unrelated answers to any clue. Me: “OK, how about ‘wife of Theseus’, five letters”. Random drunk: “Aaaarrgggh, mmhhggmm, a nautical one! Uueeuurrghhh, midshipman!” I dare say that’s how life’s long distance trail ends, among random company answering the wrong questions.
Day Two: Coldstream to Norham
Having ascertained from various Borderers in various states of intoxication that the existence of a footpath along the Tweed was mired in doubt and obscurity, not to mention actual mire, my first task the next morning was to buy an OS Map. On Sunday morning. For most of my life this would have been a fool’s errand, especially in Scotland, but nowadays Kelso is a hotbed of seven-day shopping; a friendly stationers didn’t just have the odd dusty map in a quiet corner, they were an official OS outlet with an impressive state-of-the-art cartographic offering.
One thing that is very limiting on a Sunday is the buses. Monday to Saturday there’s a bus as early as 07.55, which makes walking the twenty miles from Coldstream to Berwick in a single day a doddle. On Sundays though the first bus seems to be at a much more leisurely 11.05. This suited me as I’d opted for the Cross Keys’ lavish buffet breakfast which I’d figured would feed me for the entire day.
Me and hotels don’t really mix, though. Dump me on a benighted summit in a plastic bag and I’m a lean, mean survival machine, put me in a respectable hotel and I turn into Paddington Bear. Having already reduced my room to a muddy shambles I managed to spill honey all over the breakfast table. Trying to wipe this up with the napkin merely produced a lichenesque encrustation of papery fluff everywhere. Trying to pick this off the table I spilt my coffee. I then got a dirty look from the waitress for pinching all the haggis, no laughing matter as she was six foot three in her hiking boots, with military-looking tattoos. I sneaked back out into the wilds, fearing I was now blacklisted throughout the Borders as the Sticky Haggis Bandit.
A man on the bus advised me to check out the plaque on Coldstream Bridge, recording where Burns famously scampered back into Scotland after two minutes in England then, rather than repairing to the Besom Inn for a restorative fizzy beer like any sensible Scot, insisted on kneeling and extemporising patriotic doggerel.
At this I’m afraid I just thought ‘what a poseur’. Burns, I meant, not the man on the bus. Mind you, who knows? He did have a guitar and a quite unnecessarily funky dog. The man on the bus, I mean, not Burns.
Considering that a walk along the romantic and historic border between two ancient kingdoms and along one of Britain’s mightiest rivers has a certain allure and could surely be marketed as a visitor attraction, one might expect to find an obvious and well-marked path all the way to Berwick. There may have been one at some point but as with so many English footpaths in a time of austerity, recent maintenance has been minimal. Also, to be fair, the banks of the Tweed are pretty variable in character and in fact intermittently vertiginous, necessitating detours. They’re also punctuated by salmon beats where people pay up to £275 + VAT per person per day to fish! Hence I suppose access for hikers may not be a priority for landowners. All in all, though you might think navigating along the bank of a blooming enormous river would have been straightforward I was actually very glad I had a map at several points.
Approaching the River Till there’s an atmospheric ruined chapel which makes a nice spot for lunch if you don’t mind creeping across a bit of somebody’s field.
One blunders onward, occasionally confused, past Twizel, Kippie Island, Groat Haugh, Bendibus Island and Upsettlington. I’m not making any of these places up. Nor am I making up the virtually impenetrable Himalayan Balsam that blocks the path along several sections, filling the air with its cloying, nauseating scent. So unsettling was the sickening odour I kept thinking there was a branch of Lush hidden behind the trees.
It’s not just the blooms that stink, the crushed foliage is even worse. This becomes relevant because it’s also extremely slippery. Several times I ended up on my knees which was not only quite alarming given the proximity of a powerful river, it meant the terrible smell of the plant was ground into my long-suffering trousers.
Finding myself involuntarily emulating Burns by kneeling at the Scottish border, I thought I’d better declaim some doggerel.
I blundered through the Balsam, along the mighty Tweed.
I blundered through the Balsam with its bonkers popping seed.
It filled the air with perfume foul
Its every bloom a lurid cowl.
I blundered through the Balsam, that loathsome stinking weed.
Burns, eat your heart out.
Despite the bad smell and the even worse poetry this was an easy walk. It was still early afternoon when I strolled into picturesque Norham which has an inviting looking pub, a useful public convenience and both a sensible village shop and a posh deli, on the right as you pass through towards the castle. Having an extra day to kill I’d planned to overnight here, so was pleased to find it’s also an extraordinarily friendly place, belying its historical claim to be ‘The Most Dangerous Place in England’. When I read the pointlessly destructive and wasteful history of border towns like this I despair even more that so many people at this point seem to want to roll back our hard won erosion of international frontiers.
