Walking with Alex Kelly on 19 September 2013

Berwickshire Coastal Path Border Walk

I am walking with Alex Kelly. Alex was born in Walsall, lives in Sheffield, and works in Sheffield and Leeds (as well as travelling a lot with the theatre company, Third Angel). His mum was born in Drumchapel, lived in Dundee, then Dublin and for many years in Walsall, but returned to Scotland some time ago and now lives in Innellan. (My brother used to live in Innellan too.) Next year, there will be a vote on Scottish independence. Coincidentally, Alex is developing an interest in borders, and at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, he participated in The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project. I didn’t see him in that, but I did see him in his show, Cape Wrath, where he recounts following his Scottish grandfather’s journey to Cape Wrath. Alex had originally planned on us walking across the causeway to Lindisfarne, but seasons and tides transpired against us, whilst the border called us. Sometimes, a walk just seems to make sense.

As we leave the train station and make our way through the border town of Berwick- upon-Tweed, I am grateful for my waterproof trousers and jacket. Alex was last here a decade ago, with co-director of Third Angel, Rachael, for their project Pleasant Land. They travelled around England asking people about their own Englands and what Englishness meant. Alex and I try to work out how long we have known each other and think we probably met about that time, probably 2001/2.

Walking out of Railway Street we are greeted by the town’s grand angel statue, whose gaze sends us down Castlegate and then Marygate. Alex navigates us on to Church Street and though we miss Walkersgate we pass by the misnamed Sporran Gift Shop – which does not have a single sporran in its window, but does have lots of football memorabilia (Old Trafford signs, Newcastle football scarf, Anfield wall clock…) Heading towards the old town walls, we are soon beside the sea – the very edge of England (always a dizzying thought). We make our way down to the children’s playground – imprinted in Alex’s memory because of its round benches, offering 360 degree panoramic views. It was these very benches that inspired him to begin documenting benches and showing and telling about them in his Words and Pictures project.

Back up the hill and we walk in front of the forlornly empty caravan park (which we agree must have a rule about colour scheme since every single caravan is an off-white shade). We are beside the cliff edge now (Danger Loose Cliffs), looking down on the pummelling waves and listening in awe to their hollowing bellowing as they beat against the red rock face. We are forced to step onto the well-kept golf course, which in its carefully managed straight lines perched atop a jut of land, resembles a surreal aeroplane runway. I do not have a head for heights and stand well back from the edge. A field of sunflowers casts a backward glance to summer. The forecast was for rain till 2pm. Miraculously, at 2pm – an hour into our walk – it stops raining.

The watery architecture of this coastline includes stacks, caves and arches, sea and stone engaged in a long-duration formation. The surface of one of the arches is home to a great flock of cormorants and I think I spot gannets flying by too (I am kicking myself for not bringing my binoculars). There are birds that, from this distance, resemble penguins, but we know this cannot be the case (though we enjoy entertaining the fantasy). As we look back at the route travelled, the edgeness of our journey is made tangible. We really are on the edgelands here. But we are also almost on the borderlands too. Another caravan park – this one seemingly more exclusive than the last – provides an imitation of suburbia (static caravans complete with sun decks, cellars, gardens). A sign informs us that the Scottish border is half a mile away and soon Alex spots in the distance the tell-tale signs of blue and white – the Saltire flag hoving in to view. A perplexing notice informs us that the public footpath has been legally diverted – from where and to where is a mystery though. The path we follow is a large, mowed swathe of green grass. As we walk along it, we startle pheasants and a huge, bounding hare. And then we are at the sign – Welcome to Scotland/Fáilte gu Alba, erected in front of a wooden kissing gate. We presume that Scotland lies on the other side of this gate – a gate which we are instructed to ‘Please close’.

On the other side of the gate we indulge in some well-earned lukewarm Earl Grey tea from my flask, and some super sweet sugary tablet (courtesy of Alex’s mum and her partner). It’s what we happen to have on us, but it could be a rendition of sorts of Scotland and England. Just above us lies the train track, with impressive railway signage heralding this border crossing – the lion and unicorn facing each other. As we turn to look back across the border, towards England, we are struck by the fact that there’s no announcement that you are about to leave Scotland and enter England. All there is to see is the reverse – grey – side of the Scottish sign.

As we stand momentarily in Scotland, the sun begins to hint from behind the thinning clouds. It’s time to take off rain jacket and woolly hat and to make our way back in to England and back along the edge of that country. The return trip takes about half the time – surely a side effect of all that sugar. In total, we walk about seven miles over the course of five hours. And we talk the whole way – the single and determined path of the coastal walk juxtaposed with our wildly divergent, meandering chat. Our walk ends in a pub in Berwick-upon-Tweed, a glass of Jura single malt with a dash of water, and a toast – to friends, to friendship.

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