It's fitting that on Independence Day I should leave the shackles of the Pennine Way behind, after what feels like months of following the bloody thing (it's actually been just under three weeks). I got up early this morning and struggled up the steep valley that's home to Byrness – or, to be more accurate, home to a pub, a filling-station-cum-café, a hostel, some houses and a church – and after trudging through the marsh on the top of the southern Cheviot Hills, I finally reached the signpost where the Pennine Way heads off in a northeasterly direction and Dere Street, an old Roman road, heads northwest. I went northwest, safe in the knowledge that I'll never bother to darken the Pennine Way's doorstep again.
I instantly felt better; it was the same elation you get when you quit your job and realise that you'll never again have to put up with the idiot whims of your employer. Away into the bleak Cheviots rolled the boggy Way, but ahead of me stretched the grassy path of Dere Street and the border with Scotland. 'At last!' I thought, and pushed my way through the gate and off the Pennine Way.
And with that, I finished walking across England.
The sun glowed in a beautiful morning sky as I left Byrness this morning, but by the time I reached Chew Green, home to an old Roman camp that's now nothing but ridges and bumps, the sky had clouded over and I stopped to put the waterproof cover on my backpack in preparation for the rain that I thought was coming. But as soon as I stepped into Scotland the clouds evaporated and the most glorious summer's day appeared; it was like something out of a cheesy Biblical movie and it made my descent into Scotland even more symbolic. My spirits lifted as I stepped down from the Cheviots into the gentle rolling hills of the Borders region; I haven't felt like this for ages.
From the moment I left the Way, I followed Dere Street almost all the way to Jedburgh. This Roman road was built around 80 AD to provide a supply route for the Roman army as it slowly extended its control over northern England and Caledonia, and at its completion it stretched from York all the way to the Firth of Forth, just west of Edinburgh. However, around 100 AD the army was withdrawn from Caledonia – we don't know why, but it could have been because the Caledonians were kicking back against the invaders – and in 122 AD the Emperor Hadrian visited Britain and decided to construct the wall that bears his name. Dere Street then became the main supply road from York to the wall while the northern section of the road withered away in enemy territory.
The part of the street that leads to Jedburgh is a pretty mixed affair, then; in some parts it disappears altogether, churned up by streams and hikers' boots into a boggy reminder of the Pennine Way, but in others it's an obvious route that's evidently been used for centuries. Apart from the odd marshy patch, I loved walking along Dere Street; it's dead straight, which is a delight after the meandering climbs of the Pennine Way, and once the initial hills are out of the way it's almost totally flat, making for easy walking.
But for me the most amazing aspect of Dere Street wasn't the road itself, but the countryside through which it passes. The Pennine Way makes a virtue of seeking out the most remote and unpopulated countryside, but suddenly I'm back in civilisation, and I love it. Today I walked through acres of farmers' fields where the tractors busily made hay while the sun shone, and I even followed a few minor roads, built on the foundations of ancient Dere Street. The sudden appearance of traffic was a shock, but the views were of beautiful rolling hills on all sides; despite the fact that the scenery was most definitely Scottish – hills, pine plantations, a specific feel to the landscape – I could easily kid myself that I was walking through Devon again. This I liked; I enjoyed the southwest, and on the worst parts of the Pennine Way I often found myself hankering after the quiet lanes of the West Country or the idyllic paths along the River Severn. How odd that Scotland should remind me of the opposite end of the country; I doubt it will for long.
There isn't much more to say because I simply put my foot down and motored on to Jedburgh. Walking along Roman roads is proof that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and it didn't take long to polish off the 21.5 miles to my B&B. What a relief after the last few weeks; the change is tangible and suddenly my spirits have lifted. Good for Scotland.