Harestanes to Melrose (16 miles)

Skies like TV static flicker overhead as I trudge, tiredness leaking out of every pore. I was awakened at 3am this morning by a massive crash followed by a blinding flash that was the sight and sound of my beloved falling out of bed, after an evening on the loosening juice.  (Side note: he is fine, if not grotesquely hungover!) Post-rude awakening, I’ve somehow managed to drive the 45 miles in a somnolent trance and find myself here at Harestanes Visitor Centre car park. Section 2 of the Scottish National Trail begins. Since my previous outing, lessons in foot care have been learned and today is sponsored by BlissSox, which will prove to be a revelation by the end of my journey. There will be no heels hanging off of me today. No siree.

St Cuthbert’s Way/ Dere Street winding its way through the woods.

After dandering along a B road, I hang an uphill left which brings me out at the Woodland Plant Centre. It’s then that I spot the St Cuthbert’s Trail sign lurking in the woodland just beyond the corner of the car park. This initial stretch crosses the Marble Burn before snaking through woods, over boardwalks and through yet more greenery. Eventually, I emerge through a gap in a dyke onto another minor road. Right ahead, I see a – by now – familiar wooden post with its carved Roman helmet symbol. I continue through the gate and begin to trace the undulating path of Dere Street. 

Me swaggering oan doon Dere Street. Dead casual, likes.

This epic thoroughfare once linked the city of York in England to the Firth of Forth before serving as a military road for the Gododdin and Edward I’s army in the Wars of Independence. This also turns out to be one of my favourite sections today and I revel in my seclusion and aloneness as I traverse its long, straight line synonymous with Roman road design. Lines of protective trees and whin bushes flank me on either side, keeping me knowing exactly where I was going. I gaze across the wide expanses of fields and watch with delight at the shape shifting clouds of murmurations of birds and feel a sense of real freedom and contentment. I am, quite simply, happy. 

A couple of miles into my journey I come across Lady Lilliard’s Stone. This commemorates a young woman who fought against the English forces at the Battle of Ancrum:

Fair maiden Lilliard

lies under this stane

little was her stature

but muckle was her fame

upon the English loons

she laid monie thumps

and when her legs were cuttit off

she fought upon her stumps.

– AD 1544

Whit a wummin’, eh? The grave sits upon a small hill which affords scenic views all around, with the Eildon Hills, serving as an iconic backdrop. I stop here for a while to take it all in. From my viewpoint, the Eildons seem almost reachable. This might not take as long as I think today, I muse to myself. (Oh, the unbridled optimism of the 2.5 mile mark!)   

Lady Lilliard’s Stone

Continuing along Dere Street, the trail meets another B road which I follow all the way to the village of Maxton, replete with its picture postcard pretty, kirk. I continue along more woodland boardwalks, by streams and down stairs, through more lush greenery until I meet with the glorious Tweed, flowing busily by. It’s at this point that my phone dies (broken charger, the culprit) and so, I am no longer accompanied by Elizabeth Gilbert’s soothing voice as I have been re-listening to ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ which had proven to be a perfect travelling companion. This is no bad thing however, as my senses seize the opportunity to drink in and appreciate the gentle rhythm of being by the water. The path passes a fascinating structure here called the Crystal Well, cut into the hillside beneath the very grand looking Benrig House. I wander uphill for a nosey and see the – very well-preserved – horsedrawn, water pumps which fed fresh water to the house. Yet another Victorian gem of engineering, hiding amongst the country foliage, waiting for its day in the sun. 

I cut over one end of the beautiful Mertoun Bridge, in all of its red sandstone finery before   the path curves left and I find myself cutting through St Boswell’s Golf Club. Watching the golfers swing their clubs, hitting the white balls with a satisfying smack, I am aware that being near them is the most interaction I had had with another human being all day so far. It makes me strangely disappointed that they should be invading my dream time. My path! After I’ve checked my ego and have paid penance by walking up a very steep brae, I emerge into St Boswell’s main street in time for lunch. There’s only one thing for it. To Main Street Trading and don’t spare the horses!

Main Street Trading is a thoroughly charming bookshop cum cafe and is undoubtedly, one of my favourite places in Scotland! I refuel with a delicious tomato and lentil soup and cheese scone chaser. Much needed at this 7ish mile mark in what will end up being a 16 mile walk. A father with his young son chat to me about the area. He tells me how he moved his family over from Glasgow for a quieter pace of life. Understandable really when you consider the sense of space and safety that rural living provides. (Plus, incredible local bookshops and coffee!)

