I know little of my family tree. The branches were chopped up for kindling before my grandparents' time. Therefore I have always felt, well . . . rootless.
Questions to my father about my forebears went unanswered. Southerners of my father's generation were reticent about such things. "My daddy was a railroad man. He died when I was a boy. Go ask your mother."
Mama didn't know. Neither did she know much about her own stock. Her mother died when she was young; her father went blind shortly afterward and ended up in a poorhouse; so she was sent as a bondservant to live with a widow named Mrs. Drear. With a name like that, you can imagine mama's wretched existence. All she knew about her paternal grandfather was that he had escaped from an orphanage in Ireland. He stowed away on a ship to Boston and eventually made his way to Pennsylvania, where he married and begot a family. During the gold rush of '49 he abandoned his wife and children, headed west and was never heard from again. It all sounded to me like the Dickens--with an inkling of Robert Louis Stevenson.
During WWII my family moved from Arkansas to Los Angeles. There I studied music and began a satisfying and profitable career, one which was brought to an untimely halt by a two-year stint in the army--D.D. Eisenhower desperately needed my warm body for the Cold War. On release from my involuntary servitude, I moved to New York and resumed my chosen profession. Later, I married and was blessed with two daughters. Over the years I had lost interest in searching for my roots, but the inevitable questions from my girls eventually brought it back.
In my late thirties I met my guru. Swami Harihar Das led me through several past-life experiences. In one incarnation I was the misbegotten son of a French aristocrat. To avoid the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, I escaped to England with my mother (my ex-wife in my current incarnation). I must have remained, for in the next presentment I was a pig farmer in Wiltshire near Swindon (where I first met my present wife). In a later life I was a chaplain in the British Navy during WWI. As near as I can tell (the mental picture was silent and in smoky black and white), I drowned during either a violent storm or a raging battle. That experience was enough to make me abandon my search! So for all my trouble I came away knowing more about myself, but still nothing of my unbound family ties.
Swami-ji also taught me a technique to use in meditation: If you're being bothered by a question ask it before you begin to meditate; once you've begun the answer will soon appear. When I moved to Puerto Rico several years later, that trick came in handy. One evening as I sat in a half-lotus position preparing for my twilight trip to the void, I asked, "Now that I'm in my late-fifties and have accomplished all that I set out to, what shall I do with the rest of my life?"
Before I'd reached the timelessness of Nirvana, I got the void (my inner voice sometimes imitates Mel Brooks' 2,000-Year-Old Man): "Take a hike!"
Naturally, I was blown away, especially since the impression left in my mind implied a walk around the world. Although I've been a composer and a jazz musician most of my life and am well used to dealing with abstractions, I took it literally. After all, if you disturb the cosmic force to ask a question, it would be unwise--possibly even disastrous--to deny the answer, whether implicit or explicit, to your liking or not, no matter how comical it may seem at the time.
Nevertheless, for a year or so I sidestepped. Other than a twenty-mile forced march when I was a Cold Warrior and two or three mile strolls around Manhattan since walking was faster than taking buses, subways or taxis, I knew next to nothing about hiking, even less about trekking the entire globe. Maybe someday I'd take a round-the-world cruise instead. That should satisfy the VOICE.
Then Hurricane Hugo blew away my jazz club in Old San Juan. Shortly afterward my little Le Car was broadsided by a speeding truck. I quickly comprehended that this was not a trifling matter; I'd best get moving. Fast! I'll do almost anything given a good reason and at the moment those reasons were good enough.
Still uncertain why I'd been assigned this arduous task, in August of 1991 I grudgingly began. Bob the carefree bebopper became Robert the reluctant rover. Perhaps I'd discover the purpose of the journey somewhere along the way?
All across the USA, from the glassy steel and concrete monuments of mammon in New York City to the bikini-clad beauties on the sandy beaches of the blue Pacific, I sought the answer. People everywhere asked me why a middle-aged man would want to do such a damn-fool thing as walk around with a pack on his back? Unsure of the answer, the best I could come up with was "I think it's because mama wouldn't let me join the Boy Scouts."
If the quest was to find the roots of my country, I had done that while trudging across the French and Indian War, Revolutionary War and War of 1812 battlegrounds in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio; the Civil War battlefields in Kentucky and Tennessee; the Indian Wars battlements in Arkansas and Oklahoma; the Mexican War battle sites in Texas; the westward expansion through the dried-blood colored mountains in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona; then the black-and-white battlefronts in South Central L.A. If the purpose was to find my roots . . . not yet.
As far back as I can remember Ive had a strong spiritual bond with the British Isles. Celtic music, the fierce melancholy wail of bagpipes, the bittersweet poetry of Robbie Burns and the lonely, windswept Yorkshire moors deeply stir my soul. Hell, I even like accordions and Ceilidh (kaylee) bands. My ancestors were Scots-Irish with a trace of Welsh, so all that is understandable. Yet my love goes deeper. Its more magical, more mystical, possibly because of previous lifetimes spent in these misty isles.
