This article takes a gentle meander along the stretch of the Tweed which forms part of the border between Northumberland and Scotland.
It was initially established on this line in 1018 when the Scottish King Malcom II defeated Uchtred, Earl of Northumberland, at the Battle of Carham.
For much of the following 500 years this area was the backdrop to regular invasions and raiding by both sides. In those times fords were the main river crossings and were heavily defended.
Today they are replaced by bridges and our journey will take us by the three which today link Northumberland with Scotland.
We start at the Union Bridge, near Horncliffe, which when it opened in 1820 was the longest wrought iron suspension bridge in the world. It can still be used by cars so it remains the oldest road traffic carrying suspension bridge, though only one vehicle is allowed to cross at a time.
Some refurbishment is hoped to be carried out in time for the bridge’s 200th anniversary in four years’ time.
Crossing the bridge into Scotland, we follow the lanes through the fertile landscape of The Merse to the next ancient fording site at Norham.
The river is now crossed by the Ladykirk and Norham Bridge, which was opened in 1887. Its elegant structure can be best viewed from the riverside path.
Norham Castle was built here to protect what was the first ford above the tidal zone. Under the stewardship of English Heritage, it is well worth visiting, as is the village – a pleasant and quiet stop-over, with great views up towards the castle from its central green.
On the way to Cornhill we pass Twizel Bridge, famous for its use by the Earl of Surrey prior to the Battle of Flodden. From the small parking area at the bridge there is a circular walk along the Till and Tweed.
Despite collecting all the water from the Cheviot hills, north of the Aln, the Till is, perhaps, Northumberland’s forgotten river, having neither a source nor an estuary. It starts as the Breamish, changing name near Old Bewick, and the sandstone ridge that runs down the county prevents it reaching the sea, instead steering it northwards to become a tributary of the Tweed.
The riverside path gives good views upstream of the old Twizel Bridge and after about a mile it passes under the grand viaduct, which carried the Tweedmouth to Kelso railway line until its closure in 1965.
Soon the Till meets the Tweed where the ruined St Cuthbert’s Chapel can be seen on the opposite bank.
We now follow the wide river downstream, where you may see fisherman casting their flies. At the stone boathouse our way leaves the river, crosses the old railway and a field, before coming to the ruins of Twizel Castle. It was built on the site of a medieval tower, but was never completed, with work coming to a halt in the early 19th century. It did have five storeys, but time has reduced this to two.
The next stop is the bridge near Coldstream, from where a path goes downstream to the remains of Cornhill Castle, which sits on another fording point. There is little to see of the castle, just the remains of the mound and its surrounding ditches, which perhaps reflects the relative lack of importance of this crossing point.
Continuing upstream, just before we get to Wark, there is an interesting anomaly, which can be seen on the Ordnance Survey map. The border, which for most of this stretch runs in the centre of the river, swings south and encompasses a few acres of England. Legend has it that there used to be a game of ‘football’ between Coldstream and Wark and the winners would hold a piece of land on the opposite bank.
As Wark diminished in importance, Coldstream came to dominate, and so this small section of land, known as Ba’ Green, has remained in Scottish hands.
Wark was the site of the third main ford on the Tweed. The castle here sits on a high mound above the village, but is in such a poor state that although you can walk around the perimeter, you are not allowed to walk through the ruins. In its day, however, it was a major residence, and legend has it that it was here that Edward III rescued the honour of the lady host when her garter slipped.
To save the lady’s embarrassment he retrieved it and when some attendants started to snigger he uttered the immortal phrase “honi soit qui mal y pense” (may he be shamed who thinks badly of it), which would later become the motto of his Order of the Garter. It has to be said, however, that Wark is not the only castle to claim this event.
The last place we visit along the Tweed, before the border turns south away from the river towards the Cheviots, is the Redden Burn, near Carham, the site of the battle.
There is little to see, but this was one of the places where, during the days of the Reivers, the wardens of the East Marches of England and Scotland would meet to settle disputes. Thankfully, we can now travel along and across the border at will – well for the time being at least!
If you are interested in aspects of Northumberland that are a little less well known, you might enjoy The Cheviot. Published three times each year, it is a miscellany of North Northumberland, containing history, landscape, nature, art, poetry, dialect and more. You can find out more at www.wildsofwanney.co.uk