The first steps we took were taken in determination. Ironic, or perhaps fitting, considering we started off on the wrong footpath and in the wrong way. The dip down into the small and narrow valley and a few long, big strides to climb to the accompanying hill and we’re on the right track. Marching off in confidence, head up and eyes gazing up towards our destination; up.
I’ve always found it easier to climb rather than to descent. Something about fighting the flow of gravity, the currents of air instead of water, battling towards a point somewhere in the distance, somewhere on the horizon. I plant my feet into the grass and press myself forward. There’s a certain pleasure in feeling how I swing myself forward almost, using hips and legs.
We’re doing a bit of the infamous ‘the Border Ridge from Kirk Yetholm’ hike. The route is described as “An exhilarating roller-coaster ride along the border ridge, combining alternative high- and low-level Pennine Way routes and offering exceptional views over shapely hills separated by deep valleys.” The Pennine Way is one of the many National Trails in the UK and crosses over to Scotland on and off. We’re walking exactly that bit as we walk right along the border, peaking into Northumberland (Kielder Forest Park) as we go.
Following the trail that hangs somewhere in the middle of being an oddly, sharply angled crest and a ledge, with a steep way down right underneath the ridge, a couple walks parallel to me, on the hill we were moments before. They have not yet realised they’re on the wrong track if they wish to go where everyone else is going; to go up.
When they do, I see them looking, trying to find a way to the other side. I try to steer them in the right direction, but they do not listen. I walk on, try to forget about them and their distant chatter, and keep moving.
The hills are like waves, the grass ripples on the water’s surface, the slopes a current you never see but always feel.
We’ve put a fair distance between us and the hiker’s couple, and at times I can truly forget that they’re here too and it’s just us in the middle of this madness that seems so endless, and then I hear them again. I put distance and hills between us equally, dry sand lifting like dust with each step, putting the company of sheep and cows over them.
We’ve reached the first highest point and I think that it can’t get any better. All around me stretches out a scenery that is a voyage, a journey on its own. When reaching the first of many tops, I turn around to retrace my steps with my eyes. This is where perspective meets reality. Where you’re brain tries to catch up with your eyes, but you can’t quite believe still. Where ‘seeing’ becomes ‘trying to understand’. Tiny spikes for hilltops are suddenly large platforms, a hard wind rocking us back and forth, tugging playfully as if telling us to go on, and the little spots and specks in the distance are the things that once seemed so big. The metaphor, the parallel, the visual reminder of that simple knowledge always comes kicking. Obvious oblivion – or perhaps oblivious obviousness. It’s amazing what the human mind can do, how it can transform and morph the things our eyes see.
I’m not just hiking physically, I never do. I hike mentally as well and I try to remind myself that I’ve done this half a dozen times before and that this time, really, I ought to remember its lessons.
We continue forward, the incline only gradual and slow. It’s the calm before the storm. It’s suddenly flattened before us with only a few hill tops on our right. The dips betray the unevenness of the earth and I understand we must be pretty high up if it looks this flat so suddenly. I’m almost too afraid to look over my shoulder, but when I do, I stop dead in my tracks. Below us, at our feet, there, a vastness of earth and stone and sand and soil, trees and grass and plants and very little concrete, lies only a tiny part of Scotland. I imagine walking the whole way back to Jedburgh as it looks like such a short walk.
Distance is always little in the distance. Life is a magnifying glass. Effort, perhaps better suited, is a magnifying glass.
We meet White Nick (considered modest at 1,394 ft). And then White Law. We clear through the area called Steer Rig where, after a brief interlude, the couple become blips on the horizon behind us. I hear their voices before I can see them. The wind is howling in my ears, a rustle of grass neverending, my hair windswept – like grass in a storm. We’re walking right along the border. At some point I stop and plant my feet on either side of the imaginary line. One foot in England, one foot in Scotland. I take the time to notice that nature really, does not discriminate. Nature does not do borders, lines, boxes or categories. Of course it doesn’t, I tell myself. Nature is free. That’s why we’ve come to swim and roam.
There is a deep descent, going down like a leave in a stream, before having to haul ourselves back up but we make it to the top of Black Hag (1,801 ft). Northumberland – or at least part of it – is spread out on our right. If they could, the cols would have shimmered in the sunlight and the echoes from the valleys, the bossoms of the hills, hinges on a beckoning, teasing tone. Before us the long way towards the cone-shaped the Schil (1,972 ft) which, I believe, marks the highest mountain of the long trail and is definitely considered a milestone. Though it invites us to come, Black Hag is where we go our own way.
Following the slopes to the outcrop, we sit there, playing hide-and-seek with wind as we drop down behind the drystone wall. We could have sat there for ages, staring at a still scenery, the changes seemingly simply not occurring. This world is too big to notice little changes, I think. I watch the curves of the Curr for a while and then let Mays guide us back down the ‘alternative route’. He steers me through the grass fields where the ground is sometimes so soft, I fear sinking right through the grass and falling into a feather-soft bed. Sheep make way for us as we come down, cutting right through the valley as we head for the road that, moments before, was just a concrete slit slivering through the greenery.
Sheep live here like humans, free to roam and sometimes they wait, frightened and frozen in their panic, before hurrying off and scattering each in its own direction. Mays barely gives them a second look once they are a safe distance away and we follow each other with the gentle, rushing stream holding my hand. When tearing my eyes from the cute farmhouses and cottages on my left, I gaze up to the imposing hills (mountains) on our right. Whilst walking between sets of hills on either side, the air is still spacious. There is plenty of room to breathe, inhaling deeply a scent of freshness, grass and nature, with a twang of the sharp cold that rises from the ground.
It isn’t before long that we return to the car. I can not point out to my mother where we’ve been – if it’s not White Law that’s blocking our view, it’s White Nick. “Somewhere. Somewhere over there, behind the cols, behind the top of the top of the hill, somewhere high up, that’s where we were”. Like kings of a kingdom yet undiscovered.
I have not heard the hiker couple’s voices since. We went up, far away from any grasp or grip to touch us, and now that we’re back down, we only wish to go there again – to go up.