I set out to find the track leading from the back road to Galashiels. Not the road via Clovenfords which I knew, but a track that veered off the road. I’d been told it existed and a dotted line on the map seemed to bear this out. And I found the track, made of stones, some small and some big and all slicked with mud, and the last part goes steeply downhill. The stones made it bumpy and uneven, shaking me and the bike, and the mud making the stones slippery, and the sunlight so bright I had to keep blinking, and then there were the shadows, stripes of darkness, where the trees bordered the path.
But eventually it levelled off, and turned into a surfaced road which wound down towards the main road. There was a cycle path, which continued after I reached the town of Galashiels, skirting the edge, so I did not have to go on the main roads with all the traffic. The cycle path, completely flat, a memorable part of the journey, 3 kilometers or so of flat path. Then it was up the top road that overlooks the town, and on to the minor road that leads from Galashiels to Lauder. I’d decided to go this way, rather than just turn around and go back the way I came. To explore a different road, and go home via Lauder. And another reason for this route – there is a baker in Lauder that has the best chocolate brownies ever.
When I reach the turnoff I’m a little surprised to see that Lauder is signposted as 8 miles away. Somehow I thought it was not so far. But, on such a sunny magnificent day it doesn’t seem to matter. Two or three miles uphill, there’s the Eildon Hills behind me. I’d brought a flask of coffee, stopped by a gate with a handy round gatepost to balance the coffee cup on.
It had been years since I’d driven up this road and I remembered nothing of it. There were plenty of ups and downs. I toiled uphill, and flew downhill. The air was so still and the light so thick it felt like a painted substance. It covered trees and bushes, fields and slopes and the occasional farmhouse. This time of year, the solstice zone, for a month or so before and after the solstice, during this time the light has a special quality to it, that is different from any other time. And because of that, it slips through time, or joins other times, the memories of these other times, held in this light. So I remember other places at this end time of year – cycling in Cyprus, along coastal routes, and cycling through the tree-lined streets of Strasbourg – as well as here.
If there are fewer hours of light does it become thicker, more concentrated, to squeeze itself into less time, and into a smaller area of sky? And those shadows – they become so sharp, so pointed, and so fast, racing shadows to cover so much ground, definitely longer to run, further to go, so shadows too are denser, and more muscular through so much exercise. But the shadows have not got into their stride yet, the light is pausing, all downward directed onto the land, and hence the stillness.
A view of Lauder from the crest of the last slope and then it is downhill for a mile or so. The shadows are gathering in the main street though, and the baker it turns out, is closed on Mondays. But I am primed for buying – and eating – something, so I prowl along the main street and find the Spotty Dog, a delicatessen that promises so the board outside says, home baking and sandwiches. I do not want a sandwich, but perhaps they have some cakes left, so I hope. It turns out they don’t but they have all kinds of jams and other small jars of delicacies and packets of rice and teas and biscuits and then I see a packet of cannoli and that I think is going to be the closest I can get to chocolate brownies.
A woman in front of me in the queue asks me if I am the person on the bike (which I have parked outside) and I say yes, it’s an e-bike from the Stow Community bike hub pilot scheme to encourage the use of e-bikes and cycling in general. The woman says she would have liked to hire one of the Stow bikes but she does not live in Stow so she cannot. I say perhaps she can wrangle it, I too after all don’t live in Stow. But it’s a different postcode here in Lauder she says, I’m on the other side. Ah, I say, and think of all that separates this side from the other, is it a valley, a range of hills, or moor, most likely that’s it, for there is the high plateau of moor between this small town and the other one.
This moor is where the shadows get into their stride, or have done so already by the time I reach it, for they have all vanished into the valleys. On the moor the only shadows are myself and my bike, for nothing else protrudes from the grass and heather heathland.
The Eildons can be seen again, further away now.
Once over the moor, there’s the steep hill, the descent into Stow. I am still being careful, still using the brakes, for the road is wet, and the hill ends in a sharp bend. Hills where you can see the bottom and see where it straightens out and where it goes uphill again as it did on the road to Lauder, these are the best for you can release the brakes, but hills where you have to go round a sharp bend at the bottom, you have to stay vigilant.
All the shadows have gathered in the valley, greeting and gossiping. And they follow me on the last few miles of the back road, which is tucked into the bottom of the hillslopes. The sun is low down in the sky now, behind the hills, the back road twists and turns in deep shade.