I've never been able to keep Britains history straight. Nor it seems can most Brits: Theres too much of it! And so many nationalities invaded and inhabited its shores, each adding to the lexisCelts, Romans, Jutes, Angles, Scandinavians, Saxons and Normans to name but a fewthe myriad, exotic place-name meanings confound me, too. Whats more, the geography eludes me. As I began this second leg of my attempt to circle the globe it appeared that might continue.
Before I left my current home in Columbus, Ohio, Id spent considerable time studying atlases, maps, brochures and books to find a suitable route through Britain. During my research I came across some odd descriptions. One myopic soul mistakenly described Britain's shape as vaguely triangular. Paul Theroux was far more accurate; he saw the coastline as a witch sitting atop a pig. Of course I would be walking north to south. Upside down the outline looked more like a David Levine caricature of Punch. The southern coastline from Gravesend to Plymouth forms his coxcomb cap, Exeter to Lands End the tassel, and the M62 to Hadrians Wall his cowl. Hes sticking his tongue (Lleyn Peninsula) out at Ireland and giving a two-finger salute to Belfast. Make of Arran, Islay and Benmore Head what you will.
Once my itinerary was decided I tried locally to obtain maps and guidebooks for the paths I planned to walk. My efforts, however, proved bootless. Even here at Londons bustling Heathrow, astir with folks taking advantage of the long holiday weekend, none were to be had. So I was, I suppose you could say . . . routeless.
Impervious to the hubbub around me, I stood in front of the news agents empty map bins trying to convince myself that all would be fine. Youve been a jazz musician most of your life. You know how to get by with only a lead sheet (which is really what the road maps Id brought with me amounted to). Anyway, youve always prided yourself on being empiric. Youve also demonstrated a rather keen dislike of pedantry. Thats why you dropped out of college, remember? You felt schooling got in the way of your education. The World is your university. Go study it.
On boarding the British Midlands midday flight to Edinburgh, I suspected that I was about to receive, if not an answer, at the very least a graduate course.
After passing over the morass of dun-colored attached, semi-detached and unattached flats and cottages the plane quickly reached cruising altitude. It was a rare day in England; the sun was shining. Hardly a cloud blocked my porthole view down to where bands of rivers, stone walls and concrete roadways intertwined patches of gold, green, tan and brown into a net of camouflage. Seldom was there a straight line or a right angle, unlike the checkerboard pattern of Americas Midwest.
Only an occasional village or hamlet indicated human habitation. Considering that Great Britain is roughly the same size as New York and has almost twice the population, Id expected more of an urban sprawl. The lack of forests was also puzzling. From reading stories and seeing films about Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, I thought there would be far more trees. Could this be the source of Jonathan Swifts allegory? Had the Lilliputians cut them down to build Gullivers go-cart?
Many of the fields of gold and green were surely crops, but what kind? And the blotches of tan and brown: were they fallow farmland? The planes rippling shadow soon made it clear: Most were hills and mountains. From this altitude they seemed nearly flat. I hoped they remained so when I walked through that mysterious hodgepodge. Im a bass player, not a piccolo player; great heights make me giddy.
A few forests began to show as we flew farther north. They seemed new growth; still they delighted. Soon, however, came several forbidding tracts of black. I had no idea what they were, but they filled me with inexplicable apprehension. And I hoped against hope that the glistening spots of white on the hilltops were merely naked sandstone or limestone. After all it was May, and since I expected to reach Istanbul by October I hadnt brought any winter clothes.
Edinburgh Castles jagged spires and ramparts loomed in silhouette against the horizon during our descent over the Pentland Hills. From its dark perch high atop Castle Rock, ominously overlooking the gaping mouth of the River Forth, this eerie "hill fort of Eidin" dominates the entire city.
On the far side of the castle lies a ravine that once was the Norloch moat. For centuries it served to intercept foreign invaders. Later it did the same for internecine marauders. In less troublesome times it was drained and filled. Now it is a public garden.
Beyond the garden is Princes Street. There, sparkling in the sunlight, stand the Craigleith stone buildings of the Georgian New Town. Many of them were designed by the famous Adam brothers.
When the plane began its turn into Turnhouse Airport, the Old Towns medieval "witches hat" turrets appeared. Running eastward down the narrow ridge of Castle-hill as if seeking to escape from the fortress, they manage to reach only into the deep shadows at its foot. These buildings seem to have been designed by the infamous Addams family.
I chose Edinburgh as a staging ground because I have a friend here. David Finkelstein had tended bar in my nightclub in Puerto Rico before leaving for college. He later won his doctorate at Edinburgh University and was now teaching English literature at Napier. I knew Id need a place to spend a few days before taking on the rigors of a walk across Europe to the Bosporusto get over jet lag and to grow accustomed to the flora in the local waters. You dont want to begin your globetrot with the trots.
