A Journey into Scotland Part 65
I’ve got a song in my head. I’m pedalling into England while giving the larks and curlews a very literal version of Kate Wolf’s marvellously metaphorical song, Across the Great Divide.
It’s gone away, yesterday
And I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the Great Divide
Any water falling on the hillside behind me is going to make its way north and into the River Tweed. Rain falling on this slope is very quickly a part of the River Rede. One raindrop will reach the sea at Berwick, the other will pass between Newcastle and Gateshead before reaching the tide. For this is indeed Redesdale. I’m back in England.
To many the main purpose of Redesdale is the A68, one of the main routes between the two countries. In terms of human geography its a very big area with a very small population. In terms of physical geography and history it is a place that could fill volumes.
If you like your moorland bleak and windswept and you find the trip up to Top Withens, in Pennine Yorkshire, (site of Wuthering Heights) a little urban, then Northumberland may be the county for you. It’s a glorious place to be. It feels huge and by British standards it is huge. It also has some of the finest coastline in the whole of these islands. It’s the only place I know in England where you can get two miles of beautiful sandy beach entirely to yourself in the middle of the summer holidays.
I’m hoping for a very long slow descent to the Tyne. If the water can flow slowly down then surely the same force of gravity can give the cyclist a rest from the pedals. Northumberland has different ideas. Up here the moorland disguises a complex geology. A bicycle is as good a way as any to explore this. There is no mode of transport, including Shank’s Pony, that tells you, with as much accuracy, whether you are going uphill or downhill or whether you are on the flat. This is corrugated country. It feels almost as if some giant has taken the land and squashed it causing it to fold and crease. Not huge cliffs just constant switchbacks. You ride up a steepish slope for a hundred feet and drop down the other side. For the first two or three times it almost feels fun. Then it becomes a bit of a serious workout and finally it becomes painful.
As the crow flies you may have ridden a mile but the odometer gives more credit than that. The constant up and down adds distance as well as fatigue. The waters of Catcleugh Dam sparkle in the October sun. The village of Byrness is sheltered away from the main road. It soon becomes clear that I’m not going to be sitting on the banks of the Tyne for a late picnic lunch.
The English and the Scots used to march armies up here either to invade or to hold back invaders. Border skirmishes were so much the order of the day, in the late fourteenth century, that the actual date of the Battle of Otterburn is disputed. Conflict between England and Scotland in those days basically meant conflict between the Percy family (the Dukes of Northumberland) and the Earls of Douglas. In Henry IV Part One Shakespeare portrays the two families joining forces against the English king, but for most of the time they were at each others’ throats.
Otterburn (1388) was a battle fought by moonlight. If you are going to have a night battle then this is a pretty good place for it from a film-makers point of view. The Scots were outnumbered three to one and won the day, losing only 300 men. The English lost nearly 3 thousand either killed or taken prisoner. It was a bad day for the Geordies. Among the prisoners taken was Northumberland’s son Henry Percy, better known as Hotspur. He was regarded as the greatest soldier of his generation and is remembered affectionately and Romantically by many, but he lost as many battles as he won. (Perhaps that is why Tottenham’s attractive but largely unsuccessful football team have taken on his nickname.)
(He also had a very un-warrior like lisp and legend has it that the entire population of the area took to lisping so he didn’t have to feel too bad about it. (Though he did sometimes wonder if they might be taking the pith). Apparently you can still detect this in some local accents.)
For a short while the road and the Pennine Way run parallel. Those walking Britain’s first long-distance footpath in a southerly direction will be on day two or three. Those coming north form Derbyshire will be having the same feelings as me. A couple more days and that will be it.
This is wonderful countryside. I’m entering the massive Kielder Forest. It’s the largest man-made forest in England and has, as its centre piece, the largest man-made lake in Britain. There are much better routes than the one I’m taking. If I did this journey again (and the process of writing about it has whetted my appetite) I’ll certainly take the back roads and the lanes. This is far too lovely to be clattering along a main road. Far too lovely to be in a hurry.
And that is how I feel as I reach the fork in the road that allows me to either continue along a wide macadam strip to Corbridge or to choose the wide macadam strip to Newcastle. I choose the altogether more touring-bike-friendly little road through Bellingham towards my YHA (Youth Hostel Association) destination of Acomb. And it is suddenly all alright with the world again. This is a land of rough pasture and upland farms, of buzzard swoop and curlew cry. This is a land that has witnessed the passing seasons of history, has echoed to the march of armies and the quarryman’s hammer. A land with as little in common with Home Counties England as you can imagine yet a land that is English in clint and gryke, in shale and in grit. English to it’s very bedrock and lovely up to the English heavens above.
The warden of Acomb hostel has an enviable job. He seems happy about it and makes no secret that the busiest time of his day is between 5 and 6 when he signs in the dozen or so walkers who then largely look after themselves in the converted stables. I book in, shower and cook up a simple meal of beans on toast before treating myself to a wander around the village. I have a disappointing pint of Youngers IPA in one pub but the second is ahead of its time. Here was a landlord who knew the way the wind was blowing. Here was someone who served his beer to be sipped and savoured rather than necked. He had two guest beers on (in 1987 this was more than unusual), both were very strong, both were superb to tastebud and mood. The locals had bought into it. We stood at the bar and discussed the merits of each. Then we sat and compared the first with the second. Then we foolishly had a third and a fourth. At which point I find that my memory of the rest of my time in Acomb goes blank until I mount my bike and leave the following morning. I rather think I had a bit of a headache.