A morning delayed by the necessary task of us getting a replacement back wheel for the car. We finally leave Newcastle in blazing late-morning sun, having stopped at a Greggs the Bakers – that high street fixture, home of the grey-skinned podgy man hankering after a steak bake – which I’m told proudly first originated in Newcastle. We get a ‘stottie’ – a large doughy bap particular to Newcastle, so the plump lady serving in her overalls again tell me, with a pressed-in dent in the centre. We have it filled with peas pudding – a thick paste also from these parts, made from pulses. Not really what I thought it was going to be at all but, according to the Greek, a bit like fava back home. Feeling now like we’d experienced well the native cuisine we get into a huge debate while circling a roundabout (Giristroula seemingly fully mastered them now and able to take them with carefree abandonment, concentrating solely on arguing her point, shouting and waving her hand in my face. The Greek way). Round and round we go, deciding on whether we should head back and see the Angel of the North again – in glorious sunshine this time. With a roar of finality, and a place salute from me to all the banked-up car drivers waiting for us, we leave the roundabout, the Angel and any idea of visiting him one more time behind us, and we join the A69. Direction: west.
Corbridge is as Northern, English, quaint – but not twee – as they come. We stop and look at the pretty but solid centre and the antiquated wooden fronted shops – bookshops and butchers. Huffing men in green tweeds pass us, off walking with elaborate wooden shepherd’s crooks that look to the Greek like more plain versions of Orthodox priest’s croziers back home. Corbridge railway station is on the Tyne Valley line, a line that cuts right across Britain, following the route of the river running from Newcastle to Carlisle. Outside the town of Corbridge are the Roman ruins of a fort. Both of these are illustrative prefigurations of what we’re off to see…
In 122 AD the Roman emperor Hadrian decided to build his wall from coast to coast in Britain. It still exists in fragments at both ends, nestled anonymously in the suburbs of Newcastle and Carlisle, but we join it near its centre at Chollerford – leaving the hated wheels in the car park – and walk along where the wall is clear, proud, standing high against the Northern sky. There is a hardy 10 mile or so walk of good, palpable wall on this stretch – the wall an elevation of just a few feet on the near side but a dizzying long drop of stone wall and gnarled grassy hill on the other – and we set off to see how much of this walk we can do. We pass a severe looking man: swept-back silver hair, mustard jumper, sturdy cords, port wine face, first coronary coming on like Christmas. He has the look of one of those disgraced Conservative MP in off-duty garb, filmed at their garden gates stood next to unhappy wives, telling the press how he’ll now be spending more time with his family after the reported “incidents”. The man stands on the wall, bobbing and weaving, peering round us, looking intently into the distance beyond.
“I’m waiting for my two sons. Have you seen them?” he barks at us curtly. It’s a fairly bizarre question.
“What do they look like?” says Giristroula.
“They’re walking the wall,” he says. Ignoring her. “They set off from Corbridge yesterday. Oh where are they?” He raises himself up on tiptoes, squinting further out into the folding countryside. “They said they’d be here by 3pm. Well it’s almost half past now…” He seems more annoyed at poor time keeping than anxious for their safety. He tuts to himself. “Oh where have they gahn?”
“Gahn?” says Giristroula.
“Yes,” the man says slowly, fixing her a stare, breathing heavily through his heavy veined nose with a faint whistle. “Where can they have gahn?”
We have no answer really, and continue on with our walk along the wall.
“They think it’s going to take them seven days to walk the whole thing…” he calls after us as. “Seven days! They’ll be lucky…” I look back at the man at his vigil, staring down the wall the other way, shaking his head at the thought of his sons, utter fools, and ultimately, rightly, doomed.
I’m enjoying the countryside: staring out at sweeping English fields to my left, glowering and shaking a fist towards Scotland on my right (although, of course, the wall doesn’t mark the border between the two countries and at some points, to the wall’s east end, is almost 70 miles from Scotland). I give the wall a pat, place my hand on the top and look thoughtfully at it, but I can tell Giristroula is not wholly impressed.
“I knew it would be small.”
For someone from a land of such rich archaeological bounty, where an historic ancient wall – ones 500, 1000, 2000 years older than this one – can be found in most town centres or under any newly dug up motorway slip road, I can understand why it might be a bit of a disappointment. This rough-hewn fortification of large stones, worming its long slow way below us, up and down, towards Cumbria, might not have been worth the lengthy journey here for the Greek, but the walk is good. And the size of nature around us – and hardly anything on the horizon that wouldn’t have been there when some centurion unhappily planted from warm, wine-drenched Rome to this furthest land in the known world, unprotected by the gods, gazed out nearly two millennia ago – gives us wind-carved grinning faces, as we turn them into the stiff English breeze.
Back in the car, we cross the border, into Scotland, once more. This time at Gretna Green. I tell Giristroula that this is where young lovers run off to get married. She thinks it sounds very exotic. “Like Las Vegas or something…” she says. The stark village and the white washed, one storey blacksmith’s marriage room – with the alter anvil – brings her back to good old disappointing British reality. The countryside over the border instantly seems to become more Scottish. Old weavers’ cottages dotted to the side of the road. Mountains peeping over the horizon – looking at us over the land’s edge with only the tops of their heads showing, as if they’re a little shy, not quite sure of our intentions. But with the forewarning of them rising up later on, as we travel further on into Scotland.
We pass by, near Quintinshill, the location where the worst railway accident in British history occurred. A train carrying volunteers to fight in Gallipoli in 1915 hit a local passenger train, and then an express train ploughed into both wreckages. Over 200 dead. Soldiers had to walk round the flaming train and shoot army buddies trapped in the flames crying to be put out of their misery. When the surviving soldiers who had staggered away from the crash made it back into the town, the local children mistook them for war prisoners and threw rocks at them. Having passed this miserable site, we then turn left at signs advertising Lockerbie – and again we add another place to this macabre sub-tour we seem to be taking as I tell Giristroula of the terrorist-bombed 747 Pan Am aircraft that landed on this small Scottish town in 1988. The tv reports I remember so clearly from a childhood Christmas. And now, not much in the mood for conversation, we silently roll into Dumfries, our stop for the night. I have no idea what to expect of Dumfries and tell Giristroula it’ll probably be all concrete and heroin. But we actually find a town made up of nice, worthy, red sandstone buildings concentrated towards a very pretty riverside front. No heroin, just two lads in football scarves eating chips and staring at the water. I ask which team they’ve been watching. “Queen of the South” they tell me. The local Dumfries team, playing a pre-season friendly today. I’m delighted that I finally know the location of one of those obscure Scottish football clubs that flow like some poetic litany of names as the results are read out on tv on Saturday afternoons. Amongst all the Thistles and the Academicals and the Heart of Midlothians. I wonder where in this small – by some measurements – but also multiform, infinite, windy spaced country St Mirren, St Johnstone or – the most appropriate for us – Albion Rovers could possibly be? And whether we’ll find out, as we begin our tour of Scotland in earnest.