David and his wife, Alison, gave me the grand tour of Edinburgh and its environs. They showed me Arthurs Seat, a saddle-shaped volcanic hill that rises above Castle Rock; the University; the woolens shops on the Royal Mile; and Holyrood (Holy Cross) Park, site of the 12th-century Holyrood Abbey and the early 16th-century Holyroodhouse. This palace was the home of Mary Queen of Scots until she was beheaded by order of Queen Elizabeth I. Its still used by Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, on their annual visits to Scotland to remind the Scots whos in charge.
At teatime we stopped for refreshments at Deacon Brodies Tavern, an ancient pub in the Old Town. Alison introduced me to pasties (tasty, but rhymes with nasties) of neeps and tatties (turnip and potato turnovers). David acquainted me with McEwans 80, an excellent ale. There is also a McEwans 70, which is slightly weaker. The 70 and 80 come from the old tax system, when these beers were taxed at 70 and 80 shillings per barrel and a shilling was still worth a shilling: about $5.75 and $6.00. Although the names of the brews have stayed the same, at $3.00 a pint you can imagine how long ago they stopped levying that petty tax.
After our brew break we visited the historic St. Giles church. Its medieval lantern tower (an open spire supported by flying buttresses) gives the appearance that its wearing a crown. Before his death in 1572, the Scottish Reformation leader John Knox delivered fiery sermons from the pulpit of St. Giles. Possibly to my forebears: Id just learned that the Bowers, a sept (division) of the clan MacGregor had originated in Edinburgh.
A crossed-out heart lies embedded in the hard gray cobblestones of the Grassmarket outside St. Giles. This is no Holy Cross. It is the symbol of centuries of unmerciful cruelty and heartlessness. X marks the spot where the gibbet of the notorious Tolbooth Prison once stood. Before they were hanged on the gallows tree, the prisoners (many of them debtors, most of them political which pretty much described the populace) were taken from their cells to the Tolbooths chapel to "mend their hearts." You wouldnt want a broken heart to interfere with the breaking of your neck, would you? Many of those prisoners were probably my same unforbaring forebears. Among other things, the name Bowers means bow makers. Given the terrible tenor of the times it is quite likely they were also bow users. Whether they were or they were not, following the custom here in Edinburgh, the Heart of Midlothian, with loathing in our hearts we spat on that spot.
While watching the fireworks discharge from Arthurs Seat in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of V-E Day, on Monday, May 8th, we drank a fifth on the Firth of Forth. Try saying that with your belly full of Ballantines.
David dropped me off on the outskirts of Edinburgh early the next morning. The holiday weekend had been sunny and summery. Tuesday proved cloudy and cool. I was warm enough, though, for with the addition of food and water my pack weighed fifty-five pounds. So even lightly dressed in cotton-lined nylon warm-ups I was generating plenty of heat as I strolled off down the carriageway (two-lane road) A68.
A slight problem remained. As at Heathrow, all the bookstores had been out of the Ordnance Survey maps and guidebooks that I needed. My small road map of Scotland was insufficient to guide me even to the beginning of the Pennine Way. I soon realized that this walk was akin to an attempt to play the bass part of a major Romantic symphony with merely a fake book for a guide.
The map showed that the closest town past Dalkeith was Lauder, about twenty-five miles south. I didnt care to spend the night in Dalkeith. I had seen its palace and cruciform church on our Sunday outing. Besides, it was less than ten miles away. Twenty-five miles was a long hike, especially the first day out. But it appeared that I had no choice. I was in good physical condition, definitely in better shape than when I began my walk across the U.S. Still, I didnt relish a repeat of what happened to me that first day. The haul throughout the mall-sprawl of New Jersey was more than thirty miles on searing concrete. It took two weeks to get over the blisters.
Unlike my trek across the States (where only major cities and a few small towns had them), here, all the way to Dalkeith and beyond, there were sidewalks. They ran along just one side of the carriageway and changed sides often, so it was necessary to cross overusually at a curve. But I didnt mind switching sides; it helped straighten out the road and shortened the distance. There was hardly any traffic; few hedges blocked the view of oncoming vehicles; so crossing the two-lane road didnt present a great problemas long as I remembered that the British drive on the left. The only drawback was that Britain doesnt have Americas oft-overlooked anti-pollution laws. Whenever a motor vehicle did pass, it fouled the air with its noxious diesel fumes.
As the sun slowly burned away the haze, the Pentland Hills gradually arose and stretched themselves above expanses of green meadows. Queen Annes lace curtsied and broad acres of golden flowers waved in the gentle midday breeze. Off in the distance at the foot of the fields the Firth of Forth merged with the North Sea.
The Lammermuir Hills, birthplace of the American conservationist John Muir, began to spread out before me in the late afternoon. Half remembered passages from Sir Walter Scotts novel The Bride of Lammermoor waffed through my mind. Then, like the threatening strains of the overture to Donizettis Lucia di Lammermoor, clouds began to blacken the sky. Before long I was enveloped in dense fog.
