No sooner have we reached Scotland than we make tracks to leave it again.
With misgivings, but also with complicated travel plans ahead, with Passepartout 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 in Britain. But three times round is more than enough.
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 Scotalnd: that weird carbonated soft drink – Scotland’s other national drink, so they say – with an indescribable taste.
We 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 greater curiosities and revelations to come. More than just service station pies.
We reach the border at Coldstream – a good-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 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.
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 1920s 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 in the roof, up 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 we ring ahead and book a bed and breakfast on a farm outside the nearby town of Bellingham.
Bellingham is a small town built just 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: “Aye, 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 at one point, 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 actually has a legend for its criminality. Even in this tiny place.
There is a grave in town for ‘The Long Pack Burglar’. A rogue who was carried into his quarry’s house, hidden in the owner’s rucksack, planning to emerge in the middle of the night and rob the place. Only he suffer a very badly timed coughing fit while hidden in the bag and was promptly run through by the houseowner’s sword.
This reminds me of a story I read in a newspaper, somewhere, 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 and the amused burglar couldn’t help himself and giggled loudly in the upstairs room.
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, 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 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 to attention and salutes us as we drive past, 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. While at times also standing as its psychiatrist’s surgery, cupid’s den, the stands of a football ground or just 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 ugly looking lads in the corner, scratching themselves like a family of chimpanzees.
A set of heavy drinkers moving through the stages of drunkeness, just at the point where bellicose moves to morose.
An old man chewing his teeth like gum.
It is death quiet (“why is there never any music in your pubs? You INVENTED pop music!” says Passpartout) but still people shout at each other at top volume. Food stopped hours ago.
“Howway man,” the barman says to Passepartout. “There’s no scran left at this time…”
“I’m sorry?” says a confused Passepartout.
“There’s no bait…”
She looks at me.
“I think there’s no food,”
“Aye man,” he says folding his arms. “That’s what I’m sayin’ like”
We head back to our rural retreat and eat pork pies (Passepartout disenchanted once again) while a yellow moon sits outside our window on the black sky. The high stars looking like dandruff on an old men’s jacket.
The only sound here a homey, chattering stream over the way, flowing on and on to grow and become, eventually, somewhere down the line, the river Tyne.