NEAR the start of September, five years and one day after I set off from Gravesend, I found myself heading out of Carlisle on a route that would lead me to the Scottish border. Not only was this the start of the sixth year of this walking endeavour but the day would end with my stepping foot in Scotland for the first time in thirty-eight years. It was not unexciting.
The day began with the first possible train out of London, which deposited me mid-morning in Carlisle.
The sky was blue with fluffy white clouds and I ambled through the city in high spirits, collecting food and drink as I passed. My plan was to initially head downstream along the River Eden, which first necessitated crossing it. Fortunately, a helpful chap by the name of Robert Smirke had built a stone bridge in 1815 and this, though widened for traffic in 1932, was still available for that very purpose. It seemed rude not to use it.
There was quite a lot of traffic on the bridge on account of it also being part of the A7. The road that I turned into on the far side could not have been much more of a contrast. A private residential street with large and expensive-looking houses down one side, it had no traffic at all. Opposite the houses was a view, although it mostly showed the tops of the trees that lined the River Eden. Beyond these treetops, Carlisle Castle could be glimpsed.
The street curved around to meet another, which was a busy public road. I followed this for a while, turning off into a side road and was soon passing old-fashioned cottages in what had once been the separate village of Etterby but is now one of Carlisle’s northern suburbs. Then, as the road made an abrupt turn to the right, I followed a path straight onwards onto the riverbank.
Henceforth, I was walking along the edge of fields, retracing the end of my previous walk from the other side of the river. Accordingly, a series of familiar landmarks marked my progress, such as the Waverley Viaduct.
As mentioned in my last write-up, the viaduct is part of a disused railway line, the Waverley Route, which used to run from Carlisle to Edinburgh. While the northern third of the route has been reopened by the Scottish Government, the reopening of the Carlisle end is for now just a distant possibility.
I thought, when I saw it, that the viaduct’s disuse was a tragic waste of perfectly good bridge and it seems I am not alone in my opinion. In particular there is a vocal campaign to reopen the bridge as a cycle crossing. This could potentially connect the National Cycle Network routes 72 and 7, without the need to head into the centre of Carlisle.
Along the Eden
While my side of the river was mostly fields, the other side appeared to be mostly trees. I knew there was a path over there somewhere because I had walked it but mostly you couldn’t tell. It was just greenery, offering no clue of human activity.
The village of Grinsdalewas about a mile and half downstream from the Waverley Viaduct. It was also where I had joined the river on my walk into Carlisle. Henceforth I would be venturing into terra incognita and that was exciting. Well, maybe a bit.
Actually, for all that it continued to be more of the same — ambling alongside the river at the edge of a field — the path did manage to conjure some excitement as I made my way through one field full of cows. It wasn’t the cows that were exciting. At least, not to me. Indeed, they were relaxed and docile and not bothered by my presence because they were basking in a warm post-coital glow. But it wasn’t until I spotted two cattle playing leapfrog that I realised that not all of them were cows. I wasn’t unduly concerned — the bull was far too busy to care about anything else — but I nonetheless decided that I wouldn’t hang around.
The river and its path continued to meander, swapping from inside to outside curve as it went. The curve of a meander moves outward through erosion and this was beautifully demonstrated at one point.
A little further on I was surprised, having until now been walking on flat fields, to find myself climbing the steep slope of a 34 m high hill that formed part of an ancient earthwork. From it, I could look back across the Eden’s meanders towards Carlisle.
Corn and Cattle
There followed a series of fields which were challenging in different ways. Some were bursting with cereal crops that had left little room for the footpath at the field’s edge. Others contained cattle — excitable young bullocks — who though not threatening, were very keen to come and see who or what I was. These quickly surrounded me and followed me right across the field; I suspect they were hoping for some sort of cattle treat, in which case they were sadly disappointed.
Cattle are large, even when youngish, and being closely surrounded by them was slightly unnerving for all that they were friendly. It was with extremely mixed feelings that I clambered over the stile to exit their field to do battle with more towering corn.
After a while the path drew near to the village of Cargo, which it would skirt but not actually touch. The village’s odd name derives from a conflation of the Celtic word carreg (meaning ‘rock’) and Old Norse haugr (meaning ‘hill’).
