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 – the high street fixture, home of the lightly sweating man, bored, worn thin by life, finding salvation in steak bakes and sausage rolls – which I’m told first originated in Newcastle. We get a ‘stottie’ – a large doughy bap particular to Newcastle, so the plump lady serving in her overalls also tells me, with a pressed-in dent in the centre. We have it filled with peas pudding – a thick paste 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 Giristroula and I then get into a debate on where to go next while circling the big Benton Lane roundabout – Giristroula seemingly fully mastered roundabouts now and able to take them with carefree abandon, concentrating solely on looking at me, arguing her point, shouting and waving her hand in my face: the Greek way. Round and round we go, trying to decide whether we should head back and see the Angel of the North again, in glorious sunshine this time. But with a roar of finality from our small hatchback, and a place salute from me to all the banked-up car drivers waiting for us, Giristroula makes up our mind for us and we leave behind the roundabout, the Angel and any idea of visiting him one more time and we join the A69. Direction: west.
Corbridge is perfectly northern English and quaint, but not twee. A pretty but solid centre. Antiquated wooden fronted shops – bookshops and butchers. Huffing men in green tweeds pass us, off walking with long wooden shepherd’s crooks that look to the Greek like plainer versions of the Orthodox priest’s croziers back home. People stand at the hole-in-the-wall cashpoints, embarrassed that they might be thought to be holding the queue up, flapping their hands, blowing out their cheeks to show how the long wait is not really their fault. Giristroula stares at this performance and can’t understand it at all.
“In Greece the whole idea is to take as long as you possibly can. Stand in front of the machine and slowly read every number on your receipt. Put your card back in and have another go. Whatever you can do to irritate those behind you. It’s like when you’re driving on the roads, people will flash and hoot at you to get out of the way of their car, then as soon as they’ve overtaken you they sit in front going at a snail’s pace. It’s all the big game, you can see them grinning in the mirrors…God,” she says, as if it’s all coming as traumatic revelation. “Why are things always so much nicer here…”
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 prefigurations of what we’re on the way 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. We walk along where the wall is clear, proud, standing high against the Northern sky. There is a hardy 10 mile or so 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 and gnarled grassy hill on the other. We set off to see how much of it we can do.
We pass a severe looking man: swept-back silver hair, mustard jumper, sturdy cords, port-wine face, his 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 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. A bizarre question.
“What do they look like?” says Giristroula.
“They’re walking the wall,” the man says, ignoring her. “They set off from Corbridge yesterday. Oh where are they?” He raises himself up on tiptoes, squinting further off 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. “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 whistling sound. “Where can they have gahn?”
We have no answer to this, 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 in his clipped tones. “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 towards Scotland on my right – although, of course, the wall doesn’t actually mark the border between the two countries and at some points, to the wall’s east end, it’s 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 historic ancient walls – ones maybe 2000, 3000 years older than this one – can be found in any 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. The size of nature around us – and hardly anything on the horizon that wouldn’t have been here 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 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 on 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 close by Quintinshill, the location of 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 add another place to the macabre sub-tour we seem to be taking. 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. 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…
We actually find a town made up of nice red sandstone buildings concentrated towards a 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 a poetic litany of names as the results are read out on Saturday afternoons. Amongst all the Thistles and the Academicals and the Heart of Midlothians. I wonder too where in this small but also multiform, infinite 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.