As someone who has been visiting Tweedsmuir all my life but seldom owned a car, I’m more than familiar with the lack of public transport in the Upper Tweed Valley. I’ve encountered the buses that leave but never arrive, the spider’s web of coach routes that stretch in all the wrong directions, and the annoyance of endlessly phoning my family for a lift. So when I hit on the idea of walking along the old railway line from Peebles to Tweedsmuir it seemed an ideal excursion. I’d learn how feasible the proposed Tweed valley cycle path is, have an excuse to stretch my legs after a long city week, and finally be able to arrive home without dragging anyone on a forty-five minute round trip to collect me.
I started on a sunny Saturday morning, arriving in Peebles on the eleven o’clock bus and walking along woodland track opposite Neidpath castle before picking up the railway line as it crosses the river by means of a stunning Victorian wrought iron bridge. For the next couple of miles the path was a breeze. The track was lined with gravel, the bordering shrubs were pruned – I assume by the council – and the path was full of elderly couples taking a leisurely weekend stroll.
The first hiccup of the day came as I approached the village of Halldyne and suddenly found the railway track disappeared into somebody’s back garden. The only way around was to cut onto the road for fifty yards and then take a sharp right into the nearest field where a kind farmer had installed a wooden gate that led back to the track. Someone had even gardened a stretch of the area, mowing the railway line into neat pinstripes.
Such luxuries didn’t continue for long; at the very next field the railway line had been entirely fenced off and left to its own devices. Imagine a stretch of land that has been ignored for decades and is now chest-deep in every type of knotted tree, bush and weed imaginable. I quickly gave up on my plan to walk exclusively along the railway track. For the rest of the day every time I hit undergrowth I simply hopped into the nearest field; this meant a lot more fence-jumping than planned but did cut down on the swearing and blasphemy.
Soon afterwards the land opened into proper sheep country with wide grassy fields and rolling hills. Indeed it was such sheep country that I found a ewe wedged into a hole and looking very frightened. Unable to free the animal myself I made a detour to the nearest farmhouse to alert a neighbour so by the time I was nearing Stobo it was already past lunch.
Stobo is, I think, the biggest challenge to the cycle path project. Many of the newer buildings have been constructed slap-bang in the middle of the railway line. Indeed one large house takes up the whole space between the river and the road so that, unless some clever scientist invents the amphibious bicycle, any cycle route would have to join the B712 for at least one hundred yards.
The stretch of path after Dawyck was my favourite. I enjoyed the enterprising elderly couple that had set up a tiny old caravan with picket fence on a hidden stretch of the railway track. I also enjoyed the quality of light that turned the Tweed into one long glass mirror, the swallows that skimmed the water, and the butterflies that danced their way through the long summer grasses.
Just before Rachan the path forks. The right-hand fork takes you into Broughton, the left-hand fork towards Tweedsmuir. Here the land changes again as the hills get steeper and more rugged. The railway track changes too, gradually becoming a feat of engineering with track etched into steep cliffs and bounded by walls that are still intact decades after they were last inspected.
Around 5pm, just as I’m on the last few miles, I reach another area that’s been fenced off. This time steep concrete walls on either side of the railway path have created a thicket dense enough that even Sleeping Beauty’s Prince might have shirked. I made the wise choice to climb into the field above the railway line and happily bounced through the easy grass for ten or fifteen minutes. Then I committed a mistake.
The fields became a conifer forest that stretched all the way up to the A701. Loathe to take the concrete path, I thought I’d slip back down to the railway line and check the density of the undergrowth. Unfortunately, as I took my daysack off and dropped it over a fence, my bag rolled - seemingly in slow motion - down the hill, hit a rock, pitched over the concrete wall, and landed on a gorse bush right in the middle of the still impenetrable thicket.
Sadly I am no boy scout. I had neither machete nor rope, and had even been silly enough to change into shorts in the forlorn hope of turning my pale Scottish legs a rich mahogany brown. The only way to retrieve the bag was to push into the undergrowth. It took me half an hour to convince myself there was no easy way to climb down. It took another hour to get to the bag. That’s one hour of gorse, nettles, brambles, hogweed, thistles, hawthorn, and every other variety of plant that either stings or spikes.
Afterwards I walked the last hour home in a low evening light. I had imagined striding into Tweedsmuir like an Amazon warrior. In reality, I hobbled home with limbs that looked as if they belonged to a swollen lobster.
It’s a testament to how amazing a cycle path would be that even my poor beaten legs didn’t sway me from enthusiasm about the project. Looking back on that day I still mostly remember the beauty of the walk. What tourist or local wouldn’t want to cycle along one of the most stunning rivers in Britain, bounded by high mountains, with a dash of breathtaking railway architecture thrown in for good measure. A cycle path on that route could easily become the most beautiful and talked-about in Britain. It seems like a no-brainer to me.