Rockcliffe is a pretty village, and slightly raised above the low-lying ground on either side. After lunch I continue walking north, parallel to the river, along a quiet lane that’s bright with daffodils.
Below me the river’s furious current has slowed. Perhaps it feels as mellow as I do this afternoon. In the distance, across miles of flat fields, I see the Cumbrian fells – with SNOW on top. Beautiful.
The day before yesterday was a full of gales and driving rain. Not only did the horrible weather keep me confined to sightseeing in Carlisle, but it also brought snow to the hills and closed the A66 for a while. It’s hard to believe that today, with the air warm and full of spring.
The lane leads past a country estate, and then turns away from the shore. But I continue along a footpath that runs over marshy ground close to the river.
As I walk around the curve of the bank, I get a great view looking back at Rockcliffe. The church steeple is tall and elegant. And you can really see why the village got its name, sitting on top of some low cliffs. More crumbling sandstone than hard rock, to be honest.
I can’t walk too close to the river, because the ground is very boggy. The landscape opens out. I’m approaching an area called Demesne Marsh, and further ahead is another vast bog, called Rockcliffe Marsh.
I think the area I’m walking through is used for grazing. There are signs of cattle – old cow pats and hoof prints – but luckily no sign of any today. Probably still too wet and cold to release them.
It’s a lonely place. I see no other walkers.
On my right I pass a grand house. Castletown House, according to my map. It has a shuttered, empty look about it, and I wonder what it’s used for.
Further along, I come to the next house, simply marked as ‘Demesne’ on my map, and at this point I must make a choice.
- I can continue walking around the edge of the marsh until I reach Esk Boathouse, about 2-3 miles further along. Some of the way is footpath, but most of it is over private land. This is the way David Cotton walked when he did this section on his coastal walk.
- Or I can head up to the road and follow country lanes. This will be slightly shorter and easier than sticking to the marsh. And doesn’t involve trespassing.
I look up at the house and consider what to do.
My original plan was option (2), because my planned walk today is already a long one by my standards, and I’m driving back to Lincolnshire tonight. But I’m reluctant to say goodbye to the River Eden, and the marsh ahead looks tempting…
In the end, caution wins out, and I walk up towards the house to find the road. The first section is farm track and very muddy. I pass some bedraggled sheep. Very hairy. Unusual looking. Are they a rare breed?
I’m glad to reach the firm surface of a little lane. Road walking is, of course, far more boring than walking through the marsh, but at least I make good progress.
My little lane joins a slightly larger road. This is Rockcliffe Cross, a tiny collection of houses and farms. I see a sweet looking horse standing by a gate. No, the gate isn’t huge. The horse is really VERY small.
I turn left along the road, past more farms, until I reach another junction. The road ahead is a dead-end. It leads to the Esk Boathouse, and this is where I would have ended up if I’d followed David Cotton’s route.
I turn right. Although I haven’t yet had to walk through a field of cows on this trip, a bunch of bullocks are lurking behind a tree. It looks like an ambush party. I’m glad there’s a fence between us.
At Halltown Farm I’m going to leave the road and follow a footpath which runs all the way up to Metal Bridge, the point at which I will cross the River Esk.
I’m worried about this footpath. The first section is across fields, but the majority of it follows a track. And farmer’s tracks can be extremely muddy. (I remember struggling along the Hadrian Wall Path to Beaumont yesterday.) Perhaps I should play it safe and stick to the road?
But I’m bored with roads.
The first part of the footpath runs across a low field beside Halltown Farm, and it is very muddy indeed. I jump from one squelchy tussock of grass to another. In between the tussocks, my feet sink ankle-deep in mucky slurry. Yuck. Perhaps this was a terrible mistake?
I’m relieved to see a stile ahead, with woodland beyond and the promise of drier land.
But the woodland isn’t much better. In fact, it’s worse. And there’s no sign of a trodden path, so clearly people don’t come this way very often. Oh dear. But it’s too late to turn back now. Onwards.
I reach the track I was worrying about and – to my relief – discover it isn’t muddy at all. There are tyre treads, but the ground is firm. No sign of cattle either.
I laugh at myself for worrying about the track. I’m reminded it can be very hard to predict what a path will be like by simply looking at the map. In fact, this track feels very established and very old. Is it an ancient green lane?
To my left, through a screen of trees, I catch glimpses of the broad expanse of marshland that sticks out into the Solway Firth. To my right, through an ancient hedge, are agricultural fields. I’m walking the border between tamed countryside and watery wilderness.
I reach Garriestown. This seems to consist of a single farmhouse and associated outbuildings. Here the lovely lane is interrupted, somewhat abruptly, by a recently added wire fence. It has a makeshift look to it. The public right-of-way continues off to the right, over a stile.
I follow the footpath around the perimeter of the farm building and over another stile. Here the ground is in a horrible state. Muddy and chewed up by… by what? I don’t see any cattle or sheep out here, only a bunch of chickens.
I cross the mud with difficulty, keeping to the left where there is an inch or two of grass left. Someone has, very inconveniently and deliberately, tied a cord between temporary stakes to keep walkers off the grass and keep them in the mud.
As I inch my way past the chickens, they rush about and cluck in panic. ‘Don’t worry ladies,’ I call out. ‘I’m not going to hurt you. Just on my way to the bridge.’
I reach the gate and the driveway to the house. There, to my surprise, I see a man leaning against the side of his car. He seems to be studying a map. Is he lost?
Slightly embarrassed – because he must have heard me talking to the chickens – I open my mouth to say something, but he doesn’t raise his eyes from his map, although he clearly knows I’m there. This is odd – in isolated places people usually greet each other. And if he’s lost, maybe I can help?
