I thought I'd celebrate the end of my stormy flirt with the Pennine Way with a rest day, and where better to spend it than Jedburgh, my first Scottish destination and the first place in a while that didn't feel as if it had fallen off the map? Unfortunately the weather gods – no doubt tired out by the sunny fanfare they arranged for my triumphant arrival in the Borders Region – gave up trying to keep the clouds away and I awoke to a steady, unswerving rain that drizzled down at the optimum rate for maximum irritation.
Luckily, in the case of Jedburgh this only added to the atmosphere. Jedburgh Abbey, which dominates the centre of town, must be one of the most amazing sights this side of the border, so I happily paid my £3.50 entrance fee and stepped into my first experience of Historic Scotland (the Scottish equivalent of English Heritage). The abbey is stunning; picture a huge cathedral dating from the 12th century, and now imagine it with all the stained glass removed, the roof pulled off, the inside gutted and the stonework eroded by the forces of nature. It's like a huge, religious skeleton and from a distance it looks like a delicate filigree construction, the light shining through the empty windows and creating a beautiful silhouette against the cloudy sky.
The abbey was founded by King David I, who chose this site for a new abbey back in 1138. He specifically chose a position that was close to the border with England to demonstrate not only his piety but also the strength of his kingdom. Building started on or around the equinox, 25 March, when at sunrise two sticks were placed in line with the sun to ensure that the high altar would be correctly positioned at the east end. By 1150 the original church was complete and over the following years they built the living quarters and impressive nave, with cloisters positioned on the south side of the church to let in maximum light. The abbey was finished by about 1230, an incredible achievement by anyone's standards.
The abbey was extended in the mid-15th century after a number of English attacks destroyed various parts of it, and another serious attack in 1523 saw the Earl of Surrey's men burn the place down. The English took the whole town in 1547, then the French took possession the following year, and from then on the abbey slowly started to decay. The reformation in 1560 saw the dissolution of the abbey and although it soon fell into ruin, the locals still used it as a place of worship until 1875. In 1913 it passed into the care of the state and now it's a stunning tourist attraction.
The imposing architecture is atmospheric, especially when the rain pours straight through the non-existent roof, and in weather like this it's easy to imagine the austere life of the monks who lived here. The abbey was settled by Augustinian canons, probably from St Quenain near Beauvais in northern France, and one of the vows that these monks took was a vow of silence; the canons here couldn't talk except in a special room called the Parlour, or if they had to read from the Bible, say prayers or conduct official business.
On top of that, their routine makes a boring day at work look positively stimulating. Each day the canons would attend eight services, eat just one vegetarian meal and have to get up at 2.30am, even in the middle of winter. As I set off on the trail again this morning, I found that thought comforting; walking these distances might have its downside, but it's nothing compared to the challenge of being a mediaeval monk.
Ringing in the Changes
Again, if I hadn't known I was in Scotland today, I'd have sworn I was in Devon or Somerset. After the bleakness of the Pennines, the Borders Region of Scotland is a rural paradise, and with this morning's sunshine and a pleasant lack of rain all day, I feel as good as I did when walking along the Severn.
The differences with Devon are numerous, though, even if the landscape is eerily similar. As soon as I crossed over the Cheviots and descended into Jedburgh, people started speaking with Scottish accents; this instant change would be strange if it weren't for the great range of hills that separates England and Scotland at this point, providing a physical barrier around which it's easy to see how two totally different accents could develop.
Not only has the accent changed, but the money looks different too. Instead of the Bank of England notes I'm used to, I'm having not only to get my head round the different colours and designs of the Scottish notes, but also the fact that they come in three different flavours: the Bank of Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Clydesdale Bank all produce notes. I rather like them, if only because the Queen has been replaced by people like Sir Walter Scott – a fair swap – and one of the £10 notes has a picture of a whisky distillery on the back, which is handy if you get so incapacitated by drink that you can't speak; the note comes complete with a pre-written order for the barman on the back.
The food is different too; for example, the fish and chip shop in Jedburgh sells haggis, something you don't find south of the border. The beer's strange as well; I'm now sampling brews like 70 Shillings and Tartan Pale Ale, though so far they've all been relatively sterile. Indeed, the latter managed the incredible task of tasting as if it had been served straight from a can, a clever trick for a draught beer.
But the most impressive change is the sudden upsurge in national identity once you're over the border. Ask an Englishman to write his nationality on an official form, and he's just as likely to write 'British' as 'English'; ask a Scotsman to do the same, and he'll definitely write 'Scottish.' I've only been in Scotland for a couple of days, but I've already come across a number of reminders of the sometimes rocky relationship between the English and Scottish, and I think it's great.
For example, when I was in Jedburgh yesterday, I chanced across the 'Ride In', in which about a hundred horses galloped back into town after a day's riding round the boundaries. This annual event originates from the days when the locals had to defend their territory against invasion by those pesky English and would patrol the edges of their land, watching out for invaders. The modern celebration ends with all the riders massing in the town square and singing a song that makes it quite clear that the English are not going to get their hands on anything. Luckily it's sung in such a strong accent that visiting dignitaries like me can't take offence because we can't understand it, but the essence of the song is clear enough. We used to be at war, after all.
I found another example on today's walk. Five or six miles north of Jedburgh there's an old monument by the side of Dere Street called Lady Lilliard's Stone, and it bears an inscription that echoes the same sort of sentiment as the riders' song:
Fair maiden Lilliard
Lies under this stane
Little was her stature
But muckle was her fame
Upon the English loons
She laid monie thumps
An when her legs were cuttit off
She fought upon her stumps
Something tells me that even though Scottish dwarfs are no longer thumping English loons, history still reverberates loudly round these parts.
St Cuthbert's Way
For most of today I followed St Cuthbert's Way, a long-distance path that stretches 62 miles from Melrose to Holy Island. St Cuthbert was a 7th-century saint who started his monastic life in Melrose and passed away on Holy Island, having risen to the rank of Bishop of Lindisfarne. I thoroughly enjoyed following in his saintly footsteps, because between Jedburgh and Melrose, St Cuthbert's Way is a cracker.
For a start, the way-markers on the St Cuthbert's Way are exemplary; the Pennine Way planners could learn a thing or two from the Cuthbert committee. It's also pretty easy going and combines idyllic forest walking (around Monteviot House), Roman road (Dere Street again), two winding riverside paths (along the Teviot and the Tweed), pretty villages (Maxton, St Boswells and Bowden) and, to finish, a climb with great views (up the Eildon Hills). It's a very pleasant day.
As a destination, Melrose is the icing on the cake, with a number of pubs, a handy hostel and another amazing ruined abbey that might not dominate the town in the way that Jedburgh Abbey does, but which is arguably more impressive close up. Dating from 1136, two years before the foundation of Jedburgh Abbey, Melrose Abbey was founded by King David for the Cistercian Order, a bunch of monks who were dedicated to poverty but who still managed to amass unprecedented wealth. Although the original building was relatively simple, the English burned it down in retaliation for the Scottish raids of 1385, and the 15th-century replacement reflected the Cistercians' bulging bank balance. The ruin is an ornate skeleton with elegant stonework and soaring arched windows, and as if this wasn't enough, the abbey is reputedly the burial place of Robert the Bruce's heart, which was discovered buried in a lead casket beneath the Chapter House floor.
I think I'm going to like Scotland; it has history, landscape and attitude, and somewhere out there might even be a decent pint...