SO that’s what all the fuss was about – a flat hill where the ground is so boggy that thoughtful souls have laid a path of flagstones and planks. Armies fought over this place. Men died in the quagmire. White crosses fluttered on blue. Red crosses fluttered on white. Kings came, kings went, kings perished in the mud between Berwick and Solway. Jesus Christ. The sheer bloody futility. And now all that remains to mark the dividing line between two warring peoples is a wire fence. England on one side, Scotland on the other . . .
This is the border high on the western shoulder of the Cheviot – a galvanised wire fence set on tanalised posts with the wind whining through like the ghosts of the dead. And if I was one of those ghosts I’d be pretty disappointed. At the very least I’d have expected ruined watchtowers on the hilltops, broken swords rusting in the turf, and caltrops scattered in the heather to puncture the boots of walkers.
But the only sign of man’s presence is a sodding fence and a rickety boardwalk that carries the frontier section of the Pennine Way. After centuries of blood, smashed heads, smashed limbs and smashed lives, not even a stone cross lies tumbled in the tussocks.
To tell you the truth, I don’t even know why I’m up here. Last night I’d planned to drive to the Lakes, but this morning I grabbed a bunch of maps and headed north instead. I left the car on the banks of Harthope Burn, just to the east of Langleeford Farm, climbed up the side of a fell called Scald Hill in glorious sunshine, and continued to the Cheviot, which at 815m (2,673ft) is the highest peak around here. It’s a pleasant climb and takes about an hour and a half at a leisurely pace, including a stop for a brew.
The Cheviot does “bleak” in a big way; in fact it abuses the privilege. It has acquired for itself an immense blanket of bog which stands to the depth of a tall man’s neck right across its higher reaches. It defies gravity like runny treacle on those cakes you used to boil in a tin then tip out upside down.
To compensate for its lack of interesting features, the locals have encircled the Cheviot with a girdle of fascinating place names: Snear Hill; Broadstruther; Foulburn Gair; Bizzle Crags; Bellyside Hill; Hen Hole; Crookedsike Head; Scotsman’s Knowe; Kelpie Strand and – wait for it – Skirl Naked.
To walk through this country is to step into the musty pages of a Scott or Stevenson first edition. I’m expecting an old wizened man to slither round the summit cairn and greet me with the words: “Are ye the scion son of Broadstruther of Broadstruther, come hame to Foulburn Gair ta claim the Red Horn o’ Skirl Naked and whit is rightfully thine?” But he doesn’t. Thankfully.
As I stand at the cairn, though, it strikes me that if ever a patch of land was worth fighting for, this certainly wasn’t it. If this is the wee bit hill and glen, then someone was pulling the wool. Cheviot’s summit is in England, but this is no green and pleasant land. This is bog, bog, and more bloody bog. And it remains bog down the short slope to the border and its wire fence. And bog beyond, into the sunny glens stretching away to the north and west.
And think how many wars took place, how many thousands of men perished, how many countless times the countryside between Edinburgh and York was set to the torch before this imaginary line found its final resting place on the ridge beneath the summit of the Cheviot – in a bloody bog, for Christ’s sake.
Was it worth it? Jesus. Is the question worth asking?
Two tall cairns perch on a ridge looking down into Scotland and England. They stand only a few metres apart and they might well be in different countries. Border warriors, each one waiting for the other to blink. It’s all very symbolic, and a bit pathetic.
This is as far as I get – two cairns above Auchope. I turn around, retrace my steps along the boardwalks and paving slabs to just beneath the summit of the Cheviot, then drop south-east down a path to the valley of the Harthope Burn, and Langleeford Farm about four miles distant.
I had, I must admit, toyed with the notion of climbing the hills on the south side of the valley – Comb Fell and Hedgehope Hill – and making a grand circuit of the place, but frankly I can’t be bothered. I’ve had enough boglands for one day.
This is a good decision, because once beneath the bogs the valley is very pleasant, with its twisting river, peaceful green woodlands, fat fluffy sheep of a make I am not familiar with, and . . . and . . . and . . .
. . . AND FINALLY
SOME people take pictures of lost gloves. Some take pictures of pints of beer or pie shop windows. Some visit trig points and stick coloured pins in maps on their bedroom wall every time they tick one off. The world is full of odd people and is a better place for it. After all, we could, instead, be up on the Cheviot braying each other over the head with bardiches and burning each other’s pig pens down in an attempt to move the border a few feet one way or the other.
Me, I’m fascinated by old railway goods wagons abandoned in incongruous places. Here’s one being used to store fencing equipment just to the east of Langleeford, which is an extremely awkward place to get to if you’re hauling a railway goods wagon. And because I’m sitting at my computer wearing my special anorak, I can tell you it’s a BR 12T Vanfit.
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