I’m standing exposed on a hill in the north of England, the wind blowing rain and hail onto me and the only protection is my puffer jacket and a scarf which I’ve tied around my head so I look like a demented washer-woman.
I turn to Ange and observe that I could see why the Roman soldiers would hate this posting. We’re standing at Housesteads Fort, one of the strongposts built every mile along Hadrian’s Wall and the central focus for our one day tour with The Wee Red Bus from Heart of Scotland Tours.
The day had dawned cloudy but dry and although the forecast had warned of rain, we’d eyed the umbrella and decided that we wouldn’t be out in the open for very long and so had elected to leave it behind.
The meeting place for the tour was well marked both online and in person with a nice big sign identifying it as the Departure Point and an array of maps and Google StreetView available on their website. They mentioned on their website that there were no refunds if you couldn’t find the departure point and that the bus driver wouldn’t wait but with all the supporting maps and directions I couldn’t fathom how that could happen. You’d have to be really trying to miss it.
Even though there was a sign in the window of the red bus waiting at the stop which indicated that it was Stirling Castle tour, I confirmed with the driver that we were in the right place and he mentioned that the driver of our tour would be there momentarily. Sure enough, as he pulled out, another red bus pulled in with a sign indicating this was the the tour bus for Tour 3, stopping at Rosslyn Chapel, Melrose Abbey, the Scottish/English Borders and Hadrian’s Wall.
Alan the driver introduced himself to the waiting group of passengers and ticked our names off a list, bidding us to board and select seats. The bus was a brand new (one week old) Mercedes Sprinter-35 516CDi and as we settled in, Alan gave us the introductory spiel, setting our expectations for the trip and the bus.
As he pointed out the emergency exits, a wag onboard jokingly asked if there would be oxygen masks dropping from the ceiling, likening the briefing to an airplane safety briefing. Alan took it all in stride, and before we knew it we were heading through Edinburgh to the nearby Rosslyn Chapel.
Alan kept us entertained on the short drive over, asking us where we were from and giving some insights into Scotland, Edinburgh and some of the more famous residents.
The first stop on the tour was just outside the Edinburgh Bypass, and though the suburban neighbourhoods had given way to retail parks and fields, we were still well within Edinburgh’s thrall. The Tour timing was clever in that by allowing a little more time to get to the Chapel to accommodate any delays due to heavy traffic, it gave us the opportunity to check out the Sinclair Castle nearby because we’d been lucky and had had a clear run.
We used the gentle walk down the path from the carpark to the castle to chat with Alan the driver. I must admit that the glen was quite stunning and you could very easily spend a lot of time in the leafy gorge – it reminded me a lot of New Zealand.
The castle remains were not extensive but it was a nice photo-op with Alan giving some background to the Sinclair family and the history of the castle which set us up nicely for the visit to the Chapel.
Back up the lane to the Chapel we went and we were amongst the first groups through the ticket booths and into the grounds, closely following a large group of Italian students.
The chapel is a lightning rod for conspiracy theories and interpretations due to the symbols in the carvings within. It’s only a small chapel and owes its popularity to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code – visitor numbers quadrupling after the book came out and spiking again after the Vatican banned it.
There’s a no-photo policy within the chapel and I watched amused as one or two of the Italian college kids totally ignored the signage and were subsequently told off by the staff within. We made our way into the very small crypt and looked around before heading back up.
We’d arrived at 9:15am, the chapel opened at 9:30 and at 10:00 there was a 15 minute talk by one of the staff, Helen from Yorkshire. She gave us a brief run down of the history of the chapel and the attempts at restoration before directing our attention to a few of the symbols carved into the church and telling us of their origin.
Before too long she’d finished and we made our way closer to where she’d pointed, one part being behind the altar. Ange and I were intently examining the carving when I felt like I was being watched. I turned around and nudged Ange. She too turned and we discovered that the whole group of Italian students were staring at us expectantly. I then noticed that their teacher was standing beside me about to launch into a discussion, and we made our way through the crowd to let them do their thing.
Alan was really good about letting us know how long we had at each stop and even though Ange and I were at the bus at the correct time, because of the limited number of toilets at the Chapel, some of the others were a little delayed. While the tour company says if you’re not at the starting point on time, they’ll leave without you, once underway the tour makes sure that if they arrive at a spot with 14 passengers then they make sure that they leave with 14. I have to assume that it is the same 14…
Once the last of the passengers were aboard we headed off towards Melrose Abbey, and Alan filled the journey with further elaboration on the place Rosslyn Chapel holds in the realm of conspiracy theorists. I took the opportunity to ask for clarification – Alan had mentioned that some of the people who venerated Rosslyn Chapel were Knights Templar, Rosicrucian and Geomancers, and having some idea of the first two groups I asked him what Geomancers were.
