Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In Godzone at Last: Longtown to Innerleithen

Monday the 17 June, 2013

Gretna Green Hotel – Godzone – Kagyu Samye Ling – a history lesson at the Yarrow Hotel – why we stayed the night at Peebles

Gretna Green Hotel

Our palatial hotel twin room cost only 29 pounds! If this is what Scotland is like, I love it already.

Little surprise that the hotel corridors were bustling with people. Being in the marriage capital of Scotland ( 5,000 weddings in Gretna Green a year) must help business but this hotel appears to have the business know-how to thrive, unlike many others in the UK which have died over the past 30 years:  since 1980, nearly 20,000 have closed, according to the British Beer and Pub association. We'd already stayed in old pubs which were doing well: they offered affordable b and b, the service was warm and they usually provided big plates of tempting cuisine at bargain prices.

The borders of Scotland. The wrinkly blue line is the English/Scottish boundary.
We began the day just north of Carlisle bottom centre) and finished at Peebles, below Edinburgh.


Though the term applies most naturally to New Zealand of all countries, of course, I found out last night that other places have nicked the term! Someone in the bar even suggested that Yorkshire people were the first to describe Yorkshire as 'God's own County” and this may be so  but who will ever know? Scottish folk use the term to talk up Scotland. Whether it is justified or not, only time will tell for us. 

Kagyu Samye Ling

I was back in Longtown and on the road just after 8 thanks to David, who planned to spend the day exploring Carlisle and the local coast.

Keep in touch. Txt every couple of hours to let me know how you're going. See you in Innerleithen later this pm.” He actually said 'this afternoon' but I can't help taking shortcuts.

Cycling in Scotland! Stirring prospect, though so far it looked just like England with less traffic. Cool morning, flat going for a while. First stop: the “Welcome to Scotland” sign a couple of miles outside Longtown. 

The official sign on the border north of Carlisle....

........and the unofficial one. The only way to drive to Scotland is through England. ...

The road climbed gently through averagely scenic rural.... which became wooded, hilly, above average scenic and soon very charming as I rode into Langholm.

Langholm, on the River Esk. Here I met the two hard-case Scots before turning off onto the B 709.

Here I had to turn off, so stopped under the sign post and pedantically checked my maps, the guide and the signs. Ate six pieces of Turkish Delight chocolate, must keep the strength up. Two helmet – less riders stopped and I had my first Scottish conversation on the road.

That's a New Zealand Flag? Thought so. Must have been a tough trip riding all the way here from there? Bet you had to pump up your tyres really hard to cross the Pacific! Ho ho.”

All this with much good humour. They were from Edinburgh on an 80 mile circuit and in no hurry. We talked of the pleasures of biking, I told them of my plan to visit the Orkneys after the trip, keen to find out why my great great great grandfather left the place in 1863 with his eight children and his second wife.

In the end he had 17 children, the last one when he was 72.”

They laughed loudly at this: “ Hey, Ian, there's hope for us after all!”

I was definitely sorry to see them ride off in the other direction, only partly because I had been delaying the ascent of the rearing slope that was my road out of town.

The B 709 was nearly traffic-free, hilly and was dangerously spotted with deep potholes, many circled with yellow paint. I raced down no hills today. Hitting one of these craters at speed could have ruined my day. One more thing. Some roads can fool you into believing that you are going downhill when, because you are pedalling with force, you are clearly going up. No alcohol is involved in this delusion. It is real and it is very disconcerting.

In 1969 David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, and I am not making this up, joined the Buddhist Monastery, Kagyu Samye Ling and were on the way to becoming totally converted. Bowie later wrote: “ I had this feeling that it wasn't right for me.....another month and my head would have been shaved.”

So it was Kagyu for a lunch stop, though I didn't do the full tour. It is a really impressive place and though totally un-Scottish is a major tourist attraction. Come to think of it, the surrounding bush and isolation are a perfect setting for a place of peace and comtemplation.

College students from Carlisle at the entrance to the Kagyu Buddhist Meditation Centre.

A history lesson at the Yarrow Hotel

I spent an hour in the Yarrow Valley Hotel sitting at a table between the road and the pub, talking to David, a professional family historian and to Phil, a cyclist on his way back to his home in Peebles.

David's brother owns the pub and has put generous time and money into restoring it . On the wall is a sign:

At this Inn in the Autumn of 1830,
friends, W Scott and James Hogg
the Ettrick Shepherd”,
met and parted for the last time.
I felt chuffed. Here I was, eating my bread roll and ham, sipping a pub coffee, in the same remote part of the Scottish Borders where Hogg, a shepherd with writing aspirations, met his long term friend Sir Walter Scott, already in literary stratosphere ( the memorial to him in Edinburgh is the biggest ever erected to honour a writer) for their final, poignant encounter.

David, family historian, and Phil, rider, outside the Yarrow Valley Hotel.

The hotel in 1901, a rest-stop for cyclists on a race from Peebles.
 I can see a penny farthing and a tricyle..... .

David told me of his clients, many of whom come to Scotland to find evidence of their ancestry. I took the chance to ask him about dry stone walls: my route today wound between many miles of them. David claimed no expertise but was full of information: farmers have been putting up stone walls since the iron age but most of them were built between 1750 and 1850 as boundaries and wind-breaks, especially important in the harsh winters of the uplands. Often it was shepherds who built the walls to clear the fields and to occupy those long hours of sleet and cold. An experienced stone-waller, and it is still a thriving trade today, can create 6-7 yards of wall a day, and will move 6 tons of stone to do this. That's a lot of stone to carry. I worked out that if there are 80 thousand kms of walls in England ( the lower estimate), the total weight of rocks in the walls is about 60+ million tons. Whew! I can believe it. Just try lifting one of the bigger rocks beside any dry stone wall.

One of the dry stone walls near the hotel which prompted me to ask David for details of their history.
 Typically luxuriant, lowland  pasture behind the walls.

And, just a few miles from the hotel and the fertile farmlands, the upland hills become stony and steep and tree-less.

The climb from the pub up the long, gently-rising valley brought us from farmland to barren , grassy, tree-less moors, the fields with few hedges or walls, the stock free to wander. It reminded me of parts of remote Otago, in southern New Zealand and I loved the familiarity of it all. The glide into Innerleithen was a delight too soon ended.

Why we stayed the night in Peebles

In 1905, Alexander Macrae, 18, left Peebles with his family and emigrated , first to Australia, then to New Zealand. He married Violet Davis in 1912, they had two daughters before Alex was killed on the Somme in September, 1916.

One of their daughters is Ella Macrae, David's mother in law and my friend - a friendship developed when I interviewed her over several months and helped her write her life story.

Today was June 17 and tomorrow at noon, it will be June 19, New Zealand time. Ella was born on June 19 1913 and tomorrow will be 100. Staying in Ella's Dad's town on her 100th birthday is a wonderful coincidence that has worked out better than if we had tried to plan it precisely.

Ella Macrae ( b 19 June 1913) with her father Alexander. Photo taken
 March 1916, days before Alexander left for WW 1. He was killed on the Somme in September 1916.
 The day after we stayed in Peebles, Alexander's birth-place, Ella  celebrated her 100th birthday!

Just after 4 I rode down Innerleithen's main street, met David at the coffee shop, strapped on the bike and drove the five miles to Peebles.

Distance Today Average Speed Maximum Speed Riding Time Trip Odometer
90.1 16 53.1 5h 37m 1037.3

Peebles (population 9,000), on the River  Tweed. Writer John Buchan  practised law here.

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