Mike Vouri: Along the River Eden and into the Marshlands
July 16 Easton - One night and five miles to go before reaching the end of the hike and a hut clinging to an embankment above the Solway Firth. We were up early with the Carlisle commuter traffic roaring beneath our window at the Fern Lee Guest House, although below stairs our fellow guest and Border Reiver descendent, Armstrong, was quiet. Unlike the evening before when she kept all the long-distance hikers awake with her loud tales.
Perhaps she had been up all night reenacting cattle raids. I envisioned her in a steel bonnet and breast plate, wielding a sword or pike with a braying mastiff at her side, showing no mercy to yeomen and their women and children. I padded down the stairs and sat on the bottom step to check my e-mail and read more historical tidbits on the internet, such as the local “white witch’s” pronouncement regarding Bishop Dunbar’s curse of the brigands in the late 16th century.
Nary a sound emerged from the Armstrong lair as I scanned the internet. I debated calling my friend Jonathan Taylor, an Englishman and former San Juan Islander who lives in Bath, to enthuse about my own Border Reiver ancestor, Willie Kange Irvine. But it was only 6:30 a.m., and he might never speak to me again. I then considered knocking on her door, introducing myself and Willie and sharing my recently acquired knowledge of the bishop’s curse.
Instead, I yawned and satisfied myself with a Johnny Carson standard: “May a thousand fleas infest your underpants!”
There is nothing quite like a “Cumbrian” breakfast to fuel a cross-country hike along Hadrian’s Wall: eggs over medium, English bacon (more like ham), potatoes, black pudding, half a tomato, toast and baked beans.
With that, I returned upstairs and re-packed my suitcase, again in the vain hope that it had flattened of its own accord. But it was just the same, shaped like a stack of pancakes and even harder to lug down the staircase. We ate a “Cumbrian breakfast”—eggs over medium, English bacon (more like ham), potatoes, black pudding, half a tomato, toast and baked beans—and chatted with a couple who were cycling the length of England from the Scottish border to Dover. They were both sinewy, reed-thin and deeply tanned, as you would expect of long-distance cyclers. And they hadn’t yet squeezed into their Spandex!
Three cups of coffee along, I shared with them what I’d learned about the 16th century bishop’s curse of the Border Reivers that had been inscribed on the millennium sculpture in the museum carpark. The landlady chimed in. She was convinced, she said, that the curse was genuine after watching motor launches dock in the street outside her door when the River Eden burst its banks and inundated the city in January 2005.
“They should never have erected that thing,” she added. No mention was made by anyone in the room of the relegated soccer club.
Leaving Carlisle, it didn’t feel as though we were traversing an urban center because the path meanders through parkland and along river paths with steep staircases that follow the contours of the embankments and bluffs.
And then we were off. We crossed town to the Sands Sport Centre, a gymnasium with a public swimming pool and concert venue, to have our passports stamped before setting off through town along the Eden. It didn’t feel as though we were traversing an urban center because the path meanders through parkland and along river paths with steep staircases that follow the contours of the embankments and bluffs.
We were cruising along, enjoying the ambience, when two young women sporting daypacks and guidebooks identical to ours shot past as though we were shuffling. They gave us a sunny greeting, wished us luck and were down the path, around the corner and out of sight before we knew it.
We then overtook three people who appeared to be in their 80s walking their dogs off leash. The leashes were draped around their necks as they yakked away, oblivious to a man with a securely tethered German shepherd approaching from the opposite direction. One aggressive unleashed dog set off the others and a fight ensued, the shepherd engulfed in a canine swirl and trying to escape. Fed up at last, the shepherd went on the offensive. Uh oh. But his owner was alert, and after a sharp yelp, heeled his dog and moved quickly away. The dogs then turned on us, but Jerry wasn’t having it. “Get out of here!” he shouted, leveling a swift kick at one of them.
Meanwhile, I menaced ferociously with my walking stick. “Take that, Armstrong curs!” They retreated. The three oldsters? Oblivious throughout. We soon outdistanced them and established a pace slightly less brisk than that of the young women.