Though the path didn’t go to Cargo, it did seize the chance to escape from the cattle and corn, dropping back down to riverbank level. For the next half mile or so the path was sandwiched between the river and a riot of pink flowers, which was lovely. Once again, someone else clearly shared this opinion as they had installed a handy bench looking out over the riverside. I didn’t really need to stop yet but I did so anyway.
Having stopped, I decided I might as well eat lunch. I ate to the accompaniment of the buzzing of bees and an aerobatic display from a truly enormous blue dragonfly. It was very pleasant and I moved on with some reluctance.
The path soon opened out into fields and passed an isolated farmhouse and a road leading back to Cargo. Further on still, the ground became boggy and dotted with cows and a small stream forced me inland to a footbridge. Ahead I could now see the village of Rockcliffe, where the Eden and I would be saying goodbye.
Rockcliffe is another village where its name is a car crash of Old Norse and Old English, deriving from ON rauðr (meaning ‘red) and OE cliff (meaning exactly the same as it still does today).
The cliff in question is the riverbank, eroded in much the same way as the one we saw earlier. Not only is this less than impressive but it also gives no clue that in the eighteenth century Rockcliffe was a thriving commercial port and shipbuilding centre. Indeed the only evidence of this past is a ship-shaped weathervane on the steeple of St Mary’s Church. Of course the village is much older than that, as attested by its mash-up name. The church has the only evidence of that too — a thousand year-old Norse cross in its graveyard.
Reivers & Revenue
Today, Rockcliffe is a sleepy village with nothing much going on. For much of its past that would have been a state of affairs that its inhabitants could only pray for; this close to the border rampaging Reivers would have been a frequent problem. Much later, when the Border Reivers had been suppressed, frantic smuggling activity would disturb its nights instead.
With different duties applied to alcohol in England and Scotland a canny smuggler who bought his goods in Scotland could sell them in England for five times the price. By the end of the eighteenth century, Rockcliffe was crawling with excise men.
Lost Argos Lorry
Unless you actually live there, there isn’t much in Rockcliffe today to detain you as you pass through. So I passed through it. In leaving the village I rejoined the road network, following a tiny single-track road parallel to the Eden. This was not the main route into or out of the village and I was surprised to have to flatten myself into a hedge as an Argos delivery lorry hurtled down it. Minutes later we repeated the exercise as the lorry retraced its route, the driver desperately fiddling with his satnav.
The lane I was on took me past a farm where chickens were wandering freely across the road, and then turned right to drop me on a larger road. This too soon took a sharp right turn, the corner being an entrance to the grounds of Castletown House, a Grecian-style country house built in 1805 that was, and still is, the property of the Mounsey-Heysham family.
Important local landowners, they produced a fine eccentric in the form of Captain William Mounsey (1808-1877) who would have grown up in Castletown House. After a career in the army that took him to the Middle East he became an amateur archaeologist in his retirement. Wandering the ancient sites of Cumbria while dressed in traditional Jewish costume (though he was not Jewish), he was quickly nicknamed the “Jew of Carlisle” by his contemporaries, who doubtless thought him a bit odd.
Not content to merely visit a site of interest, Captain Mounsey would invariably vandalise it by carving an inscription to let everyone know he had been there. Well everyone who could read Persian, or Old Welsh, or Latin carved backwards. Five faces carved into an upstream gorge of the Eden are also probably his work, a mini Mount Rushmore of self portraiture. Did I mention that he was eccentric?
While Castletown House’s driveway might have been bendy, the tree-lined road to Floristonrigg, upon which I now marched, was anything but. It was long, straight and narrow and yet still a significantly more major thoroughfare than the road on which I’d dodged the Argos lorry.
There was next to no traffic on the road, which wasn’t all that surprising as it served only a few tiny settlements. Any through traffic had long since been routed elsewhere by means of the M6, which lay about a mile to the east. The settlements that were served by the road were minute villages or hamlets at the end of narrower lanes connecting to this road. I would say that there was no settlement on the road itself but that would not be quite correct. There was this:
A short way past Moor Cottage, I came to a junction where one of those lanes met the road. There stood a fingerpost giving directions and this served as a kind of impromptu progress check. According to the signpost, Carlisle lay six miles behind me (though my route had actually taken nine) while the Scottish town of Gretna was four and one quarter miles ahead.
