Friday, August 12, 2016

the Borders

I left you yesterday as the drizzle turned into light rain and I was contemplating an outdoor adventure anyway. (When you travel, it's not especially hard to have an adventure. Sometimes it's hard not to have an adventure.)

I should tell you a little about where I am. The Borders region is like a fistful of hills, pushed in between the Scottish Highlands to the north and England's "umberlands" (Cumberland, Northumberland) to the south. Right through the middle flows the River Tweed. You would not be incorrect if you're thinking this river must have something to do with British textiles: for a long time, woolen mills dotted the area, but after the Second World War, most of them closed. Still, there are a handful of market towns, many right along the river. Peebles is one of them and one idea I have is to take the bus to it and do a hike along the river banks.

It is in theory a good idea. The hills offer good trails for serious hikers, but in reading up on them, I am a bit intimidated: warnings of poor markings and the need for good maps and compasses ("you can easily lose your way in the forests!" -- I'm told) make me look for something more straightforward, at least for this first day, where I'm still dragging after a night of travel.

And so after a refreshing cup of tea at my Inn, I set out to catch the bus to Peebles (20 minutes down the road).

The first indication that this is to be no ordinary trip comes at the bus stop, where a local fellow engages me in a recount of his life story. At first I attribute it to the pervasive friendliness of the people here, but as we wait and the rain sloshes about, forcing us both into the small space of the shelter, it becomes clear that the chap is slightly off, in a harmless if a tad over the top sort of way. He's on his way to the library -- a fine way to spend the day if you ask me. He likes geography. He'll be looking up Wisconsin and the Great Lakes there. I feel I've put my state on the map for him.

The bus comes, we get on. The handful of passengers are local people, hopping on and off between market towns, but one or two are bound for Edinburgh -- the final destination of this particular line.

But three miles out of my village of Walkerburn, the bus stops. There's been an accident on the little country road and traffic is being diverted while they clear the mess. That diversion works for small cars, but the buses and trucks can not fit on the bypass routes and so there is nothing to do but wait.

And wait.

As I listen to the idle chatter on the bus, it becomes clear to me that there is an English out there that is impossible for us American types to understand. The accent is so thick that I am able to catch only the occasional word. Indeed, it takes many back and forths before I actually understand that there has been an accident. No one said accident, they talked of aye this and aye that and collisions that sounded more like colshons and I realize that it will take more than a few hours to get into the swing of deciphering speech patterns in this part of Scotland.

We do reach Peebles eventually. Here's a photo of the High Street -- a remarkable set of blocks in that the shops still seem to be drawing some business. Many of the older market towns have that desolate look of shuttered storefronts and too many reminders of who does so much of the labor here -- inevitably there will be a "Polish Store." Peebles, on the other hand, looks today like it did when I passed through here some forty years ago -- with its smattering of gift shops, inexpensive eateries and tea shops and the usual stuff you'd like to see on your main street in town.


These are the last couple of days of vacation for British school kids and despite the weather, I see a number of families out for a stroll. Wellies are de rigeur.


I find the path along the river. Initially, it's not especially lovely, but as I leave behind the town and plunge into the forested countryside, I am dazzled by what I see around me. A fellow walker steers my attention to the bird life, including this heron...


... and the wild ducks along the river's edge.


Here, let me give you a fuller look at the riverfront:


I know there is a crumbling old castle further down and as I ask a man walking his dog about its whereabouts to make sure I don't miss it, I'm given some good advice on how to conduct my walk: be sure you keep to the path beyond the castle, all the way until the arched bridge. You can cross the Tweed there and come back on the other side. We just came from there. It's quite lovely, really.

Alright: here it is, the Neidpath Castle.

I climb up the scraggy hill to it, but the building is closed to the public. The best views are, in fact, from below.


I continue along the bank of the Tweed as instructed. The path is completely muddy and sidestepping puddles is a challenge. I think to myself: the man and the dog assumed that I am like they are here -- hardy and game for anything. But I'm feeling more like it's been a long time since I had a meal (breakfast on the plane), like my trekking shoes are not meant for squishy mud that seeps in through the fabric, like my rain jacket is great against the drizzle, but I do wish the zipper would stick less as I pull my camera in and out, again and again.

Finally, the old rail bridge. And yes, it's beautiful.


On the other bank now, I come across fields of the ubiquitous here purple flower that Scottish people treat pretty much like I treat tiger lilies back home -- I don't even notice them anymore. And they don't notice their breathtakingly beautiful Rosebay Willow Herb. I ask at the Inn -- what is that purple flower that grows everywhere here?
Purple flower? The thistle? Fox glove?
No no no! That one in every field, every ditch... Finally, at dinner, a fellow traveler identifies it for me.


Closer to town now. The path turns into a paved walkway. Another family our for a stroll.


I cross back on the old Peebles Bridge.


Here's the town, this time looking up High Street, toward the east.


And now I'm in Walkerburn again, at the Inn, looking out at the hills, the sheep, the endless stone fencing.


Dinner at the Windlestraw Inn is a rather formal affair. There is a set menu and we eat together, though at separate tables. There is only one other occupied place -- a table of a mother and son -- she is about a decade younger than me (and her son at least a decade younger than my own girls).

At first, I take the position that we should eat our meal without regard to the other, but I change my mind when the young man comments on the grand piano in the room.

Can you play it? -- I ask.
I would need music.
I see music resting on the stand.
Is that a challenge? He smiles and walks over to it.

In fact, he plays beautifully as well he should: he is an organist at his college. And from this spins the story of a life, just this one family's life, yes, but as I listen, I get a very special glimpse into the universal and the unique. Because don't all family tales contain, in the end, much the same elements of longing, drama and ultimately hope? But isn't it uniquely British to worry, for example, about what it would be like to raise a family in the States -- because there, my sons couldn't be choristers, could they?

It was, in fact, and enchanting evening, made more so by the occasional music that the young man would play for us.

And this morning, I look outside and note that at least for a while, the clouds have parted.


I should hurry to breakfast, but hurry is not something I associate with travel here, so I linger in bed and watch the clouds slowly roll in and of course by the time I come down, all traces of sunshine are long gone.

That's okay: it's time for a good, hearty Scottish breakfast:


And whatever the weather, it's time for the next adventure.