I staggered through the woolly gray vapor up the narrow carriageway, carefully tapping my staff side to side as if I was "it" in a game of blindmans buff. Imagine my surprise when after a while I realized that the road had grown sides.
Have I bumped into Hadrians Wall?
I soon grasped that I must be on a bridge. Although I couldnt see a river, I could hear the soft, hollow sound of water rippling against the piers. Thank God I had moved off the path onto the road, otherwise I would have waded straight into the River Tyne.
On the far side of the bridge the road began to rise and curve. Suddenly I halted. In a small bright clearing called a "fog dog" stood a signpost . . . PATHEAD. I had been so engrossedfirst in the stunning beauty of my surroundings, then in trying to maintain my courseI had no idea how far Id traveled. Pathead? It didnt appear on my map. Could this be the start of the Pennine Way? I was unsure where the Way actually began. I had read that it was at Kirk Yetholm, but that wasnt shown on this map, either. Id hoped, however, it was close to Hadrians Wall, since that was at the top of the one decent map I had been able to obtain at home.
It may seem that I take a cavalier attitude toward travel. Not really. I may be foolhardy but Ive always trusted that God takes care of fools, drunks and children. I certainly fit into two of those categories. Possibly all three: Im still a child at heart. Besides, Christopher Columbus made it to where he was going on sheer faith. Well, perhaps not exactly where he intended, but he got somewhere. Surely Im no less a manafter all, he required three boatsand look at all the discoveries he made by accident. I plan carefully, just not completely. It leaves me open to all the wonders found off maps.
Among those serendipitous findings was an inn in Pathead. There I was provided food, ale, lodging and congenial companionship. Of the many other delightful discoveries I was to make in Britain, this one was best: No matter how far you are from a village or a hamlet, youre rarely far from a good inn.
I was unsure if Pathead meant "pat head" or "path-head." Although I was given a heros welcome, no one actually patted my head. I saw no path. I saw no village. The mist was so thick that the inn was all I that did see. But I was too embarrassed to ask my gracious host how to pronounce Pathead or what it truly meant. In response to the facetious question I did ask he solemnly assured me that I wasnt in Brigadoon.
"Thas in the Highlands."
Pathead turned out to be much more than the inn. A small village of elegant one- and two-storied houses, many with pantiled roofs, glowed in the morning sun as I walked off up the High Street.
Over the Lammermuirs to Lauder cropland gradually gave ground to pasture. Lammermoor lions and their newborn lambs lazed about on the rolling slopes of verdant hills capped by clouds as white and fleecy as their ruffs. On the lower levels, horses grazed. Pheasants were plentiful and so tame that they didnt even bother skittering away when I passed. Not so the grouse and the rabbits. You could scarcely walk more than a few feet without scaring up several. And the grouse made it painfully clear where the verb "grouse" came from.
One rabbit I passed didnt run. It merely stumbled around in a circle. When I looked closer I saw blood coming from its ears and eyes. The poor creature was searching for something. Sometimes it would fall over, then right itself and continue the search. Unsure if rabbits could have rabies I rushed on.
Because I have lived in large cities most of my life I am ignorant of many of natures wonders, as well as mans working with and against them. At every bend in the road there would be something to remind me of that. What were all those big blackbirds? Crows? Ravens? Jackdaws? Rooks? Sometimes one would be hung from a tree or a fence post. Was that to serve as a warning to the others? What about the enormous mounds of gigantic yellow vegetables piled beside the road? They were larger than pumpkins! Could they be turnips? Why was it that all the saplings were planted in plastic sleeves? Was it to make them grow straight? And why were some of the lambs stained pink, yet others powdered blue? Was that so you could tell a ram from a ewe?
Puzzling over these things and many more, I traipsed into the village of Gordon. The sun didnt set until well after ten oclock this time of year, but typical of this northern clime the sky had quickly turned cloudy. Although it couldnt have been more than half-past-six, already it was near dark.
I remember reading in a novel that it was a bad idea to enter a strange town at dusk when youre tired and hungry. Of course that was a story about a con man, not a hiker. For hikers its an everyday occurrence. Well I wasnt about to be put off by the gloomy appearance of this small village, not even by the bleak Gordon Arms Hotel which peeked uninvitingly through the fog. Tired, I was. And thirsty. And hungry.
Id had nothing to eat since midday. For once, there were no inns on the way, merely a mobile lunch-wagon parked in a lay-by along the roadside. I must have cut quite a figure with my walking staff and shiny, black and gray warm-ups with a fleur-de-lys on the back, my hoary beard and long hair protruding from a black balaclava. The large, jolly woman who owned the stand served me a burger and a cup of tea. Thenevidently mistaking me for a crusadershe refused payment and wished me Godspeed on my journey to the Holy Land.
