A foot in two nations along the Tweed
Criss-cross between England and Scotland on this scenic Northumberland walk, says Mark Rowe
An innocuous grassy lane, no more than three metres wide, makes for one of the world's sleepiest borders. You'll find it, overlooked by hazel trees and set against a backdrop of sweeping hills and isolated farmsteads, five miles west of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the town that famously lies in England but whose football team plays its away games in Scotland.
If Alex Salmond has his way, then this strip of land, know locally as the Bounds Road and which comes to an abrupt dead-end on the banks of the River Tweed, will become a destination for lovers of travel curiosities, a border that you really can straddle.
While devolution wouldn't exactly see the imposition of a demilitarised zone or passport checks, the area could have done with them in the past. The borderland between Scotland and England may be tranquil now but historically it has been a riotous place, overrun by Border Reivers – sheep rustlers and general ne'er-do-wells – as well as marauding armies heading north and south and various other opportunistic pillagers.
They were unlikely to have had time to drink in the scenery, which, as I stepped for the umpteenth time from one country to another, is little less than breathtaking. I'd started in Paxton, a small Saxon village now firmly in Scotland and birthplace of the mother of Eric Liddell, the missionary and Olympic gold medallist portrayed in Chariots of Fire. I headed east, surrounded by hills, including to the north (yet curiously in England) Halidon Hill, the scene of a crushing 14th-century English victory. To the south and east stood the heart of Northumberland, the Cheviots.
Bridges feature heavily in this walk. I dropped down to my first, an iron footbridge. The River Whiteadder rushed by beneath the metal flooring, fed upstream by the pleasingly named Blackadder. Together they later join forces to give a surging push to the River Tweed as it rushes towards the North Sea. I was lucky enough to be accompanied on this walk by Ian Kille, a local geologist and B&B owner, who runs "walk, talk and chalk" tours of the Northumbrian hinterland. You can ask Ian to tell you what you're looking at, and he has the knack of transforming the landscape for you. Here, over the Whiteadder, he explained, the Ice Age hadn't really gone away. "The ice sheet here 17,000 years ago was so thick it squashed the land down," he explained. "What's happening now is that the land is rising back up but the water is cutting through the sandstone." The result is the thrilling spectacle of the Whiteadder chiselling its way past handsome sandstone cliffs.
We pushed onwards, crossing high fields with glimpses of the North Sea, the extraordinarily tall spire of Berwick's town hall peeking above the horizon, and the scene framed by the outline of the distant arches of the Royal Border Rail Bridge. Down through woodland we picked up the bank of the River Whiteadder again, this time by a man-made salmon run before crossing the Canty's Brig (County's Bridge) and heading west along the river's south bank. A dog-leg took us to the River Tweed at a point where the waters split politically: downstream everything's in England, upstream the middle of the river forms the border.
On the north bank, back in Scotland, we passed below the grounds of Paxton House. This 18th-century neoclassical house is designed in the local sandstone with great symmetry and positioned in manicured lawns and woodland. It was built by Patrick Home as a house for the women he fell in love with. His love went unrequited and he sold up, heartbroken.
The route ended by walking back via Paxton House to Paxton village. But before doing so, I kept along the river bank for a there-and-back again hike to the Union Chain Bridge, a suspension bridge across the Tweed with a conspicuous "Welcome to Scotland" sign at its western end. It's a rusting, beautiful affair, opened in 1820 and spanning 450 feet, and is the oldest suspension bridge carrying road traffic. Children play pooh sticks here, and the bridge wriggles its hips when a car trundles over – not quite a Highland fling, but a playful reminder that I was walking in a place where nothing stays quite the same for too long.
Step by step directions
From the Cross Inn in Paxton take the road by the bus shelter and turn left and right along Merse View. take the footpath left and then right along wall and follow fingerpost sign for Foulden. Bear left at fork downhill to metal bridge. Turn left over bridge, walk to right of house and follow track uphill to Low Cocklaw. Turn right, signed for Canty's Brig; after woods pick up the River Whiteadder. Cross the Whiteadder bridge, and turn west along south bank. Where river track stops, turn left up lane, dog-leg over road by Paxton Toll House to River Tweed. Turn right (west), following river bank to Union Chain Bridge. Retrace your steps to Paxton House and follow main drive and lane to Paxton village.
DISTANCE: Six miles
TIME: Three hours
OS MAP: Explorer 346; Berwick-upon-Tweed
START/FINISH Paxton village green
Berwick is on the East Coast main line between Newcastle and Edinburgh. The writer travelled to Berwick with Cross Country trains (crosscountrytrains.co.uk); the line is also served by East Coast Trains.
Northumbrian House (01289 309503; 7ravensdowne.co.uk) in Berwick offers B&B from £90 per night.
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