Apparently they’re people able to soothsay based on tossing sand or dirt onto the ground. Ange and I quietly discussed why they would have such a strict no-photo policy in the chapel and came to the conclusion that with such a wide audience of people seeking to derive meaning from so many symbols inside, by denying the sharing of the imagery they forced people to make a pilgrimage to the chapel to see the symbols, ensuring a steady stream of tourists and ticket revenue.
By the time we approached Melrose the skies had turned dark and stormy. As we drove a loop through town, the heavens opened and hail came pouring down. We had an hour and there were two things to do in Melrose – have lunch and look at the abbey.
Ange and I, unusually for us, elected to check out one of the pubs in town and grab a decent lunch to set us up for the Hadrian’s Wall stop. It’s unusual for us to deliberately miss a photo stop, but when your tummy’s grumbling…
We dashed away from the carpark where Alan parked, ducked into an alleyway and made our way through a twisting throughway to the main road. A brief dash across the road and we found ourselves at the Kings Arms which had just reopened after fifteen months of renovations.
Ange had the fish-less fish cakes and I had the burger washed down with a Fosters shandy. By the time we finished it was getting close to leaving time and we headed into the centre of town to snap a quick pic of the unicorn on a pole in the main square before hot-stepping back down for a hurried snap of the Abbey, thankful that the rain and hail had exhausted itself (temporarily).
The abbey was an impressive size and though only a ruin still gave a sense of the grandeur it once had. Legend has it that Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried there, but it costs £6 to get in and seeing how we had five minutes before the bus was leaving we decided to take some shots through and over the wall instead.
One of our fellow passengers had forgone lunch in order to check out the Abbey and raved about it. As we left Alan mentioned that the stone that used to be part of the abbey had been re purposed after it had been left in disrepair and had been turned into the local houses and even the nearby Scottish Donkey Sanctuary. He then turned to the bus and asked “We’ve got some animal lovers onboard don’t we?” to which the wag onboard answered “That was never proved!”.
The next stop was a brief pause for photos as we crossed the border between England and Scotland. Here we had our passports checked and swapped currency while armed guards searched our luggage for haggis and bagpipes. Maybe not. A couple of boulders sitting on top of the hill was pretty much the only sign you’d gone from one country to the other but the views from up there were pretty special. And then we were off for the main event!
Now at each stop Alan had chatted with a different group of passengers, getting to know each of us, where we were from, what our story was etc. A great way of establishing priorities and what was important to each of us.
Somewhere along the line he’d learned that there was some strong interest in seeing some of Highland Cattle. Now Alan knew from doing this tour frequently that the only herd of these cows nearby was in a farm on the way to our next stop, but that the farm was spread out over many fields only some of which were anywhere near the road.
After warning us that we weren’t in the Highlands, so couldn’t expect to see Highland Cattle, and that the one farm nearby that had them was spread out and so we probably wouldn’t see any, we rounded a bend and then there was a chorus of “Heery Coos” and the bus almost flipped as all the passengers leaned over to the left hand side to view the Highland Cattle (Heery Coos meaning Hairy Cows in the appropriated Scots accent) that had just come into view.
Alan apologised that he couldn’t pull over because it wasn’t a safe section of road but that we would try and stop on the way back from Hadrian’s Wall to get a look at them. I was only half listening as I watched the lumbering cows chase a silver balloon across the field. It must have been filled with helium and it bobbed over the field pursued with great glee by about twenty of the big brown rugged beasts. Bizarre!
We continued through the Borders, the traditionally lawless zone extending on each side of the border where both countries would allow their citizens to raid into the other, making a dangerous area which became less and less frequented by law abiding folk and devoid of towns or cities, making a wide buffer area between the two countries.
A long line of family names from here were instantly recognisable to the Americans on our trip (Nixon as in Richard, Johnson as in Lyndon B and Armstrong as in Neil) as Alan told us the tale of how the Borders were brought back under the rule of law by shipping all those living here over to the US.
And then we arrived at the Wall. Where people stood and stared into the lands beyond civilisation and wondered at the savagery therein. And the Romans probably thought the same too.
When we arrived we had an hour on site and the sun was out. We got our tickets for the museum from the visitors centre and headed up the hill towards the fort. While it was windy, and the sky foreboding, it didn’t occur to me that it would rain – after all we’d had all that hail in Melrose, right?
