I walked a route that’s nearly 2,000 years old at the weekend. Eat your heart out, Camino de Santiago (popular pilgrim’s way across Spain, only 1,000 years old).
Over the summer I’ve met horse riders along it, hikers in remote open places eating their sarnies on it, dog walkers out on a Saturday morning on it, many drawn presumably by the marvel of following such a historic and ancient way: Dere Street.
Also known as Via Regia and Watling Street, the 180-mile long route from York to Perth was built in the late first century AD: Roman soldiers were first amo, amas, amat-ing their way up here nearly 20 centuries ago.
Agricola, Britain’s governor from AD77 to AD85, marched along it, the sixth century Gododdin warriors rode down it and Edward I’s armies marched along it during the Wars of Independence. More peaceful travellers used it, too, as early Christian missionaries made their way here to found monasteries at Old Melrose and Jedworth (Jedburgh).
Scottish Borders Council recently updated its booklet of paths for cyclists, hikers and horse riders around Jedburgh and several pages are devoted to Dere Street, giving details on the old road from Melrose, near the Romans’ military base at Trimontium, to their Pennymuir camp at Towford in the Cheviot Hills.
Any part of Dere Street in the Borders is great for hill walkers, especially those less keen on the hill bit of hill walking: gradients are gradual. The route is often quiet and the views lovely. Part of St Cuthbert’s Way follows it and at many sections hikers see the ancient route stretching away in front of them, straight as, well, a Roman road.
On Saturday a group of us were set to walk south of Towford to Chew Green, a camp, like Cappuck near Penielheugh, near Jedburgh, built at the end of a day’s march to provide shelter for troops moving through hostile territory.
One of us had forgotten our boots so while she drove back to get them, the rest of us walked north up the tarred road – part of Dere Street – from the Kale Water ford to the Roman Pennymuir camp (grassy lumps with an interpretation board), where we met a man wearing a hat at a jaunty angle. “I own all of this,” he said indicating the surrounding farm and moorland.
From Newcastle, he’d decided aged nine he wanted to be a farmer. He left school unable to multiply or spell much but worked his way up to owning a factory employing 40 men. Then, aged 59, he bought his farm.
“Hmm, sandals probably were best for this,” remarked one of us darkly as we squelched through a section of boggy moorland.
The route was levelling out after we’d climbed up the side of Woden Law and sweeping round the sides of valleys as we made our way past Blacklaw Hill to join the Pennine Way and see Chew Green (grassy lumps without an interpretation board). We came back via Nether Hindhope.
The Dere Street route is marked by a Roman helmet symbol and is easy to follow at all points between Melrose and Towford.
First printed in 2005, the council’s refreshed booklet includes 10 other routes around the town, including Lanton Woods, the Jed Riverside path and Totches Baulk – part of the old layout of the settlement – the Jedburgh circular horse-riding route, easy access paths at Harestanes Countryside Visitor Centre and, of course, the local section of the St Cuthbert’s Way.
It also includes maps and route descriptions and is for sale for £2 at the Jedburgh VisitScotland Information Centre, or can be downloaded at www.scotborders.gov.uk/walking