Make a break for the Borders

Don't make the mistake of thinking the Borders are something you pass through on the way to or from Scotland. By Tony Kelly
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The Independent Travel
Cloudberries and wild blueberries were growing at 2,000 feet in the peaty remains of a medieval forest where kings once came to hunt bears and wolves. Ravines, or cleuchs, with names like Headless Gutter, formed deep scores in the landscape between peaks called Thief Shank and Nowt Hill. The boggy slope was dotted with sheep-shelters - dry-stone, circular structures with a strange, weather-worn beauty. I struggled on through the mist to reach a ridge; as the sun came out I looked down over the placid waters of St Mary's Loch.

This was Ettrick Valley in the Scottish Borders in June, when the days are long and the wildflowers at their best. Not many people think of the Borders for a walking holiday. Walking in Scotland means the Highlands, with grouse moors and heatherclad hills and Gore-Texed climbers ticking Munros off their lists. Race up to the Highlands on a fast train, fall asleep at Durham, wake up at Edinburgh, and you would never know the Borders were there.

True, the Borders don't have any Munros - the highest hill is 2,800 feet - but 200 feet here or there does not always make a lot of difference. What they do have is a gentle landscape of rolling hills and valleys, with the river Tweed running through its centre past a succession of solid market towns. This is walking for those who like to take it easy. If, like me, you are just as interested in the lunchtime pub and the afternoon tea as you are in the view from the top, the Borders are your sort of place. Mind you, the views aren't bad either .

In some ways it doesn't feel like Scotland at all. For 300 years the area was neither English nor Scottish, but controlled by the so-called "reivers" (plunderers), powerful families of horse-thieves and cattle- rustlers whose descendants - make of this what you will - include Richard Nixon and Bobby and Jackie Charlton, the footballing brothers. Long before that there was a bloody history of cross-border conflict. The ruined 12th- century abbeys at Dryburgh, Jedburgh, Kelso, and Melrose were built by Scots King David, not out of religious conviction, but as a bulwark against the enemy to the south; they were repeatedly attacked and eventually destroyed by English forces in the 16th century.

It was the ballads of Border conflict that inspired Sir Walter Scott's obsession with Scottish history; he had a house at Abbotsford, near Melrose (his study and library are open to the public in summer) and he is buried in the grounds of Dryburgh Abbey. For 33 years he was sheriff of Selkirk, a grey-stone town which marks its violent past each June at the Selkirk Common Riding, the oldest of many such festivals in the area, when 500 riders in period costume set out at dusk to defend the boundaries of the ancient burgh.

For an introduction to the Borders (and to long-distance walking), you can do no better than to walk St Cuthbert's Way, a newly-developed trail running for 100km (62 miles) from Melrose to Lindisfarne, the "Holy Island" off the Northumberland coast. The theme of the walk is the life of St Cuthbert, a 7th-century priest and hermit who began his ministry in Melrose and ended it as Bishop of Lindisfarne. For several years in between he lived in solitude on the Farne Islands, communing with ducks and seabirds. Eleven years after his death, his coffin was opened to reveal an uncorrupted body, a miracle which led to his sainthood and to the cult of Cuthbert. Two centuries later, his followers fled Lindisfarne with his relics, ending up at "Dun Holm", the island on a hill, where they founded Durham Cathedral as his final resting place.

The walk, waymarked with St Cuthbert's cross, never rises above 1,200 feet; a fit person could walk it in five days, a week would be comfortable. If you don't want to go it alone, there are local companies who will transport your luggage between B&Bs and even guide you along the way (see fact file).

Melrose, where the trail begins, is typical of the Border towns - a ruined abbey, a market square, twee tourist shops selling shortbread and lambswool sweaters. The walk starts with perhaps the stiffest climb of all, straight into the Eildon Hills - the volcanic triple peaks which rise above the town and climb like giant bubbles out of the central Borders plain. On a good day the whole region is visible, surrounded by hills - the Lammermuirs to the north, the Tweedsmuirs to the west, the Cheviots straddling the border to the south and east.

Follow the entire trail and you get the full range of Border landscapes - rivers, hills, farmland, coast. With only two days to spare I opted to explore two very different sections on the Scottish side. Dryburgh Abbey, hidden behind a bend in the Tweed, is the most peaceful of the four great Border abbeys and the only one not built in a town; from here to Maxton the riverside path was alive with wildflowers, pink campion and blue speedwell. This is prime salmon country, where a week's fishing can cost you thousands of pounds. At Maxton Kirk the path turned inland to join Dere Street, a Roman road which was once the main highway from Edinburgh to York but is now a pleasantly shady lane.

Skipping the next few miles, I picked up the trail at Morebattle. Pausing to buy water in the village post office, I was surprised to discover a small tea room at the back of the shop. "We've had so many walkers passing through since the new trail opened," the manageress explained. "Every day we get people asking where they can get a cup of tea, so we decided to open a tea room ourselves."