Anyway we trekked up the hill to the museum and checked out the movie inside, thankful for the heat and shelter from the elements. One exhibit caught my eye – mentioning that Hadrian’s Wall was the inspiration for The Wall in Game of Thrones. I resolved not to do a Tyrion Lannister while I was on it! And out we went, fully aware we only had 45 minutes left and that 15 of those would have to be spent getting back down the hill to the bus.
And it started to rain. Heavily. Very heavily. Actually it was hailing mixed with the heavy rain. I quickly gave Ange my hat and used my scarf to fashion some sort of protection by wrapping it around my head – looking every inch the most pyschotic washer woman you would ever see.
We made our way up the hill and Ange expressed that if she had to pick one she would rather check out the wall rather than the fort, so we headed to the left and bypassed the stone walls of the fort remains.
The Wall here was augmented by a sheer drop beyond – no need to build too high when the natural undulations of the local terrain created an almost sheer cliff – let’s see someone scale that for an attack!
The wall itself was only a little more raised than the path that paralleled it under the cover of trees. It was Spring when we visited so any cover from the diabolical rain (the hail had thankfully stopped) was limited by the barely budding foliage.
We made our way along the wall, and I was thankful the wind was coming from the North meaning that the constant buffeting we endured sought to push us off the wall 3 feet to the path on the other side instead of the fifty feet drop on the other side. We made our way along the top of the wall until a barrier stopped us indicating that it wasn’t safe to go any further, up in the distance we could make out walkers gamely following the path to the next fort.
The Romans had placed forts every mile and lesser fortifications halfway between these, and we’d seen many walkers waterproofed and ponchoed with walking poles and backpacks making the trek between them.
While the rain was letting off a little, time wasn’t on our side and we had to head back, hoping there was enough time to check out the fort. As we approached the main entrance the heavens opened up again. We saw a pair of fellow passengers from our bus gamely trying to shelter from the deluge in the lee of one of the ruined structures and we exchanged pleasantries as we struggled up the slippery grass hill.
Upon reaching the top we realised that time was up and we’d have to head back if we were to reach the bus in time for departure. The fort itself was a little underwhelming if I’m honest. I don’t know what I expected but it was the most basic of forts, a wall surrounding some barracks and basic military buildings – not the most exciting.
The wall though! I don’t know if it had picked up some of the glamour of its depiction in Game of Thrones, but it felt special to walk along the northern most reaches of the Roman Empire (let’s leave the Antonine Wall out of this for now!). Similar I guess to how I felt on the Great Wall of China a sense of connection to history.
We joined the procession of tourists and trekkers crunching on the gravel path back down the hill, dodging the streams of water at the gates and making good time. The welcome relief of the visitors centre was lessened slightly by the rain stopping as soon as it got into view, but the shelter from the wind and warmth were welcomed and while Ange made use of the facilities, I got us a warm hot chocolate and a sandwich for the trip back.
Alan had been using his time wisely and had the heat worked out so that we were nice and toasty as we defrosted and tried to get dry while he wasnt fighting condensation and so could see out the front. I guess being a brand new Mercedes meant we were spoilt for air conditioning control.
Everybody got their damp and sodden jackets off and tried to air them as best they could for the trip back and about half of us elected to decamp and take photos of the Heery Coos when Alan found the safe place to stop. I braved the brief walk sans jacket and after taking my photos scampered back to the welcome heat of the bus.
The last stop on the way back was a comfort stop at Jedburgh, and while the view across the Jed Water to the ruins of the Abbey were picturesque, I think at that stage most people just wanted to get home. A few of us made use of the facilities or grabbed something to eat from the coffee house, but it was more of an opportunity to stretch our legs and break up the journey than anything else. There certainly wasn’t enough time to go into the Abbey or investigate Jedburgh’s other claim to fame – Mary Queen of Scots House.
And then – back to Edinburgh!
So what was the verdict? Was the trip worthwhile?
I’d have to say it was – Alan was really good at pacing his stories and insights, engaged well with each of the passengers and gave suitable periods of silence so people could drowse or just pass the time staring out the window at the scenery. He was really good about taking photos of people too – something I’ve been appreciative of when I’ve been a solo traveler in the past.
Ange would have liked more time at The Wall, but I’m not sure that would have been possible with maximum driving times for health and safety reasons. But all in all, the Wee Red Bus was impossible to fault, Alan was a great tour guide and we saw the things we came to see (including Heery Coos!), so I thoroughly recommend!