Approximately half a mile further on I took a side road branching off east. Had I stayed on that road it would have diminished, becoming a dead-end track to Garriestown, which is not a town but an isolated farmhouse. My new road was also dead straight but shorter and crossed at the far end by a level crossing (there had also been a station between 1847 and 1950).
The barriers were down as I approached, permitting a train to speed south to Carlisle. As it turned out, I was just far enough away from the crossing for the train to go past, the barriers to raise and then for them to drop again just as I reached it. I didn’t mind. I grabbed a sneaky rest as I waited for the train going the other way.
Beyond the level crossing, I could hear the subdued sound of heavy traffic. Turning off to the north I found myself on a slightly wider road — it actually had the centre line marked — which ran right next to a very much larger one indeed. My new road and the M6 ran side by side with only a slatted fence separating where I was walking from the roaring motorway. I had two miles of this to traverse and I have to be honest, it was easily my least favourite part.
The Cumberland Gap
It was easy to assume that my road was the old A74, which had been an upgrade to Thomas Telford’s 1825 Glasgow to Carlisle mail coach route, which itself was improvement on what was left of the old Roman road. Easy, but erroneous.
When they extended the M6 in 2008, finally bridging the embarrassing ‘Cumberland Gap’ between the English M6 and Scottish M74 — England and Scotland had long argued over who would pay for it — what they actually did was upgrade the A-road alignment, building a new road beside it for non-motorway traffic. So I was on the new bit and the roaring traffic on the old.
The Debatable Lands
About half a mile in to this motorway accompaniment the two roads crossed the River Esk. One of several rivers Esk — the name comes from a Celtic word, isca, meaning ‘water’ — this one flows mostly in Scotland but crosses into England for its last few miles before it reaches the eastern end of the Solway Firth. You would be forgiven for expecting that it would be the border and at one point, over six miles upstream, it is for all of half a mile. But where I crossed it, it was not.
The Esk’s non-borderness was not always so clear however. Back in the days of the Border Reivers, when frequent wars between England and Scotland would shift the border about according to who had most recently been winning, the Esk marked the boundary of the Debatable Lands.
These were, as the name suggests, a region where no one was quite sure which kingdom they belonged to and, thanks to the warring and the Reivers, the de facto answer was ‘neither of them’.
The Reiver Clans
Firmly in control of Border Reiver clans like the Armstrongs, Elliots and Nixons, the Debatable Lands became a magnet for all manner of rogues and outlaws as they took refuge where neither king’s law had any force.
This was obviously not a situation that England or Scotland could tolerate — it was fine when the Reivers were troubling the other monarch but not all acceptable when they’d ignore their rightful king — and an actual border was finally agreed in 1552, with neutral arbitration by the Ambassador of France. The new border was largely ignored by the Reiver clans who continued to cause mayhem in the region until the Union of the Crowns.
Once James VI of Scotland found himself also inheriting England from his childless first cousin once removed, Elizabeth I, he had a strong interest in not seeing any more Anglo-Scottish wars and hence had no use for uncontrollable cross-border raiders stirring things up. The Pacification of the Borders followed, in which James VI and I had the fortified houses of non-submitting border clans destroyed and their angry rebel occupants rounded up and transported to Ireland (a policy with absolutely no future ramifications whatsoever).
Crossing the Debatable Lands
For a mile and a half past the Esk, my road kept itself pushed up against the M6 for company, as if afraid to traverse this once-lawless region on its own. On the way, we passed no settlements apart from a single isolated farm. But up ahead was a different story:
As the road approached Gretna, it thankfully pulled away from the M6, which bypassed the town to its northeast. My road joined a B-road which was mainly conveying traffic between the town and the motorway. I was only on this for about half a mile and just under halfway in I reached the actual border, leaving England (and the Debatable Lands) behind and entering Scotland. The border here was the River Sark:
Crossing the Border
The first building I encountered on crossing the Sark was a bar, proudly flying the Saltire of St Andrew and bedecked with signs identifying it as the first bar (to be reached) in Scotland. Which it was. I freely admit I quite fancied a drink but I chose to walk past it, heading instead into Gretna to take my rest in an ordinary pub.
Gretna’s name is actually Old English (greoten + hoh) and means ‘gravelly hill’. Not that a hill was particularly in evidence. What was in evidence were a lot of signs about weddings.