By then we were seeing more hikers as we closed in on our terminal destination, Bowness-on-Solway, at the end of the wall path. They moved in both directions, and most were doing Carlisle to Bowness in one push. This is about 17 miles across flat, open country where the Rivers Eden and Esk converge into the vast tidal basin of Solway Firth. No way could we have handled that by then. Among all these perambulators we encountered the young women power hikers again. They were reclining in the shade of an ancient tree in the village square of Beaumont (pronounced BEE-mont) after crossing 10 fields worth of stiles and gates. Even they had to rest after that slog.
St. Mary’s Church in Beaumont (BEE-mont) was once the site of a hilltop Roman mile castle, split by a section of Hadrian’s Wall. All of it was dismantled by the Normans and replaced by a motte (a tower on a mound) in 1296. From the top of the hillock you can see the Solway Firth to the northwest and the Pennine range to the southeast. Jerry McElyea Photo
Beaumont was once the site of a hilltop Roman mile castle, split by a section of Hadrian’s Wall. All of it was dismantled by the Normans and replaced by a motte (a tower on a mound) in 1296. In its place rose St. Mary’s, a red stone church on the same hillock from which you can see the Solway Firth to the northwest and the Pennine range to the southeast. By the time we finished reading the wayside, the women had retrieved their packs from the bench encircling the tree and were preparing to rocket off. But before they left, we learned that they were from Leeds and Liverpool respectively, and were on the final leg of a five-day trek (!) on the path. After arriving at Bowness that afternoon, they would return by bus to Carlisle and catch trains to their respective cities.
“I have to be to work tomorrow,” one of them said. Work? The next day? After motoring at a blistering Olympic walker’s pace over 84 miles? “Sure,” one of them answered sweetly. “It’s not that difficult, is it?”
What could we say, other than nod and smile ruefully. And they were off.
We followed a few minutes later, ending up on a farm track where a sign read, “Watch out for mud (aka cow pies) in the road.” We had hoofed about a half hour, retreating to the shoulder several times to avoid tractors pulling wide loads, when Jerry, who was about 50 yards behind me, hollered, “We’re going the wrong way!” I stopped and pulled out my compass. Sure enough. We were heading north instead of west. Had we been in ancient times, or even as recently as 1816, this would have been the main road from Carlisle to Glasgow and western Scotland. There would have been three fords or waths to choose from on the Eden farther on, depending on the tide, as well as on the River Esk in a few more miles. Prior to 1759, you might be rowed across the Esk by William Irving, better known as “Willie of the Boats,” not to be confused with Willie Kange. The crossing was named for him until it was bridged, renamed “Greenbed (yawn),” and eventually disappeared from maps altogether.
The proximity of the rivers indicated that we were closing on Solway Firth, the third largest estuary in Britain ranging from 22 miles wide on the Irish Sea to about two miles where the rivers meet. At first you might presume that this expanse of saltwater might be as formidable a barrier to marauding Caledonians as the Great Winn Sill that anchors the Pennines. And yet, the Romans were in such a hurry in 122 AD that they threw up a wall fashioned of turf until they could excavate enough stone locally to finish the job. And that included the forts and watch towers. Why? Simple. All Roman engineers had to do was observe how the firth’s relatively flat, sandy bottom is laid bare in places at ebb tide, offering ideal crossing points for invaders. No wonder the Romans and Normans “forted up” on Beaumont’s hill.
The one consolation for defenders over the centuries is that the firth is swept by a bore (or wave) at flood tide, which literally changes the course of the rivers and inundates everything in its path. It was all about timing, whether you led an army, a band of smugglers or were merely trying to slip over the border for a wee dram during Scotland’s blue laws era. Some crossings are more notable, or notorious, than others. Among military leaders, Bonnie Prince Charlie used the waths to slip past the fortress at Carlisle during his ill-starred invasion of England in 1745. But he had the good fortune of gauging the tides correctly and did not have to witness his soldiers being drowned, as happened to armies in the 13th and 16th centuries when an estimated 1,900 soldiers drowned on both occasions.
