Telling people you’re going for a weekend in the Lake District often illicits a variety of reactions; some are wistful, thinking back to happy, sunny, warm, ice cream filled days, maybe pootling about on a boat on calm still water, or possibly of striding up well-worn paths and clambering through rocky gullies to reach summits with glorious views to distant peaks for your well-deserved picnic. Other reactions can be teeth-sucking and head-shaking accompanied by distant flint-eyed looks of someone remembering desperately cowering behind dry-stone walls, alongside dark and deep peat bogs with the wind whipping rain, snow and sleet around you and the occasional pause in the gale allowing you to ponder that immortal and existential phrase – “what the f*** am I doing here?”.
On this occasion when I announced my weekend plans, most of the reactions were along the lines of the “Best take a brolly mate. I know it’s August, but you’ll have heard about that dam in Derbyshire. Be prepared” So it was with some pleasant surprise that our drive down to Cumbria was for the most part accompanied by a bright sun and only a few clouds. As we were in no hurry we’d decided to avoid the motorway as much as possible, but also because the route passes through some of best scenery that the Southern Uplands of the Border region has to offer. Rolling hills with great views and large expanses of moorland, plus it’s also where two of Scotland’s primary rivers rise – the Clyde, near to Abington and the Tweed in the hills above Moffat in an area called the Devil’s Beeftub. The latter is steeped in cross-border history as it was one of the places where the local clans would herd the cattle they’d rustled from the English on one their many reiving sorties – a beeftub, incidentally, is the word for where cattle are kept.
We took the motorway to Lesmahagow, just south of Glasgow and then followed a parallel running B road, which runs all the way to Gretna Green and could well be (but I don’t know for sure) the original route north and south before the motorway was built. It’s a fabulous road, wide, well maintained and with plenty of long straight stretches and sweeping bends with the great bonus that there’s no-one on it, as pretty much everyone who wants to travel south or north is on the motorway next door. Simply put, it’s driving heaven.
Rolling into Gretna Green at about 4pm it was pitstop time, so we looked about for a suitable place to park and locate a teashop. In the “olden days” when Gretna was famed as the choice destination for English couples wishing to elope and marry, I can well Imagine it was a charming and characterful place. Unfortunately it isn’t now. I expect that you can still get married in the town, more likely in one of the numerous chain hotels rather than in the blacksmiths forge where the anvils were once where plights were trothed (couples literally forging a life together) and that in itself partly explains why the character of the place has changed so much.
Commercialisation has overtaken Gretna – from the Outlet Village to the “original blacksmith’s workshop”, which whilst still standing is now a pseudo-museum filled with sepia photos of bygone days surrounding an anvil and hammer behind which you can have your picture taken. Out the back of this there are the default add-ons of café, restaurant and gift shop, with the latter offering all manner of uber-tat with the barest and most tenuous links to Gretna/marriage/blacksmiths (would the blacksmith really have had the decorators round to apply tartan wallpaper in the hope of enlivening the forge?)
The Outlet Village is everything you’d expect it be, with branches of most high-street shops as well as a few I didn’t expect – Hugo Boss, Jeff Banks and Ralph Lauren. The appeal of these places has waned for me in recent years as a number of the shops (hello M&S and Next) do not offer many (if any) of the lines of clothing they sell on the high street, but instead stock their shelves and racks with very poor quality clothes which have been made specifically to be sold in these branches. Cynical commercial gain. That said we did have a cuppa at the Thornton’s café where you get a free chocolate with your hot drink, so it’s not all bad 😊
Heading south out of Gretna we crossed the River Esk and the Border and made our way towards Carlisle. Having visited the city’s very impressive castle in November last year and having no desire to get stuck in rush hour traffic, we skirted its north eastern edges and headed for Wetheral. This is a lovely unspoilt village on the banks of the River Eden, about 5 miles east of Carlisle and with its village green, post office, village shop, hotel, pub and restaurant it has pleasant and prosperous feel to it. With its proximity to the city but firm roots in the countryside, it manages to combine mercantile industry with rural idyll. This was our base for the weekend.