Once fully charged from my tasty lunch, I venture on along the lush banks of the Tweed until I come to the lovely, blue suspension bridge that carries the path onwards to Dryburgh Abbey. I flashback to the last weekend prior to lockdown 2020, when I crossed this with my partner and friend on a Borders ramble. But today, I am to vere leftwards up a climbing path which leads me under the busy A68 road that links England to Scotland. After another section of woodlands, replete with dog-walkers and many a pooch happy for a skrittle, I arrive in the ex-mill town of Newtown St Boswells … and somehow managed to get a bit lost not long after!

A premature right turn along a country lane, leads me over a wooden bridge, then up a hill whereupon I emerge into a sloping field. I figure that since the imposing mass of the Eildons are in view, that I must be heading in the right direction. My internal compass is pulling me in the direction of what I believe to be north, even though the map indicates that I am off course and should be a little more to the west and left! I scramble over a fence and find myself on the roadside of yet another country lane. I truly don’t have a scooby where I am. Just then, a beautiful, black horse appears and stands on the other side of the fence. They seem curious to find out where I’m headed. I pull my water bottle out of my backpack and lean against the fence, unfolding my map. The horse leans over my shoulder and I stroke its lovely neck. I imagine that for a driver passing along this road, it’s quite the comedic scene to behold as I consult with my local guide over the best route towards the Eildons. “What do you think?” I ask the horse.  “Should I travel westwards along this road or straight upwards towards the hills?” The horse gives a gentle snort and motions upwards. Its graceful head seems to be motioning upwards. I take this as my direction. “Thank you,” I say. Then I bid my gentle, equine friend a fond farewell with a final neck rub and head uphill, marvelling at my magical encounter. 

I find myself wandering along an autumnal lane. The October afternoon has brightened and fresnel-like beams of breezy sunshine illuminate the fallen leaves turning them into a carpet of kickable gold. I’m still lost though, albeit happily so. However, my slightly concerned face always betrays me and as a diminutive man and I pass each other exchanging pleasantries he asks me, “Are you lost?” “Yes,” I reply. The next five minutes or so reveal that my acquaintance has moved down to the Border country from Glasgow and that he regularly walks the Eildons and the surrounding area. What better person to help me get back onto the right path! His wise face and stature remind me of Dungeon Master from the 1980s cartoon, Dungeons and Dragons. He tells me that I’m not too far off the well-trodden path and that if I keep heading in my current direction of travel I will arrive at Bowden Green where I’ll find the St Cuthbert’s Trail once more. Thanking him sincerely, I recommence walking and as I do so, something registers with me. I realise that my local guide is none other than ex-Herald newspaper scribe, Alan Taylor. Hey, I might end up in one of his diaries! The Lost Lady Hiker o’ the Borderlands. Now, that’s got a ring to it.        

Upon reaching the crossroads which sets me back en route, I mentally high five Alan and head onwards with a renewed spring in my step. I head onwards through woods that carpet the foothills of the Eildons until I reach a diversion of paths. It’s just as I’m deliberating which way to go that – as if by magic – my Dungeon Master. Alan reappears. “Ah, it’s yourself! You found your way back onto the path then.” We stop and chat for a wee while, Alan nodding in approval at my choice of digs for tonight, The Buccleuch Arms in St Boswells. He stayed there once during a snowstorm in winter and tells me that the fireplace downstairs is the perfect place to coorie up with a book. Nice tip for later. Then, off he disappears through the trees again. I can’t help but feel a sense of heureux hasard about all three encounters so far. It’s as if my guardian angel is watching over me, creating these interventions to keep me safe. My thoughts turn to mum and my late friend, Kelda, and my grandfather, Bert. I am following the St Cuth-berts Way after all I say to myself with a smile.  

The sunlight of the foothills gives way to mist as I ascend the hills. I dreamwalk my way up and over the dip between North and Mid Hills before sitting down on a rock to rest. My legs are tired and my eyes are starting to follow the trend. This is my Dorothy in the poppy fields moment here in the mist, “Isn’t it beautiful?”… A loud bark has my eyelids shooting up and I see a small, grey terrier come charging out of the cloud. Toto?! Hotly pursuing, is her owner. “Daisy! Daisy! Come back here!” My disappointment that the dog isn’t called Toto is palpable.

After five minutes or so, I gingerly make my way down the slippery scree of North Hill. I stop to gaze down upon the quaint, Visit Scotland advertisement that is Melrose. I feel a gentle, warming euphoria come over me as I look down at my walking boots, caked in pink felsite. The hallmark of true adventures. Once I’m fully descended, I try to wipe the worst of it off on a grass verge. Arriving in the town square I’m glad that I’ve tidied myself up as it would appear that my glowing chariot has materialised. One private hire taxi awaits to spirit me back to Harestanes and my car.          

A couple of hours and a long, hot shower Iater, I make my way downstairs to the hotel restaurant. I raise a glass of red in celebration of today’s success. A toast: to guardian angels, wise horses, and Alan Taylor.

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