No sooner have we reached Scotland than we’re making tracks to leave it again. Giristroula has read about a national park she wants to visit back on the English side of the border so, with misgivings, we rent a car once more. Almost as a punishment it seems, we get trapped circling Glasgow’s George Square, passing a soliciting Queen’s Street station, several times. George Square is impressive – it looks more like some grand European square than any other I’ve seen on this tour of Britain – but three times round is more than enough.
Glasgow has these flashes of brilliance, I liked what little I saw of the city. Unlike London or Paris or other European cities Glasgow’s moments of magnificence are not really known. Of course if you haven’t already visited a place in paintings and films, the place doesn’t really exist in the imagination, and it’s a shame.
We eventually get away and start heading south towards the border, stopping at a service station. I have my first of a thousand tins of Irn Bru – Scotland’s other national drink, so they say – the cherished slayer of hangovers. We also try a Scotch pie for me, a Macaroni pie for Giristroula and I feel giddily like we’re in some completely different land. It feels like the first time I got off the ferry onto the continent and marvelled in the supermarkets of France at all the makes I’d never heard of before and wondered in amazement at how they sell beer in their McDonalds. Giristroula, for her part, hopes there’ll be greater curiosities and revelations to come when we return to Scotland. More than just service station pies anyway.
We reach the border at Coldstream – a good-looking small town with a winding high street and a sweet, closed-in feeling. Quaint shops selling either cute tartan boxes of shortbread or huge Coldstream Guard bearskin hats. Further up there are heavy granite churches and halls and columns arranged around on rolling green hills, and a lively, not very cold-looking river. We spend longer than planned, stupidly hopping from one leg to the other – from one country to the other – in the middle of the 18th century bridge over the River Tweed. There’s a sturdy brick sign on the Northumbria side welcoming us back into England, so we carry on in the car back into the old country… but something must have gone terribly wrong with my navigation skills. We pass underneath a watching, haunting, skeleton of the ruined Jedburgh Abbey – Jedburgh still being in Scotland. I have no idea how this has happened.
We cross the border again, for what must be the third time, at Carter Bar, with enormous views over high, bobbling, parched-looking hills. Three coaches are waiting on the other side of the road: patient, orderly German tourists queuing for a photo under the ‘Scotland’ carved in letters into a large boulder. No one bothering to pose under the ‘England’ boulder on our side.
Eventually we reach our goal, the Kielder Forest. Thick woods, totally remote, but also strangely synthetic – the largest man-made woodland in all of Europe. The largest man-made lake too. And in the largest area of complete night darkness in the country: total black on the light-pollution map. The Kielder Forest was constructed in the 1920s and 30s with the aid of unemployed shipworkers and miners from the North East. Giristroula seems to be in her element here in all the nature and while it’s trees, pine trees, thousands of purple flowering plants and a colossal lake to me, it’s “very British nature” according to her. The unique part of this huge plantation though are the artworks and instillations that we find, unexpectedly, in the middle of the woods with no one else around for miles and miles. As if we’re the very first person to have ever come across them: hundreds of hanging mirrors suspended from trees, twisting in an odd, mercurial light; a steel box we walk into and feel as if we’re hovering on the reflected lake; and then, after a climb up a wooded hill, a large brick igloo-type building that I later discover is called The Skylight. Initially suspecting hippy shit, I enter and am actually taken by this sort of chapel dedicated to the Northern sky above. Sitting on benches we stare upwards through a hole in the roof, up at the firmament, with sun and flying clouds passing by and we watch the trapped circular light pass over the rounded wall of the rotunda building.
We leave the huge forest park at light’s end and ring ahead and book a bed and breakfast on a farm outside the nearby town of Bellingham. Bellingham is a small town built around just a single Y shaped main road, but we still can’t find the farm building when we get there. So we call in on the local police station, just to ask for directions, but the lady police officer – pleased for something to do it seems – snaps into action and grabs her police hat and truncheon and car keys. She points at us to get in our car as she leaps into her Police Ranger.
