I am thankful to live in a beautiful place, surrounded by quiet roads and woodlands that can be explored without intruding on farmland. As the Covid-19 lockdown continues, without sign of diminishing, I find a walk in the open to be the best part of the day – a calming escape from the same four walls and the omnipresent work laptop. I know we’re lucky to have this, so close.
On Sunday, having been pretty much potato-level inactive over the previous week, we took the opportunity to take a slightly longer walk than usual, but still walking straight from home. The walk would be around ten miles in total, from our front door and back, sticking to the roads and maintaining a social-distance from any cyclists and fellow-walkers we happened to pass. We touched no farm gates, benches or anything else except the tarmac beneath our boots. As the sun shone, then, we left Stow and headed uphill (which is pretty much the same in every direction from Stow!).
We had decided to walk to our local Community Woodland, at Wooplaw.
Wooplaw is important nationally as the first community buy-out of woodland anywhere in the country, way back in 1987. Marked as a tower on Blaeu’s famous 1654 Atlas of Scotland, Wooplaw House is a 19th century building, possibly on the site of earlier buildings. Nearby is Murdercleugh, where a drover was killed for his money, after a drunken night of boasting at the Hawksnest Inn. The woods were once part of the Wooplaw estate. The origins of the name are lost in time, although I did read a suggestion that Wooplaw is derived from Old English wulf-hop- hlāw, “wolf-hope law”, or in other words, Wolf Valley Hill!
Tvedia cum vicecomitatu Etterico Forestae etiam Selkirkae dictus, [vulgo], Twee-dail with the Sherifdome of Etterik-Forest called also Selkirk / auct. Timotheo Pont. 1654.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.
Armed with a bottle of water and some chocolate, we set out, puffing up one of the steepest hills that leads away from Stow towards the ancient towns of Earlston and Galashiels. There were very few folk out that day, mostly cyclists. The air was clear and fresh and the sky mostly a dazzling blue. Hares were dashing around, little lambs were springing and calves were mooing. It felt like being in a Disney cartoon…
One of the other reasons I was keen to walk to Wooplaw was that just a little further on lies the end of one of the ancient walkways that has crossed the landscape for centuries, The Girthgate.
This ancient road once linked Edinburgh and Melrose, linking important towns and religious houses, with the hospital and church at Soutra, high up in the hills – a place now famous for having the main road’s snow gates closed frequently in winter. Soutra was founded by Malcolm IV, King of Scots, in c.1160 and was once one of the most important hospitals in Scotland. Centred around the House of the Holy Trinity, the Augustinian monks here tended to the sick and to travellers. Soutra was built almost certainly on an existing route and it is suggested that the Roman road known as Dere Street follows the same path at this point. So, the road is at least a thousand or so years old! I find this staggering and a bit of a thing of wonder!
It is astonishing to wonder about the people who have followed this path over the last millennium: kings; knights; bishops; soldiers. The Romans who may have built the first road here, were followed by the Picts, the Gododdin, the Scots and the Angles. Wars have been fought around it, countless lives lived – and lost – on and near it. Maybe, shades of these former souls still linger, here and there?
It is possible to walk most of the Girthgate, starting at the little village of Oxton. During the Covid-19 lockdown, though, that idea will need to be filed under ‘in the future’. That route, some eight and a half miles, ends just here, between Threepwood Farm and Wooplaw. Not far away, the line of the Girthgate might now lie under the present road which travels on to Melrose, passing by a quaintly (oddly) positioned crossroad, that should really have an old-fashioned 1930s style signpost on it. But it doesn’t. The signpost is disappointingly new. Still, I wondered whether any legends which frequently attach themselves to crossroads, were attached to this ancient one.
This junction is where the Community Woodlands at Wooplaw are spilt into two distinct parts, but an easy walk leads from one to the other. Both are well worth visiting, featuring a modern day Roundhouse, tranquil pond and picnic area.
The community woods here were created through the vision of a local, much-missed woodsman, sculptor, craftsmen, environmentalist, poet and artist Tim Stead. If there was ever a human, modern day Green Man, it was him. Tim sparked the idea of woodland owned by the people, a radical thought in the 1980s which has now been replicated many times over. Here, though, he was groundbreaking. He lived only a few miles from here, in a building which – it is hoped – can also be saved for the nation. The Steading is a breathtakingly beautiful expression of Tim’s passion and art and is of international importance. I hope the Tim Stead Trust succeeds in its ambitions.
Wooplaw also acts as a lasting legacy of Tim, in the same way his art does. Tended to by volunteers, the woods have an ethereal feeling to them. This is, perhaps, in part amplified when you come across the memorial slab and wooden statue that commemorate Tim. Read the moving ambitions that the Tim Stead Trust has to save his legacy and beauty of his creation in their plan. A more fitting memorial would be hard to imagine.