Great Britain: Part Six – We’ll Take the Low Road

In a change to our current schedule I return briefly to the travel blog and November 2019.

On our final morning in Aviemore we wake to a whiteout. Heavy frost covers everything – the lawn is white and our black car beside it wears camouflage. A fluffed up ball of blackbird sits on the hedge. It’s Christmas card beautiful.

It’s a long time since I’ve scraped a car windscreen with a credit card! It takes me back to cold Sheffield mornings of decades ago and we pull on puffer jackets to load the car, rubbing our hands to defrost them.

We turn south, now the only direction we will take until we reach Wellington in less than a month. It’s not something I want to think about. This trip has woken my inner gypsy and I’d happily stay away longer.

The frost fades as we drive and cloud covers the sky. We’ve been lucky with the weather, many locals telling us that a clear day up here is unusual. The moors have that patchwork look that suggests, like the English moors, they are managed: dark areas of recent burn-off, bright green new growth and the dull olive of older heather. The terrain is lumpy, like moguls on a ski field, and tiny rocky gullies by the road spout small streams.

Farms and the occasional dark terrace of cottages dot the landscape. The isolation appeals to me but I know the reality would be challenging – I need effective heating, clean water, a good internet connection. Even the radio fizzes and fades here. And I need people; I need a community.

The land flattens as we approach The Borders, crossing the Firth of Forth on a stunning bridge. It reminds me of the Millau Viaduct but when I later check I find no reference to Norman Foster. The mountains and hills are long behind us now – the land here seems flat but has an unusual roll to it, the road dipping into hidden hollows and villages within them. It’s like driving on a gentle roller coaster.

We’d tried to find accommodation in the coastal town of North Berwick but had drawn a blank so make do with a day trip. It’s a lovely little town, rows of red-brown stone houses making for a warm welcome. A tiny harbour juts out on a small peninsula pointing to a line of small, steep-sided, islands dotted in the sea. A similar hill sits just inland, rising from the flat like a rounded cone. The town’s main street is a mix of the usual chains and charity shops, something I’ve noticed a huge growth of since we were last on this island, but there are also many independent shops selling local produce rather than mass produced cheap stuff. It’s a block back from the coastline so from the beach the visible part of the town is the pretty, elevated houses, steps leading up to small gardens and patios. I feel I could live here.

We buy fish and chips and munch them by the beach, the astringent hit of vinegar as we bite, the tang of salt from the sea adding to that on the food. Afterwards we walk along the beach for miles, avoiding large piles of seaweed, clambering over rocks, picking our way across small streams, and annoying seagulls. Dogs bark at small waves – we laugh at one as he deliberately ignores his human, standing just out of reach in the water, forcing her to wade in after him. An old man with a stick wobbles as he throws pebbles, handed to him by the young boy beside him, into the sea. It’s absolutely wonderful. Gulls wheel overhead, cawing and fighting, the sound that says ‘British seaside town’ like no other, nowhere else so uniquely identified by it.

I realise later why this town feels special, seems different, why it evokes nostalgia, makes me think of my childhood – there’s not a slot machine in sight.

Rain restricts our activities somewhat – I’m not a fan of getting soaked through when taking a walk – but next morning we knock off the inland bump, learning that it (and I presume the islands) is a volcanic plug, hard rock from the earth’s core that withstood the retreating ice from the last big freeze better than softer rock around it that was scraped flat. It’s a short, steep climb, the wind at the top straight off the sea and threatening to blow me off the craggy rocks. I cling to them and duck back down quickly. The cloud is low & heavy, obscuring any views, the sky dark and light by turns as squalls blow onto land. The sea, calm yesterday, is whipped white today, rushing up the beach we walked on, and the castle we’d thought to visit is in grey murk. We flag it and head for a café.

More rain the next day, the stuff that falls in sheets rather than drops, and I’m finally beginning to miss home. Maybe it’s because the weather is against us, the rain making me want to hunker down and not do much outside – this place isn’t very comfortable, nor very warm.

On the way to our next stop we make an excited detour when we see a sign for Borthwick Castle – we spent our first wedding anniversary there. It’s no longer a hotel, now a private venue for hire, but the lovely lady who greets us allows us into the great hall. A massive fireplace dominates one end, a substantial dark wood table, almost football field long, down the middle, and high windows in metre-thick walls, little light allowed in, with large tables in alcoves beneath them. We reminisce with an older gentleman who sits at one, remarking how the staff (wearing Braveheart style dress, clearly aimed at the overseas market) led us on a tour of the castle, telling stories of torture and battles. Our room was in one of the towers, a door opening onto the spiral staircase that ran all the way down to the kitchens and I shudder as I remember waking in the night and hearing whispered voices from behind it, pushing myself close to Neil, my heart racing. I don’t think I’d want to stay here again but it’s a lovely trip into our memories.

Our final Scottish stay is Innerleithen in the Tweed Valley. It’s not the dramatic scenery I love but it is still very appealing, a wide valley whose sides range from forest to farmland to the mottled colours of open heath and moor. The river is high, no surprise considering the recent rain, and looks deceptively sluggish, small movements on its surface suggesting obstacles (or monsters) in the deep. The town is, like many in The Borders, not particularly pretty, grey and serviceable, but has a nice feel to it and a couple of good cafes. It also has an invisible tourist information site – signs tell of it, but it is nowhere to be found.

Paths lead into the forest that surrounds the town and we take advantage of a break in the rain to climb up to views over the valley. The wind is stiff and we watch it sweep veils of rain across the land towards us, then make a vain attempt to outrun it. We fail, rain hitting our faces in cold shafts and soaking us within minutes. Back at the flat we shake off dripping coats and strip off sodden trousers in the porch, glad for the central heating.

The next morning is clear and Neil heads off early to explore the local, highly rated, mountain bike park. I briefly consider hiring a bike to join him but, with the thermometer registering 2C, decide to explore a local café instead. He reports that I would have found it too challenging so I’m glad I didn’t waste my money. But he has a great ride, making the most of all the facilities, including the bike wash and showers at the end, an idea he would happily take south to NZ. 

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