Americans have a mistaken impression of the Scots. Weve heard that they are a proud, dour, quarrelsome, penny-pinching people who would rather fight and die than part with a farthing. My experiences proved that image to be far from correct. Proud? Yes. Fiercely proud! Who wouldnt be when you consider the hardscrabble they live on and the countless centuries they fought to protect it from foreign invaders? Scots are such ferocious fighters that they still lead the British Army into battle armed with only their bagpipesthough thats enough to scare hell out of any enemy. The Romans had to build two massive coast-to-coast walls to try and keep them out of England. Of course the Scots say it was the best idea the Romans ever had: Those walls also helped keep the English out of Scotland.
Its true that the Scots dont smile a lot. But chances are good that if we lived in a cold damp land where the sun seldom shines, and subsisted on haggis (oatmeal and offal meats stuffed into a sheeps stomach), we wouldnt smile so often eitherunless we followed the local custom of dousing our haggis with whisky.
Penny-pinching? How many of you as total strangers have been given a meal by a mobile luncheonette owner? How many have had a bartender buy your second pint of ale? Charlie Campbell, the proprietor of the Gordon Arms Hotel did. Charlie isnt a true Scot; hes an Irishman with a Scots name. Still, his business is in Scotland.
Typical of those who have worked hard and received little, Charlie has a glum face and sad eyes. Yet hes kept his sense of humor; theres still a twinkle of merriment concealed there. At heart he is a staunch liberal. But hes lived long enough to realize that liberalism rarely works, so his intelligence has seduced him into uneasy conservatism. As Winston Churchill remarked, "If youre not a liberal at twenty, you have no heart, and if youre not a conservative at forty, you have no head."
When Id finished eating, Charlie offered to walk with me to the tower at the far end of town. He said that although he had been in Gordon for several yearsever since he gave up lorry driving and became the proprietor of the hotelhe had never been inside.
The fog had lifted. Although now quite late, it was still light out. Even so, the old village retained its gloom. Acrid coal smoke rose from the chimney pots into the leaden sky, then, laden with moisture, it drifted down again to lay on another coat of soot.
As we walked down a row of dingy cottages, Charlie told me that Gordon had once been a thriving, industrious village filled with artisans and shops. Now only the stone cutter remained. Gravestones were strewn haphazardly throughout the yard beside his cottage, awaiting the touch of his chisel to inscribe yet another name.
We soon reached some open fields at the edge of town. On a knoll off in the distance to our left were woods. "Its a chase, a game preserve," Charlie said. "It was given to the townsfolk by the fourth Duke of Gordon. He wanted to be sure they always had something to eat. Nice of im," he added with disdain. "Its teeming with game. The villagers still hunt there."
Startled by our footsteps, a flurry of rabbits scurried across the snow-patched fields. Several others scuttled into burrows in the sides of the muddy banks. During Britains hundred-year subjugation by the Normans poaching one of these lowly creatures was punishable by death. Could be thats why there are more rabbits than Scots.
"What a shame the people dont hunt those," I said. "Theyd never go hungry. And it would have to be more humane than killing them with . . . what did you call that disease?"
"Myxomatosis. Thats why the folks dont eat them. They dont want to catch it."
I asked him about the patches of snow. "Isnt it a bit late in the year?"
"Here, you never know. Until a few days ago we had two weeks like summer. We were running around in shirtsleeves. Wouldnt surprise me if we get more tomorrow."
I shivered at the thought.
Greenknowe Tower stands atop the highest hill. It is a formidable L-shaped structure made of massive blocks of brick-red sandstone and creamy limestone mixed with rubble stones blackened by centuries of wood, peat and coal smoke. The only entrance is at the reentrant angle where the two wings meet making it easily defended from the corbelled turret. Above the portal is a stone lintel finely chiseled with a date, two family shields and two sets of initials: I.S. for James Seton, and I.E. for his wife Jane Edmonstone. In 1581 it was still common to use the Roman "I" instead of the medieval cursive variant "J." I'm not sure if this was done to defy Elizabeth I or the Scots were hedging their bets in case the Romans returned.
A strong iron grill and a stout timber door, both blackened with age, provide entry into an antechamber. I was impressed that such a large door still swung open so smoothly on its iron hinges. Moreso at how difficult it would have been for aspirant invaders to burn down the door then smash through the gate with a battering ramparticularly with stones, boiling oil or red-hot coals raining down. Though surely many tried.
A turnpike stair past the antechamber leads down to the vaulted kitchen and its large, arched, pothook-studded fireplace. It also spirals up to the main hall, where a few patches of discolored plaster tenaciously cling to stone. The top floors have fallen away. From the landing we could see all the way to the roof, four stories above. On each level is a fireplace. Some are decorated with ornate side pilasters; all have the family shields carved in the mantletree. Several wall recesses where oaken floor beams once rested vacantly stare into space.
Like timid but determined schoolboys we cautiously mounted the dusky turret stairs. A flush of pigeons nestled in the niches halfway up startled the bejesus out of us! Litter covered the steps. Graffiti was everywhere. Charlie said this was a place favored by the local youth. He hoped that would change now that the National Trust had taken over.