“Just follow me, like.” It’s the first Geordie accent of the tour.
Giristroula marvels at all the changes in the British accent. They just don’t have this in Greece. The people who live on the island of Crete in the south of Greece may have a soft “ch” sound, the Thessalonikians in the north a slight nassal tone, but nothing like the range of voices in this country.
“How do the accents just stop?” she says. “How do they stop at the end of the last street in one town, and a new accent taken up in the next?”
It’s a fair question, and I dwell on these language ley lines all across Britain as we drive slowly along the road and pass up and down the Bellingham ‘High’ Street behind the police lady’s huge jeep. As we pootle along, it becomes clear she’s actually searching for the farm too. We pull off down tiny side-roads and then have to get involved in complicated reversings and backing-ups. The flashing police lights on the jeep even get put on at one point. It’s obvious she’s as lost as we are. The town’s folk start opening doors and leaning out of windows to see what’s going on. Why is the town’s police car leading these two up and down the street?
Bellingham actually has a legend for its criminality. Even this tiny place. There is a grave in town for ‘The Long Pack Burglar’, a rogue who was once carried into his quarry’s home, hiding in the owner’s rucksack, planning to emerge in the middle of the night and rob the house bare. Only he suffered a very badly timed coughing fit while hidden in the bag and was promptly run through by the houseowner’s sword. It reminds me of a story I read recently in a newspaper of a modern day thief who was caught hiding in a suburban housing estate semi, ready to burgle the place, but the owner told his wife a joke over the dinner table downstairs and the burglar couldn’t help himself giggling loudly upstairs in the couples’ bedroom.
On the fourth or fifth pass of the town’s main road – going at funereal pace now, with the occasional desperate “whoop” of the siren, the police officer swiveling her head this way and that, and kids following us on bicycles, pointing and laughing – she strikes lucky and finds at last the very large, established for centuries, farm. Embarrassed, the police lady tries to make up for her boggled police work by getting us to wind down the window and stands by the car telling us very officiously the exact opening and closing times of the local co-op supermarket and how the pub in town is a very nice establishment to spend the evening in. Opening the gate to the farm, she stands rigidly to attention and salutes to us as we drive past down the muddy track.
We check into the farm house, which doubles as a hotel, and then later make our way back into town to check out this local pub. The pub of course being the living room for every British town – a place to gather and lounge and talk. Or at other times of course the pub will serve as a psychiatrist’s surgery, or maybe a cupid’s den. Sometimes the stands of a football ground or a bus shelter bench, a quiz show stage, or perhaps just a place to shake off loneliness without actually being in anyone’s company. I am telling the unlistening Greek all about the importance of the pub in the British make-up, from Christopher Marlowe to Peggy Mitchell, as we enter. It’s a truly terrible place.
A set of heavy drinkers are at the bar supping pints of ‘Smooth’, moving through the stages of drunkenness, just at the point where bellicose becomes morose. Someone comes in selling stolen meat steaks from under his coat. An old man sits staring at us chewing his teeth like gum. There’s a deathly atmosphere.
“Why is there never any music in your pubs?” grumbles Giristroula. “You INVENTED music!”
Despite the lack of any music, people are still shouting at each other at the top of their voices. Food stopped hours ago.
“Howway man, you’re very late” the barman says to Giristroula “There’s no scran left at this time…”
“I’m sorry…” Giristroula says, looking confused.
“There’s nay bait, like…” the man replies.
Giristrouls looks at me.
“I think he’s saying there’s no food,” I say.
“Aye man,” the barman says, folding his arms, exasperated. “That’s what I been sayin’, like. Nay food.” he says, then throwing an arm back to a bar of piled-up empty pint glasses to indicate that there is, indeed, no food to be had.
So we head back to the farmhouse b&b and eat pork pies bought from the Co-op – Giristroula disenchanted once again. A yellow moon sits outside our window on the black sky. The high stars above looking like dandruff on an old man’s jacket. The only sound here is a babbling, chattering stream over the way, flowing on and on to grow and which will become, eventually, somewhere down the line, the river Tyne.