Southern Upland Way Day 15: Galashiels to Melrose (backwards)

Published 27 February 2012

A cartoon wprdle of Southern Upland Way words and wavy lines

I woke early. And went back to bed again. This was supposed to be a rest day after all. But even so by eight I was fidgeting. The first kids were already arriving at the primary school next door to the camping area and soon there was a noisy clatter of children playing. As I ate my morning muesli I watched as the children arrived. Some came with parents in tow, others alone; the ones arriving with mum or dad generally looking like they wished they hadn’t. By the time the bell rang at nine there was a cacophony of noise as Melrose’s children prepared to start another day of learning.

Melrose was a bit of a touristy town, that much was obvious from its endless parade of coffee shops, bakeries and so on, but at least it was a nice (if slightly twee-looking) touristy place. And it had a reason to be touristy, being home to two National Trust for Scotland properties and a historic abbey which I dutifully explored, helped by an excellent audio guide. And after the abbey I headed down to the River Tweed in order to pick up the Southern Upland Way once more.

Truth be told I could easily have walked the five mile stretch between Galashiels and Melrose the day before, but given the brevity of the walk, much of it alongside the River Tweed, I had thought it would make a nice stroll before lunch. And to be frank, I’d decided it would also be very nice to do some walking without wearing a heavy pack on my back. And as this bit would go through a more urban setting, it would also make me look less odd to boot. So much was my desire not to stand out that I went as far as leaving the map and guidebook at the tent, deciding that the Southern Upland Way’s waymarking would probably be clear enough. However I was about to do something that felt frankly odd. I was going to do the section backwards.

Having spent the whole trip going from west to east it felt strangely wrong to suddenly start going in the opposite direction but there was a method to my madness. There was a big Tesco at Galashiels and I wanted to stock up for the next few days. Melrose had a few small grocers but there wasn’t much to choose from. And given I was going to be stocking up, I hadn’t really wanted to walk back from Galashiels with heavy carrier bags under my arms when taking the bus would be much easier.

People on the banks of the Tweed

The Way wandered along the banks of the River Tweed; the buttercup filled grass proved to be a popular destination for dog walking and jogging whilst in the river fishermen and a heron were competing for the same catch.

Soon the path began to climb up to a road bridge near the endearingly named Skirmish Hill where, in 1526, the Battle of Melrose raged (notably raged, not skirmished) over the custody of the 14 year old monarch, James V who had been kidnapped by the Earl of Angus in Angus’s attempt to seize control of the country.

On the other side of the bridge the path headed inland, initially through an industrial estate and then along the back of some houses. Its flat, straight nature gave away its history as the former trackbed of the Waverley line, built in 1849 by the North British Railway. When the whole thing was completed in 1862, the line had connected Edinburgh with Carlisle, and then later with the Midland Railway’s line from London through Settle. Inevitably it didn’t survive, being a victim of Doctor Beeching’s cuts.

The old railway bed eventually gained street lights suggesting its new role was perhaps a popular one, and an old viaduct took the path over the Tweed as the Southern Upland Way crossed over to the north bank. After a brief dalliance with a near deserted but highly urban road, the path swung back to the riverside, now in a small patch of woodland next to another deserted road that once was the main route between Galashiels and Selkirk.

Surprisingly big but empty road

Everywhere had seemed to be eerily quiet given I was now on the outskirts of a major town. Even when going along roads there was little traffic, as if the local population had all headed en-masse to some other place, leaving the place to the walkers. But then walking along abandoned railway lines and former main roads, perhaps it shouldn’t have been any other way. And up near the road I found another. An old iron bridge stood over a curious cutting and standing on the bridge I found I was looking down on the overgrown remnants of a railway that had closed in 1951.

Whilst getting very close to the town centre, the Southern Upland Way avoids most of it, and the path now went over the busy A7 road and then into farmland that borders the town. A large group of cows looked at me in alarm as I approached them, but I had little choice but to go in their direction as they’d all congregated in front of the gate I needed to pass through. Next to the gate a bench stood where a walker could sit and admire the view of Abbotsford House in the distance. Built for St Walter Scott mostly between 1816 and 1824, it would have made a fine sight to admire if there hadn’t been a large herd of nervous bovines stood in the way and for some unknown reason I decided against stopping.

Further up the hill Galashiels and its environs came into view and the Southern Upland Way went on its most urban walk yet as it headed through housing estates until getting to the high school where I’d left it the day before. The whole walk had taken me just under two hours and it all felt a bit wrong. It was out-of-place; an anachronism. Most of the time the Southern Upland Way had been almost phobic about visiting even the smallest of villages, yet here it had dilly-dallied with the urban high-life for no obvious reason and with little to gain. Surely there was another route to Melrose, I thought. Something better, more interesting than this?

But in its choice of route there was one truism. Draw any line across a country and you’ll probably go through a town. Maybe, in a strange way, this interloping into Gala was about reflecting the true nature of the Southern Uplands, no matter how brief.

Next time, the population disappears again as the Southern Upland Way passes the final pub and shop of the walk.

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