From the parapet we could see hilltops on the hazy horizon in all directions. There once were towers on many of them. Throughout the Borders, from the Cheviots to the Pentlands and beyond, their polished-brass beacons flashed a warning to the various clans: Dismount your lasses/ Kiss kith and kin/ Gird up your loins, lads/ Theyre comin again.
I like to get an early start when Im walking. Since the morning meal is rarely served before 08.00 in the UK, rather than wait around doing nothing I decided to photograph the tower before breakfast. Charlie agreed to push breakfast ahead to "half-seven," and when we returned to the hotel he gave me a key to the side door. The iron key must have dated from the first lairds of Gordon in the early twelfth century. It weighed easily a half-pound.
The sun rose at half-past three. I didnt. I slept until six, dressed, grabbed up my camera and started out. Charlies prediction proved right, there was a light dusting of snow in the cobbled alleyway. A few flurries still swirled about. Despite geologists claim, its difficult to believe that Scotland was once at the Equator.
When I returned from photographing the tower, Charlies wife, Rita, prepared me an Irish breakfast. It comprised juice, a choice of cereals, a pot of coffee, two strips of lean bacon, two bangers (sausages), an egg from a discriminating hen, broiled tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, fried bread, a rack of toast with fresh creamery butter and a selection of preserves and marmalades. Sometimes there are even beans. Variously called Scottish, English, Irish, or simply "full" breakfast its more or less the same all over the United Kingdom. Breakfast, alone, is almost worth the price of a B&B.
I was surprised when I went to settle my bill: pleasantly so. "Charlie, are you sure you included everything? Drinks, dinner, bed and breakfast?" He said he had. He had bought most of my drinks. "Well, what about my laundry?"
"Ah," he waved his hand in dismissal, "Rita was delighted to do it for you. You may find it a wee bit damp, though. She left it on the line overnight and the snow got to it."
When I paid him, he looked at the travelers check as if it were the first he had seen. "Do you have cash? Theres no bank here and we do like to keep our costs down." Fortunately, I also had British currency. Included in my change were two Scottish pounds. "Best to use these before you leave Scotland," he warned. "The English dont like them."
"How will I know when Ive left Scotland? Will there be a sign? Actually, Im not even sure how to get to the Pennine Way from here."
He told me to continue on the road to Kelso. From there it was but a short walk to Kirk Yetholm where the Way begins. "If you want a shortcut to Kelso just go down here to the end of the street and turn left. Theres a public footpath that leads to the castle. From there you can pick up the road again. Itll save you a few steps."
I thanked Charlie for his hospitality and his kindness, then packed my damp laundry into a plastic bag and stuffed it in my pack. Later, if the sun ever came out, I would hang it from my pack to dry in hope of eliminating the excess weight. I snapped his photo, added his name and address to my tiny address book and left.
An hour later I returned. I had seen the Earl of Haddingtons Mellerstain (an uninspired, spireless Georgian Mansion), and had even spent some time reminiscing about my days of writing jingles for Madison Avenue with two young men who were preparing to film a commercial there. But while standing on the bridge out of town, viewing the castle from afar, I made a startling discovery. Unlikely as it may seem, I still had the hotel key in my pocket.
My walk to Kelso was sheer joy. On the western horizon the Lammermuir Hills were still enshrouded in morning mist. Shafts of sunlight sifted through the drifting clouds and dappled the dark green meadows with pools of lighter hues. Infrequent patches of gorse and hedgerows of holly added welcome texture and color to the otherwise smoothly rolling pasture. A splendid white stallion left his brood mares and proudly strode over to the split rail fence to bestow a good morning greeting on me.
After a few miles the sidewalk disappeared, yet the gentle rises and falls in the road made the going easy. I marched along the soft shoulder (what the British call the verge or the margin of the carriageway), whistling an impromptu Scots-like air and pumping my staff as if I were leading a parade of pipers. It's amazing how we behave like children when we know only God is watching.
There was no traffic, nothing to disturb me. For a change even the few bits of litter along the roadside weren't upsetting. I did notice, however, that it was exactly the same litter I had seen on my walk across the U.S. Other than the expected cigarette butt or pack, all the trash came from McDonalds, Budweiser and Coke. What do you suppose it is about these American products that makes people want to instantly rid themselves of the packaging?
Even the weather was no bother. It snowed again for a while, but Charlie had said no self-respecting Scotsman would think of taking a hike unless the ground was covered with snow. The sun burned through and quickly melted it all away, so I didnt find out if that was true. Later it rained. Soon the sun came out again. Shortly before I reached Kelso the mist turned to sleet. Still my spirit wasnt dampened, neither was my clothing. It all rolled off my back. With only a hint of a breeze to blow them, the snow, sleet, rain and mist were gentle as a maiden kiss. With eyes closed, only the slightest tingling sensation on my face and hands gave any indication they ever happened.