The Wedding Business
Gretna has long been associated with weddings and the nearby village of Gretna Green even more so. The reason is simply that they were the first places over the border a young English couple might encounter on the eighteenth century coaching route. As to why the said couple might be heading for Scotland? That’s on account of an English Act of Parliament, the Marriage Act 1753.
The act was England’s first statutory requirement for a marriage ceremony, which hitherto had been the province of church canon rather than parliamentary law. One of its requirements was that anyone under twenty-one marrying by licence needed parental consent (it didn’t technically affect marriages by banns but an unconsenting parent could simply object to those already). Scottish law did not have this requirement. Indeed, it then allowed boys of fourteen and girls of twelve to marry with or without parental consent.
A wedding industry thus sprang up, catering for starry-eyed young English lovers whose parents had tried to forbid it. It was the subsequent creation of a toll road in 1770 that turned Gretna Green from an obscure hamlet into the first place in Scotland that couples on that road would reach. Nearby larger Gretna, though not directly on that road, also cashed in on the business. Today their legal advantage is distant history but the idea of marrying in Gretna developed strong romantic associations. Accordingly the marriage business is still going strong.
Having found a suitable pub and enjoyed a drink and a rest, I was soon ready to move on. This involved heading south through Gretna, following the signs for NCN 7, which I had basically been following since Rockcliffe.
The shops and houses of Gretna gave way to the cottages and farm of the hamlet of Old Graitney, in the fields of which stands the seven foot tall Lochmaben Stone. A prehistoric megalith, this is a remnant of an ancient stone circle and, as a sticky-up feature on a treeless plain, was for centuries was a meeting point on the border for the assembly of armies and the establishment of truces.
In 1398, for example, the Dukes of Lancaster and Rothesay met at the stone in order to exchange prisoners. Sadly ,the stone is much closer to the Solway Firth than the narrow country lane I was following and I never actually saw it.
The lane I was following was of single track width with passing places at intervals. These showed a mixture of the traditional diamond-shaped passing place signs and the modern square ones (both white with black lettering). The replacement of the latter with the former has come about with the return of tram networks to several British cities, the Department of Transport having decided that diamond-shaped signs are now for trams. Not that there’s much scope for confusion — the sort of road to need passing places is not likely to be in the sort of location to see trams — but a system is a system and, as the old signs need replacing, their successors become square.
The funny thing is, those diamond-shaped signs are actually the last remnant of a much older signage system, predating not only the current Worboys system but the system in use before that. The Motor Car Act 1903 introduced standard road sign designs for the first time and these were given a variety of different shapes and colours. A white ring was a speed limit, a red disc was used for prohibitions, a red voided triangle was a warning and a red or white diamond was a ‘notice to drivers’, i.e. anything that didn’t fit into the other three categories.
The latter was quickly abandoned for most purposes (a diamond is a rubbish shape for wordy signs on account of being difficult to fit text into) but it somehow persisted through the various regulatory revisions of the 1920s and 1930s in the form of Passing Place signs on Great Britain’s narrowest roads. I guess they just weren’t important enough to change.
The narrow lane crossed over the stream of Kirtle Water and made its way amid fields of cows towards the hamlet of Rigg. This being part of the flat Solway Plain I could see clear across the firth to the distant peak of Skiddaw.
Rigg is a minute settlement at the junction between the narrow lane and the wider B721. Between 1904 and 1942, it had a railway station, the site of which is now a bridge carrying the nearby A75 over the railway line. The name of the village simply means ‘ridge’ although the ridge in question is only about 20 m higher than the plain.
Rigg’s village hall — Mansfield Hall — is architecturally curious.
I now found myself plodding alongside the moderately busy B721, which follows the course of an old drovers’ road between Gretna and Annan. The road serves mostly local traffic with most of the heavy stuff taking the A75 (half a mile further north). Thus, while it wasn’t the loveliest road I’ve ever walked down, it wasn’t actually all that bad either.
I headed down it for half a mile until I reached the farmstead of Nivenhill, which stood at a junction. Here I could either keep going down the B721 or I could take a side-road and head back down to the shore of the Solway Firth. There, if my map was correct, I would find a footpath that would convey me along the shore and past the perimeter fence of MOD Eastriggs, an ammunition storage site.
