The Anglo-Scottish border is a place of wild beauty, with a rich, poetic and bloody history. This is the land of the reivers, fierce clans of brigands who, from the 13th century until the Union of the Crowns in 1603, were to this region what the Apaches were to the US-Mexican frontier. Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum has an excellent permanent exhibition about them.
On day one, head north from Carlisle up the M6, cross the border and take the B721 west to the wide skies and sometimes eerie light of the Solway Firth. The Maltings at Annandale Distillery, producer of a very tidy single malt, makes a good stop for a late lunch (soup and a sandwich, including a haggis option, for £8.50) and a slice of whisky and orange cake.
A road south goes to Ruthwell. This small village is home to the intricately carved eighth-century Ruthwell Cross, which carries one of the oldest English texts in the world. It’s considered one of the greatest examples of Dark Age art in Europe.
Further along the road is Caerlaverock Castle, which looks and sounds like a fortress straight out of Narnia, and a World Wildfowl Trust wetland bird sanctuary, where, depending on the season, it’s possible to see birds from ospreys to barnacle geese.
From here, loop back north via Dalton to Lochmaben – where the ruined castle is reputed to have been the birthplace of Robert the Bruce – and up Annandale to Moffat. The Annandale Arms is the town’s oldest hotel, a good place to sample local lamb and cask-conditioned Broughton ale, brewed a few miles up the road towards Biggar, before bedding down for the night (doubles from £116 B&B)
On day two, head east from Moffat past the White Coomb. Between Cappercleuch and Yarrow Feus, near the Gordon Arms hotel, is a right-hand turn that goes south past St Mary’s Loch. Join the B709 and take a trip across the edge of Ettrick Forest to Ettrickbridge, formerly known as Kirkhope. There’s an impressive pele tower just outside the village that was built in the late 16th century by Auld Wat Scott, a notorious reiver best known for organising the daring escape from Carlisle castle of Kinmont Willie Armstrong – an escapade celebrated in one of the most famous Border ballads. Stay the night in a yurt overlooking Newburgh Burn (from £150, sleeps six, ettrickvalleyyurts.co.uk)
Next day, head south-east, passing the monument to The Ettrick Shepherd poet James Hogg, and on to Eskdalemuir, a village that’s home to Kagyu Samye Ling, the largest Buddhist monastery and Tibetan centre in the western world. Visitors are welcome and there’s a nice Tibetan tearoom.
From here, it’s a short drive to Langholm, where there’s a memorial to another Border poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, and a stretch of wall built by the great Victorian engineer Thomas Telford when he was an apprentice in the town. South-east from Langholm, are the Debatable Lands – an area of desolate wilderness between England and Scotland that, for three centuries, belonged to neither kingdom, and became a haven for outlaws.
From this wild country, head south into the lushly wooded Eden Valley and the picturesque ruins of Lanercost Priory, which also has an excellent tearoom. Follow the road that runs alongside Hadrian’s Wall to Birdoswald, where there’s a ruined Roman fort, a museum and a good section of the wall to walk along, down to the River Irthing. The cafe at nearby Slack House Farm serves its own excellent organic Birdoswald cheese. A left turn next to the farm winds back into the Debatable Lands and a region known as the Bewcastle wastes.
In Bewcastle village, St Cuthbert’s churchyard has its own carved Anglo-Saxon cross. It was here that a visiting Daniel Defoe noted the absence of male graves, and was told that most of the men in the village were buried in Carlisle – where they’d been taken to be hanged. Stay the night at the March Bank Hotel (from £80 B&B), once a hunting lodge belonging to the old Graham family.
On day four, cross the border into Scotland again, and head up to Newcastleton and on to Hermitage Castle, a ruin that more or less defines the term “forbidding”, particularly on a rainy day (though even in warm sunshine it’s likely to send a shiver down the spine).
In between theft, violence and poetry, the reivers played a lot of football (clan names include Charlton, Robson and Milburn). View the place where the “first” England v Scotland match was played by turning right and dropping down into Kielder village. This is the heart of one of Europe’s largest manmade forests, home to red squirrels, goshawks, roe deer and soon – if naturalists get their way – the first population of lynx in the UK for over 600 years. Cross the border again and spend the night in a former platform room at Saughtree Railway Station B&B (doubles £75 B&B).
On day five, drive up through Hawick, stopping in the town to have a look round the woollen mills. The countryside around Melrose is gentler and better tended than the wild territory to the south and west. The grand little town makes a good base for two days of exploring the area. There’s a wide range of accommodation, including the venerable, if pricey, Burts Hotel (from £140 B&B). It’s worth popping in for afternoon tea, even if you’re not staying. Among the highlights round about are Sir Walter Scott’s house at Abbotsford, a walk in the Eildon Hills, the craft workshops and brewery at Traquair House and Born in the Borders, where visitors can combine grass tobogganing with gin tasting. For food, try the Buccleuch Arms’ Blue Coo Bistrot, where a steak and ale pie will cost £12.50, or the Cross Keys at Ancrum for a Border Reivers burger at £12.
Leaving Melrose, drive east to the coast via Allanton, a town of tailors who once sold their wares through special windows in their houses. The town’s eponymous pub is a good place for lunch (seafood platter for two £45).
The coastline north of Berwick is spectacular. At St Abbs Head, perch on the edge of the cliffs and look down on hundreds of fulmars, guillemots and razorbills going through their daily routines. Eyemouth is still a busy fishing port with a daily wholesale market. Giacopazzi’s is a classic Scottish-Italian cafe serving top-notch fish and chips and homemade ice-cream.
A little to the north, Coldingham is in a wonderful, sheltered cove. Stay the night in one of Nanny Sue’s beachside pod and wake to the sound of the waves (from £50 weekday, breakfast extra).