I’ve just come back from an epic three-week trip around the north of Britain – some of it was R&R and some of it was field research for my new novel…
In week 1 I walked Hadrian’s Wall (112AD) with my partner Chantelle, an archaeologist (and folk-singer) who works for English Heritage. It was on her ‘bucket list’ to do before her birthday – and so, all kitted up, off we set. I rode up to Newcastle on my Triumph Legend motorbike and met her off the train. We stored the bike at a storyteller’s garage and began our walk – 84 miles over 6 days from coast to coast, going east to west from Wallsend (east of Newcastle) to Bowness-on-Solway (west of Carlisle). We stopped at hostels and used a courier service to get our larger luggage from place to place – carrying just a daysac with essentials in (ie waterproofs!). It was the butt end of Hurricane Bertha and we had to walk into driving wind and rain for the first two or three days, but the weather mercifully improved towards the end of the week. The middle section from Chesters to Birdoswald was stunning. Although the wall wasn’t always visible (turned into roads, railways or cannibalised for building) the way was clearly-marked with white acorns (this being a National Trail). Every roman mile (just short of a mile) there was a mile-castle, inbetween, two turrets, and now and then a substantial fort (eg Housesteads being the most impressive) or garrison town (eg Vindolanda, famous for its amazingly preserved ‘tablets’ recording the minutiae of the daily lives of the inhabitants). The trail passes through the Northumberland National Park – bleak and beautiful. It was very poignant walking this remarkable piece of Roman ingenuity – the Roman Empire on my left, the untamed wilds of the Picts on my right – aware of how it was the first division of this country into north and south. This ‘divide and rule’ policy is worth being in mind in the light of the looming Referendum.
In week 2 we rode up (Chantelle pillion) to a friend’s croft on the coast of Wester Ross, right up near Ullapool, overlooking the Minch towards Skye and the Outer Hebrides. It was an epic 375 mile ride through the most spectacular scenery – Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe, Glen Shiels…but the storm made it hard going, even dangerous as I battled against high winds and poor visibility. We stopped a night at Glen Coe – soggy as drowned rats but still smiling – before making the final push to the croft where we holed up for a week with provisions, reading and writing material and a bottle of good malt. After a week of motion it was blissful to have a week of stillness, giving our blisters a chance to heal. It was here I celebrated my 45th birthday. My partner treated me to a lovely meal in a local inn – a kind of ‘Valhalla of vinyl’ where we played pool and listened to old classics.
At the end of this week we rode south 225 miles to the Castle of the Muses in Argyl and Bute – an extraordinary edifice inhabited by Peace Druid Dr Thomas Daffern, 9 muses, and his library of 20,000 volumes. It was here we celebrated our first anniversary with a performance of our show ‘The Snake and the Rose’ in the main hall. Although the audience was small it was still a special way to mark the day. My friend Paul Francis was also present – he’s known by many names including Dr Space Toad, the Troubadour from the 4th Dimension, Jean Paul Dionysus… He’s a great singer-songwriter. After our show we gathered around the hearth and shared poems and songs. The next day Chantelle had to catch a train back home (work etc) but I stayed on for a meeting about forming a ‘circle of Bardic Chairs’. Although it was a small affair we took minutes and a seed was sown. The plan is to have a larger meeting (open to all bards, bardic chair holders, gorseddau, etc) in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of The Bard (William Shakespeare) on his birth/death-day, 23rd April, next year. Watch this space!
In the 3rd week I explored the Lowlands and Borders on my bike – riding solo. On Monday I went to Aberfoyle, home of the Reverend Robert Kirk (author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies). It was thrilling to visit the grove on Doon Hill where he was said to have disappeared. A Scots Pine grows on the spot, surrounded by oak trees – all are festooned with clouties, rags, and sparkly offerings of every kind. A magical place. That night I stayed with a musician, Tom, whose croft we’d been staying in. He kindly put me up and we shared a poem or song over a dram.
On Tuesday I decided to climb Schiehallion – the mountain of the Sidhe, right up in the Highlands, so I blatted north past Gleneagles and made an ascent, ‘bagging’ myself a Munro (over 3000ft) though that wasn’t my reason for doing it. Afterwards I visited the Fortingall Yew – the oldest living tree in Britain, possibly 5000 years old. It’s decrepit but still impressive.
On Wednesday I visited the Eildon Hills and the Rhymer’s Stone, before going onto Abbotsford, the impressive home of Sir Walter Scott (author of Minstelsy of the Scottish Borders among many others). I ended up at New Lanark, a World Heritage Site – a well-preserved mill-town created by social reformer, Robert Owen, to house, feed, educate and uplift his workers, near the Falls of the Clyde, made famous by Turner, Coleridge, Wordsworth and co. On Thursday I headed Southwest to Ayrshire and the home of Rabbie Burns, Scotlands’ ‘national poet’. The visitor’s centre had an excellent exhibition bringing alive his poems, but I was most thrilled to visit the Brig o’ Doon and the Auld Kirk – immortalised in his classic poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Then I headed down the west coast to the Machars and the Isle of Whithorn, where St Ninian made landfall and founded the first church north of the Wall. This seemed like a fitting terminus of my Scottish meanderings – from here you are said to see five kingdoms (England, Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland and the kingdom of Heaven) yet there was one day left.
On Friday I explored the Yarrow and Ettrick valleys and found Carterhaugh near their confluence – the site of Tam Lin. The meeting of their respective rivers was more impressive – a swirling pool called ‘The Meetings’ near a gigantic salmon weir. It was a very wet day though and my energy was starting to wane. I gratefully made it to a fellow storyteller’s place who had just moved over the Border, not far from Coldstream. Despite having literally just moved in (that day!) her and her husband kindly put me up in the spare room amid the boxes. We didn’t spend long catching up– a quick cuppa – before whizzing north to Edinburgh for the Guid Crack Club. This meets in the upstairs of the Waverley Inn, just off the Royal Mile. I was very tired but happy to watch the high calibre of performance. I wasn’t planning to do anything but in the need I did offer my Northamptonshire Folk Tale, Dionysia the Female Knight, which seemed to go down well. We ate out at a new Greek place and got back late, sharing a glass of wine by the fire. Dog-tired I slept in til 10.30 the next day – then had to ride 250 miles south to Rockingham, near Corby in the Midlands.
I stopped at Holy Island (Lindisfarne) as I crossed the Border – worth visiting for the ride across the tidal causeway if nothing else, although it felt a ‘thin place’ and calming, despite the tourist hordes. Then it was time to hit the road – and I roared down the A1 (and A19) back south to my old home county. Here I was warmly welcomed by Jim and Janet. I had performed at their solstice bash earlier in the summer and now they were treating me like an old friend. We had a good catchup over dinner and around the fire.
In the morning I made my final pit-stop, at the Bardic Picnic in Delapre Abbey, Northampton – my old neck of the woods. Here I would walk my dog every day. Here 7 years ago a small group of us (6!) held hands and did an awen to announce the beginning of this event which has blossomed, thanks to my friends hard work into a small festival. The sun put his hat on and the crowds came out. Although I was road-weary and unable to take in much of the bardism, I did stick around for the Chairing of the Bard before hitting the road – and the final push across the Cotswolds to home in Stroud.
After 2500 miles and 23 days I finally made it home and I was glad to be back. If only I could have stayed…(the next morning I had to get to Bath for 9am to run an 11-hour tour to Glastonbury, Salisbury and Avebury with 4 Americans – it’s a Bard’s life!).
Watch out for poetry inspired by my trip on the poetry page…