No sooner have we reached Scotland than we make tracks to leave it again.
With misgivings, but also with complicated travel plans ahead, we rent a car once more and, almost as a punishment, get trapped circling 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 in Britain.
We eventually get away and start heading south towards the border. We stop at a service station and I have my first of a thousand Irn Brus in Scotland and try a Scotch pie for me, a Macaroni pie for Passepartout. I feel, giddily, like we’re in a completely different land. It feels just like the first time I got off the ferry onto the continent and marvelled in the supermarket at all the makes I’d never heard of before and wondered in amazement at how they sell beer in McDonalds.
Passepartout hopes there’ll be more curiosities and revelations to come than just service station pies.
We reach the border at Coldstream –a nice looking small town with a winding high street and a sweet, closed-in feeling. Complete with 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. Rolling green and a spritely, not very cold looking, river.
We spend longer than planned 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 is a handsome brick sign on the Northumbria side welcoming us into England – and a further stop for photos.
We carry on in the car into England, but something must have gone horribly wrong with my navigation skills. We pass underneath a watching, beautiful and haunting, skeleton of 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 into a large boulder. No one bothering to pose under the ‘England’ boulder on our side.
Eventually we reach our goal: the Kielder Forest. Thickly arboreous, totally remote but also strangely synthetic: the largest man-made woodland in Europe – the largest man-made lake too – in the largest area of caliginosity in the UK: totally black on the light-pollution map. Constructed in the 20s and 30s with the aid of unemployed shipworkers and miners from the North East. Passepartout is in her element in the nature and while it’s trees, pine trees, thousands of purple flowering plants and a colossal lake to me, it is “very English nature” to her.
The unique part of this huge plantation though are the artworks and instillations that you walk into, unexpectedly, in the middle of the woods with no one else around for miles and miles and as if you are the first person to have ever found 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, after a climb up a wooded hill, a large brick igloo-type building I later discover is called The Skylight. Initially suspecting hippy shit, I enter and am taken by this sort of chapel dedicated to the Northern sky above. Sitting on benches – pews – we stare upwards through a capacious hole at top at the firmament: sun and flying clouds passing, and 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 have booked a bed and breakfast on a farm outside the nearby town of Bellingham. It’s a small town built around 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 – first Geordie accent of the tour: “follow me”.
We pass up and down the Bellingham ‘High’ Road behind her huge Police Ranger car and it becomes clear she’s searching for the farm too. We pull off down side-roads and she even puts on her flashing lights, and 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. Bellingham is legend for its criminality. There is a grave in town for ‘The Long Pack Burglar’ who stole into his quarry’s house in the owner’s rucksack only to suffer a very badly timed coughing fit and was promptly run through by the houseowner’s sword. Which reminded me of a more recent story I read in a newspaper of a thief who was caught in a suburban housing estate semi after the owner told his wife a joke in the living room and the tickled burglar giggled upstairs.
On the fourth or fifth pass of the town, going at funereal pace now, with the occasional desperate “whoop” of the siren, the police officer swivelling her head this way and that, kids following us on bicycles, 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 telling us officiously – with a slight 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 salutes to us as we drive down the muddy track.
We make our way back into town later to check out this local pub – the pub of course being the living room for every British town: a psychiatrist’s surgery, a cupid’s den, the stands at the football ground, a bus shelter bench. I am telling the unlistening Greek 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 lads in the corner, scratching themselves like a family of chimpanzees, mobile phones resting on the table like pistols on a card table in the Wild West. An old man chewing his teeth like gum. Death quiet (“why is there never any music in your pubs? You INVENTED pop music!” says Passpartout) but with deafening shouting. Food stopped hours ago.
We head back to our rural retreat and eat pork pies (Passepartout disenchanted once again) with a yellow moon and high stars outside our window on the black sky, like dandruff on an old men’s jacket. The only sound a homey, chattering river over the way, flowing on and on to grow and become, somewhere down the line, the Tyne.