First glimpses of a forever home
The Scottish Borders: didn't know them, only knew Berwickshire as a place to pass through. Now I live there. How did that happen?
One of the first words that throws you off balance in Scots English is the verb ‘to stay’. When someone says, ‘I’m staying in the village,’ it doesn’t mean they’re here for a little while in a b&b or a short-term rental. It means they live there.
I’m now staying in the Scottish Borders. A geographic border is also a language border; so let’s slip between the two forms of English. I’m staying here: living in this place. I’m staying here: not moving ever again, if I can help it.
A watercolour place
John Sell Cotman, Bass Rock (c.1830): The Fitzwilliam Museum
Here’s a theory of landscape that dawned on me as I was walking down our road with the dog one day in early autumn.
My neighbours' enviably well-kept lawns laid out a green carpet for the view of the sea. That day, it was a slightly trivial sparkling blue (it has more interesting days, tonally). To the right, the cropped fields were a couple of shades of tawny; one or two white houses, then a blonde hill, then more sea.
Some British places are oil paintings: the Highlands, the Lake District, Dartmoor, Snowdonia, the Chilterns (where we used to live). Then there are watercolour places: the South Downs, East Anglia, the South Wales coast. Here’s the point: the Borders, is unambiguously a watercolour landscape. And that’s what draws me to it.
Which means? Oil landscapes are majestic, dense, overpowering, deep. Watercolour places are airier, lighter, evanescent, less filled-in. It’s funny, of the great romantic English painters, I’ve always gravitated to the watercolours of John Robert Cozens and John Sell Cotman (of the Norwich School: he painted Bass Rock, just up the coast from here). Minor artists compared to your Constables and Turners, maybe, but there’s a luminescence in the work of those East Country artists that lifts the spirits: to switch artforms, it’s like living in a Mozart concerto rather than a Beethoven symphony.
We share the 55th parallel with the Danish province of Jutland: it’s just over the water. On that autumn walk, I was trying to think where I’d experienced that strange quality of light, where things in the distance seem milky and opalescent while objects close to you are razor- sharp. Then I realised it was Skagen, the tip of Jutland that juts into the sea like a swordfish, dividing North Sea and Baltic.
Skagen became the home of a celebrated group of watercolourists at the turn of the 20th century. If you want to get an idea of the quality of light on the Berwickshire coast, here (below) is Summer Evening on Skagen’s Southern Beach by P S Krøyer (1893).
Coldingham Bay on a July evening at what the Skagen painters called ‘the blue hour’
I know just about every county of England and Scotland quite well. There were two exceptions: adjoining counties I hardly know and have hardly ever visited. They were Northumberland and the Scottish Borders.
So – or should that be ‘yet? – last summer, Annie and I moved to the Scottish Borders, a few miles north of Northumbria. Not a second home, not a short term rental, not an experiment, but a move for good to an unknown land.
How’s that gone?
It was mid-February, 2021…
We were deep, deep in lockdown, the worst time of the COVID pandemic as Delta continued to rip through the land.
Obviously, they continued to have parties in Downing Street. But that’s okay. As we now realise, they had group immunity – from shame – and were individually inoculated against the rules we mere citizens were so carefully observing.
One of the few things a citizen could do was view houses. The property market kept going. This was just as well, as half of the south east of England was thinking about moving. For a host of reasons It had dawned on us that our time in the Chilterns was drawing to an end. Even before lockdown, I wasn’t required so much in London; and, you know what? – I didn’t require London the way I used to.
But the Scottish Borders?
It has to be one of the sillier house viewings.
The drive was 350 miles each way; the round trip 12 hours. We spent between 20 and 30 minutes at the property, an 1840s farmhouse just outside the village of Coldingham, then turned for home.
Before we reached Berwick-upon-Tweed, we’d decided to make an offer.
I’ve made some good property decisions since getting my first London flat in my twenties. There have been disasters too. This decision was impulsive, romantic, not very well thought-through, a leap in the dark and a step into the unknown. The only advice I sought was from a good friend, who’d been brought up in nearby Duns. He was full of sentimental affection for Coldingham, especially the beach where his children played in the same sand he had a child. But moving there for good? ‘I’d drink myself to death’, he said.
So, how did it turn out?
It has been the best move ever. Never say forever – heaven knows, we’ve seen just how much worlds can get upended, and I tend to agree with John Lennon that life is what happens when you’re making other plans.
But this home is forever. Seriously, offer me twice what we paid, and I still couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. It’s on a quiet lane, it’s a ten-minute walk to a delightful village and another ten to a sheltered, sandy beach. Everyone has been incredibly welcoming and, loath as I am to perpetuate cliches, that was not the case down south. After nine years there, our neighbour’s husband never said a single word to us not even ‘hello’.
I’ve not been abstemious, exactly, but expiring through idleness and Pinot Noir seems unlikely just now.
WHERE did you say you were going again?
I’m not the only one who was unfamiliar with this stretch of the British coastline.
The village is a few miles off the A1. That big road is designed for bombing up to Edinburgh and the Highlands; and bombing back down. When you’re mid-bombing, you don’t think to turn off inland – the countryside is pleasant, but it’s not THE HIGHLANDS – nor to the coast. If you’re going to stop, you’ll stop at Bamburgh and Lindisfarne, just on the English side.
If you know anything about the Borders, it’s ruined abbeys, rugby, pleasant little towns and Sir Walter Scott. And no-one reads Sir Walter Scott anymore.