From Morebattle I climbed on to Wideopen Hill, the highest point on the entire route, then dropped to the village of Kirk Yetholm, known to generations of walkers as the end of the Pennine Way. Take a wrong turn here and you could end up in Derbyshire. There is a youth hostel (based in a Victorian school which was originally built for local gypsies), a pub and a tea room whose noticeboard advertises Italian cookery nights, Reiki healing and Tai Chi.

Two miles out of Kirk Yetholm, St Cuthbert's Way crosses the border to begin its descent to Lindisfarne. I headed instead for Berwick, 10 miles north of Lindisfarne on the Northumberland coast. As every schoolboy and pub quiz bore knows, Berwick-upon-Tweed is the only English town with a football team in the Scottish League. Not everyone knows that it is also an elegant town of Georgian architecture, with perfectly preserved 16th-century walls and a string of handsome rail and road bridges over the Tweed.

Just north of Berwick, you are back in Scotland, where plans are afoot to open a coastal footpath all the way to Edinburgh. Already you can walk most of the way to St Abbs, and from there on to the nature reserve at St Abb's Head. The cliffs above the harbour at St Abbs are painted white, not with limestone but with the droppings left by the 50,000 seabirds that nest here between April and July each year. Stare through your binoculars and the black speckles become thousands of guillemots, small penguin-like birds who build their nests on sheer cliffs, so that their young - who leave the nest before they can fly - can drop safely into the water below.

The beaches around St Abbs are crowded in high summer with families from the nearby caravan parks, and at weekends the tiny harbour fills up quickly with scuba divers who come for some of the clearest water in Britain. Concern about the impact of diving - in what is still a working fishing village - is so great that a Voluntary Marine Reserve has been established to balance the interests of fishermen, divers and conservation. I joined the ranger, Fiona Crouch, on one of her "rockpool rambles", between St Abbs and the busy fishing port of Eyemouth. Purple orchids and clusters of pink thrift were growing beside the coastal path; we clambered over rocks to find crabs, whelks, and limpets living on the edge of the sea.

But climb up to St Abb's Head on a sunny evening in early summer, when the bright yellow gorse bushes are reflected in the mere, and all you can hear are the birds. Pairs of kittiwakes doze in the sun, the cliffs echo with the screeches of guillemots, while puffins and gannets dive for fish offshore. The round trip from the village only takes two hours but it is as exciting as any walk I know. Others can struggle up Munros with their crampons and polar hats - I can think of nothing I like better than a gentle walk along the coast, with a fresh crab sandwich in St Abbs harbour and a Selkirk bannock, rich in butter and fruit, for tea.

Getting there The nearest railway station is at Berwick-upon-Tweed, on the East Coast main line between London and Edinburgh. For details of timetables and fares, contact National Rail Enquiries (0345 484950). From Berwick there are buses to Melrose and Lindisfarne, a s well as to St Abbs. A network of local bus routes connects the main towns of the Borders.

St Cuthbert's Way The official trail guide, with maps, has just been published at pounds 12.99 and is available from local bookshops and tourist information offices. A summary guide is available for pounds 1.50; with this you would also need OS Landranger maps 73, 74and 75. An accommodation list is available free of charge from tourist offices.

Information offices. Guided walking holidays on St Cuthbert's Way are offered by Scotwalk (01896 830515; 9 days from pounds 385) and Sherpa (0181-577-2717; 8 days from pounds 450). Daily luggage transfer is available from Carry-Lite - book on 0800 163140 or meet in Melrose Abbey car park between 8am and 10am, April to October.

Walking Festival The Scottish Borders Festival of Walking takes place in Jedburgh from 30 August to 6 September. There will be a choice of three guided walks each day and a ceilidh on the final night. All walks are free. Future festivals will be held in Lauderdale in Se ptember 1998 and St Abbs in September 1999.

Ranger-led walks A programme of guided walks throughout the year includes a number of walks on St Cuthbert's Way. Details on 01835 830281. From May to September there are guided walks onto St Abb's Head each Tuesday from 2-5pm.

Activities at St Abbs Boat trips to see seabirds are operated throughout the summer by the Guiding Star (O1890 771681) and Ocean Star (O1890 771377). A one-hour cruise costs pounds 4; the boats can also be chartered for diving and deep-sea fishing. Details of diving courses from Eyemouth Dive Centre (01890 751202)and Scoutscroft Diving Centre (O1890 771669).

Accommodation There are numerous B&Bs throughout the area. Recommended: Glenfriars, Jedburgh (01835 862000; from pounds 32). An interesting alternative is Wheatears, a vegetarian guest house at Coldingham near St Abbs, with Indian, Turkish and Vietnamese breakfasts a nd short walking/birdwatching breaks (O1890 771375; from pounds 18).

Further information Tourist Information Centre, Murrays Green, Jedburgh, Roxburghshire TD8 6BE (01835 863688).

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