This was more “Aha!” information accumulated that evening while plumbing the internet. I remain disappointed that I had not climbed the motte and entered St. Mary’s churchyard to catch the lay of the land for myself.
Returning to the farm track, we reversed course and hiked back to the village, adding another two miles to our day, and found the “Hadrian’s Wall Path” sign on the opposite side of the building from where the trail recommences. This seemed odd because only hikers heading east from Bowness can see it. But I’ll lay odds those young women hadn’t missed it. Of course we couldn’t know that, because even if they had engaged the farm track, they still would have been miles ahead of us and perhaps even beyond Willie of the Boats.
Our next village was Burgh-by-Sands (pronounced BRUFF), which is notable in English history because this is where King Edward I, the Longshanks, died of dysentery on his way to Scotland via the Annan wath (a crossing near Bowness) after another larder-depleting stay at Lanercost Priory. The king was laid in state in St. Michael’s Church, built on the site of another Roman fort (Aballava, meaning apples) with the same stones, before being shipped off to Westminster Abbey.
King Edward I was laid in state in St. Michael’s Church in Burgh (BRUFF)-by-Sands. The church, which doubled as bastion against Border Reivers, was built on the site of the Avallava (meaning apples) Roman fort with the same stones. The fortified doorway to the pele (tower) underscores that it was a tough nut to crack. Jerry McElyea Photos.
We were alerted to St. Michael’s a couple of days before by a woman walking her yellow Labrador on a stretch of open field east of Carlisle. She used the word pele (pronounced peel) for the church’s crenellated tower where villagers sheltered when Border Reivers splashed across the waths. She then took the time to offer her interpretation. A pele was a large multi-story structure, such as Thirlwall Castle 30 miles back, with extraordinarily thick walls and narrow windows. During raids, cattle were driven into the ground floor while the family and neighbors (who had not paid “blackmail”) took sanctuary atop. Yeoman farmers had smaller fortified houses called bastles that functioned the same way: Cattle below, people above.
The church today provides relief of another kind with a water bottle filling station on the east end of the sanctuary where a second pele once stood.
I would like to return to King Edward, who has figured prominently at several points along the path, most recently for us at Lanercost. Unlike many of his predecessors and successors, his tomb lies in Westminster without effigy. This seems odd on the face of it, as he succeeded his mostly ineffective father (Henry III) to become one of England’s strongest (and nastiest) monarchs, reigning for more than 35 years.
It had something to do with his being the grandson of King John, the vicious incompetent who was forced to seal the Magna Carta and lost England’s remaining holdings on the continent. All the Plantagenet monarchs were bullies, but John started out with a large chip on his shoulder because, unlike most princelings, he was not granted his own real estate at birth—therefore the nickname “John Lackland.” This was only slightly better than a later sobriquet, “John Shortsword,” the derivation of which is best left alone. Edward (the first Norman with a Saxon name) had a lot of making up to do, and warred incessantly to reclaim the European lands…and then some. His primary goal was consolidating the island of Britain, despite the fact that the Scots and Welsh had no wish to be included in the enterprise. This entailed a lot of marching, fighting, eating and drinking while promulgating laws and creating parliaments to raise money to pay the considerable bills. Unfortunately, more money was spent than raised, and there was not enough left in the treasury for a fancy coffin lid.
Edward has joined post-war Hollywood’s Romans and Egyptians in recent film culture as a Nazi-type enemy of freedom. This is largely thanks to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, in which the king (played ironically by Patrick McGoohan, a Scot!) delivers the line, “If we can’t burn them out, we’ll breed them out.” The king’s terminal journey was portrayed in the Netflix film, Outlaw King, featuring Chris Pine as a virtuous Robert the Bruce and Stephen Dillane as the evil “Hammer of Scotland.” Edward had returned north in July 1307 to “burn them out” one more time when he caught a bug that proved fatal at his then-advanced age of 68. He expired quickly just outside the village, where a cenotaph still stands in the middle of a farm field.
