Having seen Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre the previous evening I was feeling rather jaded when I boarded the now familiar early morning train to Carlisle. I was sitting in a carriage with a friendly, talkative group of Scots heading home to Glasgow. At one point I thought they were about to ask me to share their breakfast: I would have appreciated a cheese roll but the six cans of lager that I calculated might have been my share would have left me comatose before we reached Milton Keynes! Somehow they kept drinking, and were none the worse for it, which made me think that there’s a lot to be said for “a bevvie and a laff”.
I walked through Carlisle to the bus station, knowing the streets and even recognising a couple of faces in shops. Strange how only a fortnight ago the prospect of Carlisle (and indeed everywhere which is “the next place” on these walks) had filled me with apprehension. Walking into Carlisle from the Solway Firth I had been sure that I would feel an outsider, an intruder, an interloper; I would be shunned and made to feel unwelcome, an object of suspicion if not ridicule. In prospect the city had seemed distant and unfamiliar, almost impossibly far north. And then I imagined it wreathed in perpetual mist and shadow, sinister and haunted by malevolent spirits; a place of incohate darkness and lurking threat. It’s always the same. Even now, having walked some 2,500 miles round the coast of this country, every “next place” fills me with the same apprehension. Every time I leave a place, having invariably received nothing but kindness and welcome, I think how groundless such fears are. But as I approach the next place, the same wariness takes hold, only to be displaced in its turn by the warmth and friendliness of the people I meet.
For my first walk in Scotland I took the bus from Carlisle to the tiny Scottish hamlet of Ruthwell and then walked back to Gretna, where my previous walk had ended. At first everything we went well as I walked along the north side of the Solway Firth looking across at the previous days’ walks on the English shore: Silloth, Anthorn, Bowness on Solway. Mostly I walked along the beach, amazed at the constantly changing light over the sea. Storm clouds would blow in, so low I felt I could almost reach up and touch them, and then in an instant the sky would clear and the marshes would become drenched in colour. Flocks of seabirds were constantly congregating and then taking flight in compact clouds. I walked inland to cross the River Annan and from the bridge the momentarily clear and enamelled light made the town of Annan, the river and the rolling clouds above appear with all the microscopic clarity of one of Vermeer’s miniature townscapes.
After several miles I took to a coast path which the map suggested would lead me just above the marshes and eventually around the perimeter of a Ministry of Defence property from where I would find a track which would lead me straight into Gretna. When the track came to an abrupt end I found the marshes themselves to be quite walkable and a signpost labelled “Path” pointing across them. The high metal fence surrounding the M.O.D. property came into view running closer and closer to the marsh, and in time I noticed a thick fifteen-foot gorse hedge appear between where I was walking and the metal fence. Slowly the rising tide began to flood in over the marshes and forced me inexorably back towards the sharp-thorned gorse hedge which I realised was never less than impenetrable. The area of marsh on which I was walking grew narrower and narrower, and was then replaced by stands of bullrushes growing straight out of the water. Suddenly there was no land to walk on and I had no option but to force my way through the gorse hedge which I did, kicking and fighting my way through, before emerging scratched and torn on the far side. I walked on in the space between the hedge and the fence for miles. The map suggested that the fence would soon veer inland leaving me free to walk on into Gretna, but however far I walked I found I was not outpacing the fence, it just hemmed me in mile after mile.
Eventually I came to the end of the gorse hedge and realised that there was now no intervening marsh beyond it: the waves were breaking right beside the path. As the afternoon wore on I began to wonder whether I could climb the fence or even burrow underneath it, and then with hands held high surrender myself to M.O.D. personnel, when suddenly I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of a thick mass of bushes completely blocking the path; this time there was no way through. While struggling to comprehend my predicament I noticed that when the waves drew back a shelf of rock, no more than twelve inches wide, was exposed and ran along for about twenty feet beside the bushes. The sea was deep beside the shelf but it was the only way through. When the waves drew back I stepped onto the shelf and shuffled along it as fast as I could before leaping onto a boulder which the next wave hit in a cloud of drenching spray. In the seconds between each wave breaking I jumped and raced from one rock to another and eventually rounded a headland to find myself facing a house.
The area between me and the house appeared to be flooded and when I stepped onto what I took to be tussocky grass beside the water the grasses parted and I sank up to my knees in water. I waded for a hundred yards through the water towards a muddy bank. Climbing the bank on the first attempt I slipped back down again into the water and then lunging upwards tugged myself up by strands of barbed wire and over a fence. I landed with a crash in a field on the far side, flattened by my backpack, having gashed my leg and torn my trousers on the barbed wire. Seeing a rickety bridge, and wondering whether it was load bearing, I walked across (what could possibly go wrong?) and found myself in someone’s garden. Looking for someone to confess to that I was trespassing on their property I walked down the drive and met the owners trimming a hedge by the garden gate. I was surprised to see them but nowhere near as stupefied as they were to see me. (With hindsight I probably did look as if I had just lost a fight with a pack of angry alley cats). I apologised and began telling them I had come round by the coast. They gaped at me and the man eventually said “You came by the coast? No one has ever done that before”. “I am not surprised” I replied grumpily. “I must try it one day” he said. I stared at him, blank with exhaustion, “I really wouldn’t”. And then they were suddenly full of concern and wanting to put things right for me. Where was I heading? Did I know the way? Could they help at all? I don’t think they realised that at exactly the moment when I felt everything was falling apart, by their kindness and concern, they held it all together for me.
Waving to them as I looked back, following the directions they had shown me on the map, in another five miles or so I walked into Gretna and headed for the railway station. The sun was setting. I slumped onto a bench, thankful that the day’s adventure was over. Home, only this morning, seemed a very long time ago and a very long way away. An old man came and sat at the other end of the bench; he stared ruminatively for a moment and then he burred “Did ye air-ver consider keeping bees now?”. I felt my eyes slide involuntarily in his direction. “[Not in my wildest …] Actually no”. “Ahh”, he was clearly disappointed. “Canny wee beasties. Bees”.
© Nick Creagh-Osborne and manwalkstheworld.com 2015.