The sun beamed down anew as I passed the stone wall surrounding Floors (Fleurs) Castle. I was tempted to go in, but it was urgent that I reach the information center before it closed. Just past the entrance to the castle the road branched: Bowmont Street or Roxburgh Street? When Im in doubt and there is no one around to ask, I always take the high road. If there is no high road I go left. I cant tell you why but this usually works for me.
On Bowmont Street the high school had just let out. I tried to stop some students to see if I had chosen correctly. Bunches of boys in smart school uniforms stared as if I was a medieval vagabond. I had to step into the gutter as they hurriedly brushed on by. Groups of girls giggled, but at least they made way. One girl was polite enough to stop and offer directions. As it were, I could have taken either street. Both reach the cobbled town square (claimed the largest in Scotland) and led through concrete circles of colorful potted flowers and the Bull Ring to the Town House, in whose Council Chamber sits the Tourist Information Centre (TIC).
A winsome lass in the TIC was most helpful. She checked her bed-and-breakfast list in the price range I could afford then telephoned one to make sure there was an available room. She took out a town map, showed me where we were, and marked its location. "Its just up Horsemarket to Rose Lane, right next to the Roxy Cinema." For this service I paid her 10% of the price of the room, which was later deducted from my bill by the owner of the B&B. Since this was the first Tourist Information Centre Id seen I was impressed they could do all that. How civilized. We should have such a service in the States.
As courteous, charming and helpful as the young lady was, she still didnt fulfill all my needs. After a long search among the racks and shelves and a brief consultation with a colleague, she disappeared into a back room. A while later she emerged. With several "tsks" and a lot of head shaking and hand wringing and a look of total disbelief wrinkling her bonny brow, she apologized.
"Im terribly sorry, sir. You would think we would have them, wouldnt you? We usually have several, but we do seem to be all out at the moment."
Well, it wasnt a total disaster. She had film, which was a great relief since Id shot my last roll. And she did at least tell me how to get to Yetholm. It was six miles south on a road not shown on my map. Thankfully, I didnt have to go to Coldstream or Jedburgh as I was initially afraid I might.
"Those are lovely placesif you wish to make a small detour. But if you dont, you may find maps at the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm."
The likelihood of me making an east or west detour of forty miles or more was nil. The only reason I had settled on the four long-distance ways in the first place is that they all ran more or less due south. I didnt mind making a short detour, however. So after a brief stop at a bake shop for a Border tart and a Tweed Bannock, I checked into the B&B, "took tea," reloaded my camera, dropped in at the post office to mail the exposed film and a love note to my wife, Cynthia, then walked back toward Floors Castle.
Kelso (Kelsae) is nestled in a bend where the River Teviot joins the River Tweed. Sir Walter Scott, who studied here in 1783, described it as "the most beautiful if not the most romantic town in Scotland."
Kelsos song says:
Theres a fine auld toon in the Borderland
By the side o the banks o the Tweed,
Where the salmon leap on the silver strand,
And the game and the cattle feed.
The population is small (barely over 6,ooo) yet Kelso has an incredible number of facilities, indoors and out. There are sports-grounds, playgrounds, parks with tennis courts and bowling and putting greens, a swimming pool, a racecourse, a garden center, a pavilion, a museum, a public library, a cinema. Countless small shops, numerous hotels and bed and breakfasts, five banks and as many churches, three schools, a hospital and a health center line the streets, many of them cobbled. Theres even the ruin of an abbey founded in 1128 by King David I, reduced to its present state by the Earl of Hertford in 1545. But, most comforting of all to a walker, there are WCs (water closets, public restrooms) spread throughout the center of town.
From the Cobby Riverside Walk I watched white swans float effortlessly down the Teviot into the Tweed. Children played ball with their puppies on the banks while their parents and grandparents took tea in the picnic area. Sheep, horses and cattle grazed on the immense green lawn in front of the castle. I trust they are moved elsewhere (along with their droppings) for the occasional pipe band displays.
During the Middle Ages this was a much different sight. Then the Borders were an almost constant battleground of raids, invasion and counter-invasion. Kelso only began to develop around 1460 after the destruction of the town and castle of Roxburgh, which had occupied the peninsula across the rivers to the west. During a siege King James II was killedby the roar of an immense cannon called "the Lion." Afterward the castle was razed. Little remains: merely a few ruined walls shaded by ancient ash trees, a grassy mound and a deep ditch. Since then the people here have clearly learned to practice their motto: DAE RICHT, FEAR NOCHT.
If you saw the film Greystoke you have seen Floors Castle. It was used as the ancestral home of Tarzan. Designed by William Adam in the 1720s and tarted up with battlements, parapets, pepper-pot towers and a window for each day of the year by William Playfair a century later, it is really the ancestral home of the Dukes of Roxburghe. The current duke still resides here. There are two different fees for the tours: one for the inside of the castlewhich as you might expect contains many fine antiques and works of artand a lesser charge for the grounds and the gardens. With the hour late and my time and money limited, I chose the latter. I paid my entrance fee to a pudgy, sandy-hair, ruddy-faced chap, richly attired in tweed. He seemed friendly, yet somehow distant. It made me wonder if he were a poor relation forced against his will to work the till. Perchance times were hard and it was the Duke himself?
