No sooner have we reached Scotland than we’re making tracks to leave it again. With misgivings, but also with complicated travel plans ahead – Giristroula having read about a national park she wants to visit back on the English side of the border – 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, and looks more like a grand European square than any other I’ve seen on this tour of Britain. But three times round is more than enough.
We eventually get away and start heading south towards the border, stopping at a service station where I have my first of a thousand tins of Irn Brus in Scotland – Scotland’s other national drink, so they say: the great 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 a completely different land. It feels just like the first time I ever got off the ferry onto the continent and marvelled in the supermarkets 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 fearsome Coldstream Guard bearskin hats. Further up there are heavy granite churches and halls, and columns arranged around on the rolling greens. 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. Enormous views over high, bobbling, parched-looking hills. Three coaches 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. It 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 all “very British nature” 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 you walk into and feel you’re hovering on the reflected lake; and then, after a climb up a wooded hill, a large brick igloo-type building I later discover was 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 – pews, perhaps – 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. We call in on the local police station, just for directions, but the lady police officer snaps into action and grabs her police hat and police car keys. First Geordie accent of the tour – “Aye follow me, like…” Giristroula marvels at 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 Police Ranger car. It becomes clear she’s actually searching for the farm too.
We pull off down tiny side-roads and she even puts on her flashing police lights 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. A legend even in this tiny place. There is a grave in town for ‘The Long Pack Burglar’, rogue who was once carried into his quarry’s house, hiding in the owner’s rucksack, planning to emerge in the middle of the night and rob the place. 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 remember reading in a newspaper somewhere recently 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 amused burglar couldn’t help himself and giggled 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, 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 there telling us very officiously – with just the slightest hint of sheepishness – the exact opening and closing times of the local co-op supermarket and how the pub in town is very nice. 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, and then at other times to serve as the place for all those other vital activities: a psychiatrist’s surgery, a cupid’s den, the stands of a football ground, a bus shelter bench, or often 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 Britain, from Christopher Marlowe to Peggy Mitchell, as we enter. It’s a truly terrible place. A group of ugly looking lads in the corner, scratching themselves like a family of chimpanzees. A set of heavy drinkers at the bar moving through the stages of drunkenness, just at the point where bellicose becomes morose. An old man sits staring at us chewing his teeth like gum. It is death quiet. “Why is there never any music in your pubs?” grumbles Giristroula. “You INVENTED pop music!” But despite the lack of any music people still shout 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..?” says a confused looking Giristroula.
“There’s no bait like…” the man replies.
She looks at me.
“I think he’s saying there’s no food.”
“Aye man,” the barman says, folding his arms, exasperated. “That’s what I been sayin’ like. Nay food.” he says, throwing his arms 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 our rural retreat and eat pork pies bought from the Co-op (Giristroula disenchanted once again) while 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 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.