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Friday, 18 April 2014

Take heed of the lurking lampreys

JOHN Packer and I crossed Canonbie bridge and looked for our old friends Archie Findlay at Kirkland and George Redpath across the road at Knottyholm but the coops looked to be flown.

So on we marched. Nearing the sawmill we turned up the track through the superb Douglas plantation and onto the edge of the deep Byreburn Cleuch.

It was hard to spot the Fairy Loupe as the trees were well covered with their summer coat; nevertheless, we went along the existing trail until we reached the track of the erstwhile Langholm railway, just where it would have led onto the viaduct which has long been dismantled.

There were consequently no trains in sight, so we made our way across the line to Byreburnside. Once again, none of the Gracie family was in evidence in their immaculate farm; the Gracies must have joined forces with George and Archie.

It was a steep slope down to Byreburn and another slope back up to Gilnockie school where we were relieved to find Alex Drysdale and his wee grandson before making our way along to Gilnockie station.

Here we turned right to renew our contact with the railway. After this detour, it was odd to find ourselves beside all that remained (thanks to Doctor Beeching) of a platform and siding of bygone days.

There was still no train in sight, so we continued for half a mile along the shunners and into the wood. A faint trod led out of the cutting and down an old large hedge.

But what interested me most was the fact that when I lived in Shortsholm half a century ago, this narrow road high above the Esk had continued onwards to Glencartholm but now a large heap of earth and gravel blocked the way.

Having an inquisitive nose I turned up that old route as it clung to the high banking, which grew thicker with briars, brambles and brackens, until it finally dropped away completely into the river many feet below.

Many metres of track had completely disappeared into the Esk with precipitous banking both above and below. Some years ago I found that the masonry bridge nearer Glencartholm had been removed so the route no longer exists.

Below Shortsholm John and I sat down to admire the view of the river and across to the old Hollows Mill

My mind and imagination slid back 50 years to the spring of 1957 when there was a “surfeit of lampreys” in the Esk. They seemed to have proliferated in all the still pools, especially around Canonbie.

I had never seen lampreys before and seldom seen them since. In those far off days I was shown by young Jim Nicholson from Hollows Mill how to catch them using a rabbit snare.

The sea lamprey is a peculiar-looking creature with a slimy skin and no scales and was once considered to afford very good eating but very difficult to digest. It has been documented that King Henry I of England died from eating a “surfeit of lampreys”.

The beast resembles a brown eel-like creature mottled with olive green and can grow to over three feet in length. It breathes through gills on either side of its head but being without jaws cannot bite its victims and uses its mouth as a kind of sucking funnel by which it attaches itself to its fishy victim and with its horny “tongue” rasps away at the living flesh.

In the spring lampreys venture into rivers to lay their eggs. If we happened to be swimming in the Esk, we were apprehensive in case these horrors became attached to our nether regions. They never did.

We then made our way to what is left of the ancient Gilnockie castle and so back down the Esk to the Canonbie sawmill and on to Bowholm.

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