Assiduous research taking all of five minutes had told me I could camp at the Plantation Inn. Dutifully I entered the postcode into Google Maps and it took me over a load of boring fields to a random bus shelter on the A698 in the middle of nowhere. I phoned the pub and found it was miles in the other direction and a long way from the river, so I trudged back to Norham and went for a consolatory pint in the Mason’s Arms. I figured I’d try to blag an informal campsite somewhere in the village or, if all else failed, cross the Ladykirk & Norham Bridge into Scotland and wild camp legally back in that civilised nation.
I rapidly twigged that the Mason’s is a strong candidate for Friendliest Pub in England and also does brilliant and good value food. For some reason I became strangely reluctant to leave its vicinity. Everyone in there put their heads together to think of a possible campsite and phone calls were kindly made, to no avail. Meanwhile strong and surprisingly unanimous hints were dropped that a BnB a few doors away might be a good bet. I looked online, there was a vacancy at £45.
An infallible test of whether a BnB owner is a kindly generous soul is when you appear on their doorstep brandishing your phone and saying ‘Hello, erm, ha ha, I see online you have a vacancy, I was wondering whether if I turned up in person we could split the commission? >hopeful grin<‘. The lovely Sheila laughed merrily, ‘£42.50 then, which room would you like?’ ‘Whichever’s easiest for you, sorry about my smelly trousers’. ‘I think my dogs and children spread most of that Balsam!’
Abbotsford BnB is absolutely lovely, the room was twice as big and twice as nice as the one I’d paid twice as much for the previous night and the breakfast was amazing. Sheila’s home-made preserves are legendary and you even get delicious Chain Bridge Honey. Supper in the Mason’s was delicious too; all in all, after a discouraging start my stay at Norham was a great success.
Day Three: Norham to Berwick upon Tweed
This is a pretty short walk so I lingered over my superb breakfast and wandered around the church and castle, both well worth a visit. The path is then straightforward, though again intermittently balsamic, as far as the Horncliffemill Burn where there’s a bit of confusing climbing up and down around Horncliffe village.
Also the map runs out. Oh dear. Luckily this last bit down the river to Berwick is easy to navigate, although not necessarily simple to walk as some of the path is pretty derelict.
The Union Chain Bridge is a remarkable and historic thing, built by the famous Samuel Brown whose company for a hundred years made all the chains used by the Royal Navy. It’s in a sad state at present, but there’s an appeal ongoing to get it fixed up in time for its bicentenary in 2020.
Downstream towards Berwick, quite suddenly you realise that the river has imperceptibly become tidal, and hence the vegetation has changed.
Even more suddenly, after crossing what looks like just another field and pushing through a hedge you suddenly find yourself having to cross the A1! Not the busiest section of the entire A1, I grant you, but still a shock to the system. The path on the far side isn’t obvious either, you need to spot a stile a little way to the south.
Even more suddenly, after blundering up what you think is just another rise along the endlessly rising and falling riverbank, out of nowhere appears the enormous railway bridge standing incongruously above a field of barley. You’re actually in Berwick upon Tweed, journey’s end.
And, on walking into town, you realise that one of the best things about this route is that it dumps you literally on the doorstep of The Barrels, at the far end of the old road bridge.
It was early afternoon so after a refreshing pint and booking into the hostel I had plenty of time to see the sights of Berwick, which are many and very interesting. I ended up all the way out on the end of the harbour breakwater, at the foot of the lighthouse, waving my little old feet that had carried me all the way from Edale over the grey and grumpy North Sea.
I was very lucky to encounter on the end of the pier Lisa from Berwick Dolphin Watch who was not only friendly and informative but more to the point equipped with binoculars. After a long wait in an increasing cold wind we spotted half a dozen individuals feeding on the incoming tide, a little disappointing as the resident pod now has over fifty animals, but still, real live Dolphins! Not what you expect as the climax of the Pennine Way.
Between you and me, though, I was secretly disappointed the famous Tweed Dolphins weren’t actually woolly and checkered. They were just kind of grey and shiny, like regular Dolphins.
And after all that, having walked about three hundred miles, you may be wondering why, when I patently have no hair worth barbering, I’d been looking forward to sitting in a barber’s chair…
This is why. Cheers!
The Purposeless Pennine Way’s Pointless Extension. September 2018.