open country

The grasses and umbellifers brush my arms and shoulders. Cranesbills and campions have lost their petals and bear cups of seeds – a fruit bowl for the fairies. The trees’ shadows are taller than the trees and the dogs’ shadows stretch long grey bars over the grass.

The sky is in the blue stratosphere far up above. Although it is not a time of year for goodbyes it is a time of year for picnics. The tall figure of my colleague Matt walks in front of me, he cuts overhanging branches as a train of us walk a narrow path to the Crystal Well.

We could be a scene from a historic novel, all parasols and straw hats, lifting our petticoats as a brave member of our party beats a way the vegetation. Actually, we are in walking boots and shoes and fleeces and sweatshirts. We are the countryside team. We are mustering on the riverbank below the mythical-looking front walls of this old water source.

In the early 1800s, half a century after landscape design in Scotland changed from formal gardens to a more natural approach that would blend more easily with the landscape, the Crystal Well was built. Initially viewed as a picturesque addition, it was clear that there were practical sections behind the attractive rounded arches.

On first seeing the elegantly positioned stone facades of the well and the Mule Gang, I was enchanted. They were like little houses set into the slope – doorways to a different kingdom. They reminded me of Rivendell, the elves’ home in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Behind the arches that make the eyes of this façade, a circular gin house was built. This was sized to allow a donkey to walk around a shaft to pump water up to Benrig House. To the north of the Mule Gang there was an ice house. This was a bell-shaped subterranean storage that would be packed with ice to keep meat fresh over the summer months.

There was also a gasworks but little remains of that. If The Crystal Well had not been restored under the Tweed Rivers Heritage Project, completed in 2004, it too would have been screened by nature’s purdah.

The full project consisted of almost 50 initiatives that started in 1999 and would consist of two phases costing a total of £9million. Much of the money came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, match funded from a wide range of sources including Tweed Forum and Scottish Borders Council.

Fronting the project at the council’s end was our recently retired principal officer of access and countryside, John Dent. My colleagues thought it fitting that we have our team gathering below this beautifully restored vestige of historical engineering.

Two large tree stumps served as tables for an array of foods, the smells from coleslaw, pasties, cold meats, cinnamon and ginger cakes made mellow by the surrounding flora. In small groups we talked and ate on the lush green grasses of summer.

It felt like a pilgrimage to some holy well as we went up the short path to explore the works. We had the keys to the iron gates, allowing a more detailed inspection. The structure is C(s) listed which is defined as buildings of local importance and lesser examples of a particular era which may have been altered.

I have never seen anything like it and was surprised to find that it falls within the same listing band as my utilitarian late Georgian listed home which is divided into two flats. The well’s detail includes rustic voussoirs (wedge-shaped or tapered stones used to construct an arch) and the keystone carved into a bearded head. The subtlety of the carved face heightens the mystery and magic of that spot along with the droopy purple bell flowers of comfrey and the delicate sweet-smelling new buds of meadowsweet.