Suddenly, I realise he isn’t lost at all. He’s just pretending I don’t exist. And that means he must be… the landowner.
Hah! Rude man. But there’s no point in being unfriendly to walkers or in trying to make a public footpath difficult to navigate. We’ll just find ways to get round, anyway. You don’t gain anything, just a nasty reputation.
The path continues as a track. I’m heading towards the railway line – the main line between Carlisle and Dundee – and I’m hoping to find a crossing point. Ah yes, a footbridge.
Actually, it’s a stupendous footbridge. The helpfulness of its construction neatly contrasts with the unhelpfulness of the Garriestown landowner. But, my legs are feeling tired, so why the enormously high stile?
There’s an equally enormous one on the other side. But I get a good view from the top of the bridge and stop to take photographs.
Ahead is the M6 and my crossing point over the River Esk at a place called Metal Bridge. There should be an ordinary road running alongside the motorway too, but, if there is, I can’t see it from this distance.
I had assumed I could cross the river there. Someone who knows the area (Ann Lingard, I think) mentioned crossing at the Metal Bridge. Oh dear. What am I going to do if I can’t?
This worry spoils a pleasant walk along the banks of the River Esk. I reach Metal Bridge, where there are a few houses and a pub. I find the road I’m hoping to follow. But there’s a “ROAD CLOSED” sign. Oh no!!!
With sinking heart I follow the closed road. It dives under the M6 bridge. I can hear the traffic clattering overhead. Desperately I look for steps leading up. Nothing!
On the other side of the bridge, the footpath continues along the river to the next crossing point at Longtown. I pull out my map. Longtown is where David Cotton crossed, but it’s 4 miles up river. This unexpected deviation would add miles to my already long walk.
I can do it. If I have to. Yes, I can walk to Longtown and then on to Gretna. But it will be a physical challenge. And how will I get back to Carlisle? When’s the last train? I didn’t bother checking the bus times either.
Yes, I CAN do it, but I DON’T WANT TO.
Perhaps there’s a bus from Metal Bridge back to Carlisle? I turn back and walk along the road, searching for signs of a bus stop. Then I see something – a slip road, up to a non-motorway road. It exists, after all. And goes to Gretna. Over the bridge. Alongside the M6.
I’m full of relief at finding I can cross the river here, after all. And decide I LOVE this road.
The love affair doesn’t last long.
Actually, this road is truly horrible. One of the worst I’ve had to walk along yet. No pavements. Almost no verge. Fast moving traffic and narrow lanes.
At first I try to walk along the right hand side of the road, facing oncoming traffic. (As in the photograph above.) But I soon abandon that idea. For a start, the noise of the motorway traffic hurtling along inches away to my right – just on the other side of the green fence – is terrifying. At least on the left there IS a verge, of sorts.
The best part of this horrible road is the actual bridge itself, where there is a pavement. And nice views.
This section of road walking continues for 3 miles. Luckily the traffic is not too heavy, but it is constant. I’m walking with the cars coming up behind me, but I’m unable to hear their approach because of the roar of the nearby M6.
I spend most of the time tottering along the grassy verge, trying to avoid twisting an ankle on the rough surface, and trying to avoid stepping in roadkill or stumbling over discarded litter. I know I started the day saying, “Gretna Green, or bust!”, but I didn’t mean it literally!
I know I should be excited because I’ve nearly reached Scotland. But it’s hard to be enthusiastic about anything during this part of the day.
Finally I reach the A6071 that will take me into Gretna and there’s a decent pavement to walk along. The road swings around, over a bridge and – suddenly – I’ve left England behind and I’m in Scotland. I stop to take a photo of the welcoming sign and to post an update on Twitter. I’ve made it.
If you look carefully at the photo above, you’ll see what I first saw – my first impression of Scotland. It’s the scene of a road accident. A smashed car, police vans, and an ambulance are parked in the layby. Maybe it’s not a good omen?!
Anyway, I survived the horrible road and I’m here at last. In Scotland!
A sign post tells me it’s only 360 miles to John O’Groats. Really? No. Not the way I’m going. And, apparently, only 478 miles to Land’s End. It seems a long time since I was there.
Actually, realising I would arrive in Gretna came as a bit of a surprise. I had always thought the first place you came to on the border was Gretna Green. (All my teenage memories of elopement stories ended up in Gretna Green, not Gretna.) But Gretna Green is still a mile away up the road.
One of my NHS friends got married last year in Gretna Green. She and her husband didn’t elope – they’re in their fifties – but it’s still a place with romantic connotations.
They clearly do weddings in Gretna too. The Old Toll Bar is, apparently, the first house in Scotland and the site of over 10,000 marriages.
Gretna is an odd place. It’s a mix of romantic and mundane. There’s a twee collection of inns and hotels, selling themselves as wedding venues, set against the backdrop of a large and extensive retail park.
I glance at my watch. If I miss the next train, I have 2 hours to wait. Onwards, and quickly, to Gretna Green and the railway station.
Perhaps the reason why people eloped to Gretna Green, instead of Gretna, was because this is where the railway station is situated? If young lovers did arrive here, they must have been disappointed, because the station is far from romantic. Rusty metal steps and two functional, but Spartan, platforms. It doesn’t even have a coffee shop.
Anyway, I make my train with 10 minutes to spare. The ScotRail carriage is crowded and dirty. I’m glad to get off in Carlisle and switch to my car.
[A difficult afternoon was compounded by a difficult drive back to Lincolnshire. The A1 was closed in two places, causing time-consuming deviations. I know it’s sensible to conduct road works at night, but very irritating for those of us making late journeys!]
Miles walked today = 16 miles
Total distance around coast = 3,045 miles
Route: red=morning, black=afternoon