Edward I’s time in Burgh-by-Sands is commemorated with this statue on the edge of the village, which was dedicated several years ago by Prince William. There were no pints to be had in the Greyhound as it was out of business. Jerry McElyea Photo
I was told that rowdy Scots venture 10 miles over the border on the anniversary of his death to urinate on the monument. I merely jousted with a statue of him, which was dedicated by Prince William a few years ago in front of the Greyhound Public House on the edge of town. The pub was subsequently closed because the landlord, in classic Plantagenet fashion, raised the rent. Luckily, Deborah had packed us a lunch.
From Burgh we started on the home stretch to our lodging at Midtown Farm via an arrow-straight road that crossed a vast, flat tidal marshland. The only high ground was a berm that once carried the tracks of a long-extinct railroad that crossed Solway Firth over the same Bowness/Annan wath tromped by William Wallace. I couldn’t help imagining the berm as the Roman turf wall looming over the marshes. Signs are now posted every half mile or so along the road, warning of quicksand and tidal surges by progression, such as: “WHEN WATER REACHES THIS POINT, MAXIMUM DEPTH IS 3 FEET.”
Signs such as this one are posted every half mile or so along the road between Burgh-by-Sands and Bowness-on-Solway, warning of quicksand and tidal surges. The depth of the surges vary as you go.
Our immediate destination was a hikers’ rest on the berm at Boustead Hill. It was fairly deluxe as far as these things go, with an enclosed wind and rain shelter and a picnic table outside. We doffed our packs and I gave Janet, our host for the evening, a call as per the instructions from our tour company. We could have walked to the BNB easily, as it was only a mile distant from the shelter and 400 yards south of the trail, but the hikers’ rest is a tried-and-true landmark and provides our hosts a heads up. Janet is an energetic woman in her 50s, and new to the business like Jackie at Gilsland and Deborah at Lanercost. She runs it with her husband, Caleb. She placed us in a second-story room in the farmhouse, next door to a couple who were shouting over the television, which was going full blast when we arrived.
As the farm seemed remote, we wondered aloud where we could find a place for dinner. Janet said “not to worry” and called “The Inn at the Bush,” a local pub/restaurant a few miles away. The owner himself, Colin Smithsong, fetched us in a London taxi that was painted bright yellow instead of the customary black. He is a Glasgow-based executive for an international corporation, and runs the pub and BNB on the side as an investment. We were the first to arrive and had the dining room to ourselves, while Colin made the rounds to pick up other diners.
The dinner and pints were excellent, but the best part of the experience was Colin’s tour of the marshlands on the way home through the rural tracks of the Solway peninsula known locally as “drovers’ roads.” Some of the older sections are flanked by kests, or berms, crowned with tangles of gorse, blackthorn and hawthorn. These impenetrable hedgerows delineate property boundaries, much as the drystone walls in the hillier regions. However, much of the marshland along the Solway is considered “common” grazing land dating to the 16th century, which explains the gates across some of the sunken roads. As Colin explained, when no tidal surges are expected, the gates are closed to confine the cattle. If a flood is imminent, the gates open allowing the cattle to reach higher ground. We tried to tip him and he laughed at us. All he wanted was for us to write a positive review in Tripadvisor.
We entered this field with a little trepidation, prepared to run if need be, but the bull was on vacation. Jerry McElyea photo
We returned to our room with the realization that we were nearly finished. The days had flown by after the halfway point at the Vallum Lodge, or so it seemed. Perhaps it was because we were mainly walking in the flats or downhill, or that we had fewer miles ahead than behind. We’d come more than 95 miles total, and had only six to go. It had been like no hiking I’d ever done before. Not since my backcountry days had I gotten up each morning after a full day’s hike ready for a repeat. But those were only weekend trips. After 10 days, my toes were slightly numb and my hips and knees ached.
But only when I moved!
Rain was forecast for our last day on the path. But that was OK, as I had bought a cheap rain jacket in Carlisle the day before to replace the one I lost. All we faced now was high tides and green grass (with apologies to the Rolling Stones).
Mike Vouri is a retired national park ranger and historian. He is the author of The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay and four other histories about San Juan Island and the Pacific Northwest.