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, which originated in Newcastle – for a ‘stottie’ – a large doughy bap with a pressed-in dent in the centre – filled with peas pudding – a thick paste made from pulses and not really what I was expecting, and according to the Greek, a bit like fava back home.
Feeling we’d experienced well the native cuisine, we then get into a huge debate circling a roundabout (Passepartout seemingly fully mastered them now and able to take them with carefree abandonment while concentrating solely on arguing her points with me). Round and round we go deciding on whether we should head back and see the Angel of the North, in glorious sunshine this time. With a roar of finality, and a place salute from me to all the banked-up car drivers, we leave the roundabout, the Angel and the idea of visiting him again behind us and 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 – as men in green tweeds pass us, off walking with elaborate shepherd’s crooks that look to the Greek like plainer Orthodox priest’s croziers. The railway station is on the Tyne Valley line that cuts right across Britain following the route of the river and runs from Newcastle to Carlisle. Outside the town are the Roman ruins of a fort. Both of these, illustrative prefigurations of what’s to come.
In 122 AD the Roman emperor Hadrian decided to build a 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 the centre at Chollerford – leaving the cursed, blighted wheels in the car park – where the wall is clear, proud, standing high against the Northern sky.
There is a hardy 10 or so mile 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 endure.
We pass a severe looking man: swept back silver hair, mustard jumper, sturdy cords, port wine face. He could be a retired military man or a Conservative MP in off-duty garb next to his unhappy wife telling the press how he’ll now be spending more time with his family after the reported “incidents”. He’s standing on the wall, bobbing and weaving, peering round us intently into the distance beyond.
“I’m waiting for my two sons. Have you seen them?” he barks at us curtly, and a little bizarrely. “They’re walking the wall. They set off from Corbridge yesterday. Oh where are they?” He raises himself up on tiptoes, squinting further into the distance “They said they’d be here by 3pm. Well it’s almost half past now…” He seemed more annoyed at poor time keeping than anxious for their safety “They think it’s going to take them 7 days to walk the whole thing!” he calls after us as we continued on, returning to his vigil shaking his head to 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 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 Passepartout 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 or 600 years older than this one too – can be found in most town centres or under any newly dug up motorway slip road, I can understand why 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. 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 gazed out nearly two millennia ago – gives us wind-carved grinning faces, upturned into the stiff English breeze.
We cross the border, into Scotland, once more. This time at Gretna Green. I tell Passepartout that this is where young lovers run off to get married. She thinks it sounds very exotic. “Like Las Vegas or something!” The white washed, one storey blacksmith’s marriage room, with the alter anvil, soon brings her back to good old 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 – as if looking at us over the land’s edge with only the tops of their heads showing, but with the presage and forewarning of them rising up later on, as we travel further into Scotland.
We turn left at signs advertising Lockerbie – I circumspectly add this to the macabre sub-tour we seem to be taking by telling Passepartout of the bombed 747 Pan Am aircraft that landed on this small Scottish town in 1988 – and silently we roll into Dumfries, our stop for the night.
I have no idea what to expect of Dumfries and tell Passepartout it’ll probably be all concrete and heroin. 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. 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 the Thistles, 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.