It is clear how Floors Castle got its name, also easy to understand why Kelso regularly wins the Britain in Bloom awards. Britons are masters at making gardens appear feral yet formal. Actually, its a great part of their charm and character. They take great effort to make everything they do appear artless and effortless, which may be why the French accuse them of being hypocrites. Even so, the goddess Flora must have designed these gardens. Yews, beeches, birches and hornbeams lofted above the diverse hedgerows lining the meandering gravel paths. Never have I seen such exquisite arrays of flowers. Almost everything appeared tropical or oriental, extraordinary when you consider the climatethough the climate is unusual; even when its cold its warm. Without plaques to identify them I had no idea what most of the plants were. That didnt stop my appreciation, however. As I stood outside the coffee shop sniffing the mingling aromas of food and flowers and admiring a bed bedecked with large vermilion blossoms, a pair of no less richly scented and finely attired dowagers approached.
"Lovely, arent they," the more stately one said. "Do you know what they are?" I said that I didnt, but agreed at length with her observation. "Are you Canadian?" she asked. "American," I replied. She seemed surprised. "Really? Then you must be an actor; you speak so well." I thanked her, then explained that I was a musician and a composer. At least I had been until I decided to attempt a walk around the world.
The other woman, a retiring creature who had been shyly standing behind her companion, peeped around her mates ample bosom. "Have you come far?" I told her that I had already walked across the United States. This current trek, however, Id begun only a few days ago in Edinburgh. I was on my way to the south of England, then on through the Continent to what many here still call "Constantinople." Ms. Titmous simpered and timorously ventured, "Surely you must be writing a book, then."
Strange that it never occurs to anyone I might be walking just for the joy of it. "As a matter of fact, I am. It is titled Edinburgh to Istanbul: the Worlds Longest Pub-crawl." I wasn't bragging; at the time it didnt occur to me that my ambition might exceed my ability.
Lady Philydia Powter-Pidgeon cooed. "And you say youve walked all across America? My, thats a rather long way!" She paused; a look of uncertainty furrowed her brow. "America is somewhat larger than Great Britain, isnt it." It was a statement, though just barely. Soon realizing the concept was beyond her scope, she quickly changed the subject. "Well, how terribly exciting! You must have been here for the Victory Celebration. Did you see it?"
"Yes, I did, in Edinburgh. There was a grand parade at the castle, complete with pipes and drums. And there was a spectacular fireworks display up on . . . hmm . . . I cant recall the name of the place. However, it had something to do with somebodys bum or backside." I hoped these words wouldnt be offensive to ladies of such obvious gentility but, my once photographic memory being reduced by age to the state of faded Polaroid prints, they were the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment. They were definitely less indelicate than the alliteration that ultimately did.
Both tittered. Tabitha Titmous blanched slightly and screened her face behind a lace glove. She chirped to Lady Powter-Pidgeon. "I think he means Arthurs Seat."
By the time Id finished taking some snapshots and departed, the gatekeeper had gone. Perhaps hed taken in sufficient pounds to pay the rent, with enough left over for a pint. A pint seemed a good idea at this point, so I made my way to a pub.
It was once said "in order to eat well in England you must have breakfast three times a day." That was true when I was here in the late 50s. Im delighted to report that it is no longer so. Nor is food necessarily expensiveat least if you have a "bar meal." Many places have both a restaurant and a bar. Understandably, the menu is more limited at the bar. Still you can often have the same meal from the same kitchen for a considerably lower price. And you dont have to eat it at the bar; there are always tables or banquettes in the barroom. For less than twenty dollars, with drinks and tip, my meal included a smoked pâté, and a grilled steak from a salmon freshly pulled from the Tweed.
I could have spent several days in this delightful old town. I had not yet visited the ruins of King Davids castle and the abbey church, or the octagonal Old Parish Church, or the white harled (stucco) Turret House that is now the Kelso Museum. Nor had I sampled the famous Kelsae Cheeses or a Kelsae Onion, one of which holds the worlds record at eleven pounds, two ounces. But though I was very close to Yetholm, I was still a long way from Istanbul.
Reluctant to leave, the next morning I crossed over the Tweed on John Rennies Kelso Bridge. While I stopped on the opposite shore to view the town for the last time, a vague image of Napoleon Bonaparte unexpectedly flowed into my thoughts. The portent was ambiguousthough I was hopeful that it signaled the marvelous things to come and not what had brought it to mind. You see, this graceful five-arched masonry viaduct served as the model for one of Rennies later bridges in London . . .
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© Copyright 1999 Robert Bowers
This page was last modified April 11, 2002