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A Journey into Scotland   Part 64

Melrose to Carter Bar

Melrose is one of many towns that has lost its youth hostel since I rode this journey. I don’t think the loss is entirely down to my decision to tour Scotland but there were certainly a lot more YHA hostels when I set off than there are now. As someone who spent an enjoyable couple of years working for the organisation, I am saddened by this. As someone who wants to have a little luxury and not have to share a dormitory with half a dozen men who like sharing and who belch, fart and bore the socks off you with stories of their exploits; who wash like a bugler scrubbing a turnip and who have to show their great appetites by forcing spoonfuls of cornflakes into their mouths which they then keep open while eating them. Times change. People had a choice between paying £25 for a disturbed night among enormous underpants and body odour, with a mass produced breakfast and the annoyance of being obliged to do a job before you leave.  Or to pay £40 in a nice hotel for a private room with en suite bath, a telly, some tea and coffee making stuff and an individually cooked breakfast.  Not surprisingly they took the latter option.

I can’t remember my night at Melrose. I remember booking in just after dark. An elderly couple who looked and spoke like extras from the first series of Dr Finlay’s Casebook held differing opinions of my achievement in cycling from Perth.

” Och, you’ve covered a fine old distance today. And how far are you going the morrow?” enthused the lady who was careful to enunciate every single consonant.

The husband was curt to the point of rudeness. “Ah canna see the point in travelling all aroond the country if ye dunna see anything.”

And with that my memory switches off until I open the curtains of the room the following morning. The sun had risen and the angled light lit up the red sandstone walls of the ruined abbey in what seemed to be the back garden of the hostel. I had no idea there even was an abbey and to see it in this light; a light so sweet and clear you could travel on its rays; was stunning.

Melrose Abbey '87-001Within five minutes I was walking across the dew among the stones. I had to clear a wall but that was the only way I was going to be able to take in the rich ecclesiastical splendour of the place. Leaving my boots by a bench I walked barefoot and my tired feet have seldom had such a balm. No holy healing here (though the place felt rather special – the red sandstone so similar to that used to build Furness Abbey, some 300 yards from my birthplace and visited weeks earlier on the tour) just the freshness of a perfect October morning.

This is border country; a land of wonderful place-names; from the sweetly unusual in Galashiels, to the weirdly delightful in Hawick (pronounced like oik with an “h” on the front … at least it was by Bill McLaren), to the purely Scottish (with connotations of Robinson Crusoe) in Selkirk, to the names that sound like Sunday school teachers in Peebles and Moffatt, to the geographically obvious in Coldstream, to the very convenient J, for anyone playing alphabetical towns, in Jedburgh and the equally useful K in Kelso. I like the sounds of the towns around here; and my favourite sounding one of all was, indeed, Melrose.

There is a strong tradition of playing rugby around all of these towns. Many a Scottish international learned the game here and, in most cases, continued to play for their local team. Like many predominantly rural areas the population is either rich or poor. The well-off played on a Saturday and wore a tie during the week. Those who wore an overall and played were sometimes tempted by the lure of the rugby league chequebook. Two of the finest were the Valentine brothers from Hawick. Rob Valentine was a bloody good player, Dave was one of the best that ever played either code. They stayed in Huddersfield after they hung up their boots. These were the days when to take rugby league money meant becoming a social pariah in your homeland… at least as far as the rugby club went. The rugby union authorities said it was against professional sport. That it would destroy the ethos of the game if players were paid. Yet they welcomed players who had been paid to play any other sport than rugby league. League players were banned for life…even if they had only played at amateur level. The hypocrisy went deeper in that many union players were more handsomely paid than their league counterparts. The difference was that league players paid tax on their earnings.

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Dave Valentine became a publican but died in his forties. I used to sup in the same pub (The Shepherd’s Arms on Cowcliffe) with Rob. It was an honour to talk to him. He remained very competitive and always spoke a great deal of sense.

The road from Melrose to the English border was much longer than I had expected. I’d always heard Melrose referred to as a border town but “the borders” is a whole region and not just a dividing line. To some the borders referred to any part of Scotland that housed seventeenth century raiding parties who used to come south to steal cattle. Like smugglers and outlaws the word Reivers has come to have a touch of romantic glory about it.

I had about twenty five miles to ride along a main road. I called in at Jedburgh for a piece of cake. My legs were tired from the long day in the saddle and cake often puts a bit of life into them. The last couple of miles were a good steep pull around lots of twists and turns. At the top was a huge stone with Enland written on it, a place to park a dozen cars and a piper all resplendent in full tartan, screeching well-known White Heather Club tunes out of the most justly maligned instrument in Britain. This was tourist busking of the most blatant variety. Cars heading into Scotland with expectant trippers, hungry for all things Caledonian were generous. Those heading south less so.

Carter Bar '87The English are great like that. As they approach another country they become passionate devotees of everything that country stands for. On cross channel ferries bound for France, English families dash to the restaurant and order up croissants and carefully constructed fruit tarts to go with their little French cups of coffee. Once the English have been subjected to non-English culture for more than a few days the enthusiasm wears off. The same families on the return trip order a full English and eulogise over just how much better the sliced bread is than those bloody French baguettes. And, as they let everyone know that the French simply have no idea how to make a cup of tea, they slurp back steaming mugs of Tetley and Typhoo. 

Carter Bar piper '87The piper was actually very good. He was also friendly and posed for a his picture (no great strain…that was why he’d dressed up like that) and was happy to take mine. He was also happy to tell me what he considered to be a very funny thing about the huge stone.

“You see that stone.” he began. “It’s standing right bang on the border itself and it’s got England written bold on one side and Scotland written bold on t’other.” He paused for dramatic effect. I expected something quite wonderful.

“Well, the funny thing is that England is written on the side of the stone that is in Scotland and Scotland is written on the side of the stone that is in England.”

He waited for my reaction which was fulsome and entirely faked. He thought he’d given me Xeno’s third paradox and opened up my mind to a completely new way of looking at the world. I gave him a pound, bought a mug of tea (Tetley) at a caravan and pedalled south along English roads.

Simon @ Carter Bar '87