Right up until that moment, the shore route had been my plan but I sat down on the grass verge, got out my map and reconsidered. The truth was, I was tired and my rate of progress had slowed. Also, I didn’t have all that much daylight left. If I stuck to following NCN 7, I should make Annan before nightfall. If I followed my original plan, I’d end up on the shore in the dark. Well, bugger.
Thus it was that I stayed on the B721 for the next two miles into Eastriggs. A small village in the historic county of Dumfriesshire (and the modern administrative area of Dumfries & Galloway), Eastriggs lies perplexingly two and a half miles west of Rigg. Its biggest claim to fame is the MOD establishment, or rather its WW1 predecessor, HM Factory Eastriggs, a massive cordite works.
Occupying four sites and spread over twelve miles, the factory was linked to the main railway network via its own siding. Within its grounds, a complex narrow gauge railway network allowed the movement of materials via 34 locomotives and 125 miles of track. The foul-smelling cordite mixture was nicknamed ‘the Devil’s porridge’ and a museum about the factory rejoices in that name today. The Devil’s Porridge Museum sits in the centre of Eastriggs and though it was closed when I passed it, it was quite easy to spot.
In Eastriggs, I managed to find a shop to sell me a restorative cold drink and something to munch and I sat down for a rest on a bench. My phone rang at this point and the caller, a close friend, kept me company for about the next mile of the B721. This conveyed me to Dornock where my phone suddenly went dead — I had strayed outside the signal coverage. This puzzled me slightly because it had been strong, so I retraced my steps, keeping an eye on the screen. Yep, sure enough: ten paces east and I had all the bars of signal. Ten paces west, no signal at all. I quickly called my friend back to explain the situation, bid her goodbye and pressed on into telephonic silence.
Battle of Dornock
Dornock is a small village next to an even smaller stream but in 1333 it was the site of a battle between Scots and English. Well, I say ‘battle’, ‘massacre’ might be more accurate.
The battle came in consequence of Scotland’s interminable wars of succession; Edward Balliol having just failed in his attempt to claim the Scottish throne. This was unfortunate for England because Edward III had supported his namesake so a further force of 800 Englishmen under Lord Dacre marched north to lend a hand. This force was intercepted at Dornock by Sir William Douglas, Lord of Liddesdale, with around fifty defenders. With such a numerical disadvantage one might characterise the Scots as brave, but for many it was suicidally so.
Unsurprisingly, the English force totally steamrollered the Scots, killing twenty-six and taking just two casualties. Sir William Douglas was captured and held prisoner for two years. Edward Balliol finally got himself crowned, four months later, but was deposed within a year. The following year he was back on the throne, only to be deposed again in 1336. In the end, his attempts to usurp the throne of David II came to nothing and history names David as Scotland’s king through that period; Edward Balliol is just an ‘also ran’.
Dornock Parish Church
At Dornock I temporarily parted company with the B721 as NCN 7 diverted south down a back road and I followed suit. This took me past Dornock Parish Church. The current building dates from 1793, with interior refurbishment in 1884. It replaced an earlier building whose bell was stolen in 1626 in reprisal for Scots raiders stealing the bell from Bowness-on-Solway. Bowness’s bell was lost by the Scots in the Solway Firth as the tide came in while they were crossing. Dornock’s bell is still kept in Bowness-on-Solway and incoming vicars of Annan traditionally ask for it back. They are always refused.
The lane I was on wound its way between fields less than half a mile from the shore of Solway Firth. From here I could clearly see the water and the buildings of Bowness on the far side.
The sun was low in the sky as I passed under the railway line and climbed the low ridge to regain the B721. I was almost at the outskirts of Annan as the sun set and I took one last look across the Solway Firth while I still had light enough to do it.
Arriving at Last
About a billion swifts were going bananas as I headed into Annan, devouring the swarming midges for which Scotland is rightly infamous. I’m afraid I paid them little heed; I was very tired now and just wanted to get to my hotel.
I plodded into Annan’s town centre and gratefully located my hotel with ease. Later, washed and rested, I would head out to find dinner and would end my evening in the hotel bar chatting amiably with the bar staff. But for now, I would simply just sit down. It was bliss.
This time: 23 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,254½ miles