That’s not our bit. So let’s orient you to this south-east corner of one land that adjoins the north-east corner of the other. The border is just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the quintessential border town (which I’ll write about another time). As you drive north, three huge saltires fly as close to the road as they can get, while a sign in Gaelic and English welcomes you to Scotland. As the writer Rory Stewart has pointed out, Gaelic is not and never has been spoken around here: it makes more historical sense to put up a sign in Welsh, which was commonly used in Northumbria, an ancient kingdom that included much of the present Scottish lands.
On the southbound carriageway, the flags – of England and Northumbria – are set discreetly back. There is a small cross of St George in a stone pillar.
Back going north, slow down, both to enjoy the view and because Scotland also welcomes careful drivers with speed cameras every few hundred yards.
You are much closer to the North Sea than the Northumbrian stretch. Between you and it there’s just a railway – the kind you used to see in children’s books, winding through stone tunnels and green hills.
After a few miles, the road meanders inland and you have to turn off to reach the coastal villages of Eyemouth, Coldingham and St Abbs.
They all have their special character. Eyemouth is sturdy, wind-beaten, and used to have a reputation for insularity. It’s one of those places in Britain where you don’t need interpretative signs and old photographs in municipal frames to imagine it they way it was. You can sense the straw on the cobbles, the songs of the fishermen in the pubs, the wives in their headscarves, bairns in arms. The sun, the rain and the wind plaster you until you shelter beneath the high walls of the wynds. It has roads called Hurkur Crescent and Pocklaw Slap.
You have to love a place which has a road called Pocklaw Slap.
Coldingham village is sweeter and gentler, more like one of those pretty West Country villages where there are a couple of pubs, a stream (or burn, we should say), a couple of parks for mobile holiday homes and a narrow road that leads to the bay. There is a ruined 7th century priory. Cromwell did most of the ruining: not Henry VIII’s advisor but Oliver, over a century later. A fine sandstone Victorian church stands where the chapel was. It has an unusual combination of clerestory and triforium.
(I read that in a book, by the way).
That bay, sheltered, ringed with colourful beach huts and dunes, a high, grassy dune-hill at one end, also steps straight out of a Ladybird book.
Duchess (a dog), off on another adventure
It’s a 15-minute stroll along the coastal path to St Abbs. The village has a film-set look, with its harbour walls, cafes, boatsheds and white cottages. And a film set it has been, in both Avengers: Endgame where it doubles as New Asgard, and in this deeply bizarre but rather beautiful Harry Styles video.
Beyond is a National Trust nature reserve and a vertiginous cliff walk past limestone pinnacles that look like scale models for the Old Man of Storr.
The coast attracts walkers and daytrippers, surfers and birdwatchers. There is plenty of room for everyone. A dear friend, a Cornishman, visited, and we agreed, this is how it used to be. This is how the seaside should be.
Edinburgh is less than an hour up the road or railway line. Soon, our neighbouring village of Reston is going to have its little station resurrected from the ashes of the Beeching disaster. This is great news, as a number of my nicest, brightest and most convivial pals live in that great city.
One is Alex Renton. We were once young guns together on the features desk on the London Evening Standard. For some reason, people thought our behaviour towards one another tad competitive in those days (‘like two rats in a sack,’ said the editor of ES Magazine, with relish . Why they’d think the egos of two ambitious thirtysomething males with very similar responsibilities and job titles would occasionally clash, I can’t imagine.
Well, we had a very jolly al fresco lunch in George Street. It was a good chance to tell Alex exactly what I thought of his new book.
It’s called Blood Legacy. It’s a timely and brave piece of work: an unflinching account of the riches his family – a progressive and liberal family by the standard of the times – made from slavery.
Now, you might think reading a book about slavery is a responsible and even necessary thing to do – but you might not exactly look forward to picking it up as you get into bed after a long day. But this is a terrific read: as a detective story, as biography, as social history and – this is what really drew me in – as a travel book. Alex visits Jamaica and Tobago, where his family owned land, and Africans. These are islands where the tour operators hotels and – it has to be said – national tourist boards – want you to think of the word ‘paradise’, and not think much beyond that. There is a kind of betrayal in that word, in the reduction of a nation’s hard and painful history, and heroic emergence from it, to a single image of a palm tree and a stretch of sand.
Songs that take you places
Curlew, by Spellsongs
With every year that passes and book of his that’s published, we see how Robert Macfarlane gets more established in the pantheon of great British travel writers.
One of his projects is the preservation of words. Lose the words and we pave over our memories and language becomes empty, functional and modern.
His book, The Lost Words: a Spell Book inspired art by Jackie Morris and two albums by this remarkable ensemble of musicians, including my favourite Scottish singer, Karine Polwart. There are two albums by Spellsongs. These Scottish and folkish melodies are made infinitely richer and more mysterious by the kora of Senegalese musician Seckou Keita.
Finally, If you're thinking of retiring…
Annie Swan: once upon a time, instead of pictures of diseased organs, you got drawings of famous people with your packet of cigarettes
Annie Swan was raised in a farmhouse not five minutes from our front porch in Templehall. She was an enormously successful novelist, poet, magazine editor and suffragette. She’s all but forgotten now, and her folksy Scottish stories condemned to kailyard corner.
Well, now kale is fashionable again, maybe kailyard will make a comeback. In the meantime, you cannot but admire Annie Swan’s productivity: 200-plus works of fiction alone in her lifetime. Here’s what she said about the importance of working, and keeping on working: