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Monday, 1 June 2015

Walking St Cuthbert's Way footpath, Melrose to Lindisfarne (Holy Island)



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Looking over Melrose from the top of the Eildon Hills

I really didn't think I was fit for this walk: four daily stints of around 16-17 miles, carrying a medium pack with a change of clothes, a couple of litres of water and enough grub to get us through the day. The weather certainly didn't look as though it was on our side either: the long-range forecast promised strong winds, showers, and daytime temperatures around 9 C (48 F) - and for once it was dead right. On top of that I was still fighting off a nasty cold that had laid me low for three weeks; and as for general fitness, I had done very little hiking since those short mountain walks in New Mexico over the late winter.

St Cuthbert's Way follows the route supposedly taken by the Prior of Melrose who, in 664 A.D., was sent to Lindisfarne to see that the monks there adopted the Roman rather than the Celtic version of Christianity. This modest long-distance path traces that journey of around 64 miles, one he repeated later when appointed Bishop on the island.

We set off from Melrose, a small Borders town, on Thursday morning. Even as we emerged from the hotel door a light shower was falling from ragged clouds. Thank goodness we had opted for the west-east version of the trip, with the prevailing wind behind us. A stiff climb over the Three Sisters (otherwise the Eildon Hills) warmed us up and raised our spirits: the scenery, and the May colours, were simply dazzling, with the gorse ablaze, and the woods full of great drifts of bluebell and wild garlic.


Looking back at the Three Sisters from the east



...and from even further east: these hills remained in sight, on and off, for three of our four days
 Our destination the first night was Ancrum, where we stayed in the new camping barn in the centre of the village, just a few yards from the pub. This was a terrific set-up, the accommodation warm, comfortable and welcoming - with a lot of thoughtful touches, like the packet of biscuits and the bottle of milk laid out for our arrival. We met the proprietor next morning as she walked her children to school - and of course it's her Mum who runs the shop and Pantry right next door, making it quite the family affair. Next morning as we stocked up for the day's lunch we were served hot bacon rolls  and coffee.

After the hail, on Wideopen Hill
The second day was our longest leg, approximately 19 miles from Ancrum, over Jedfoot Bridge, through Cessford and Morebattle. By the time we confronted the stiff climb up Wideopen Hill (368 metres, 1280 feet) we were already pretty well worn out. It was here that we had our one patch of really unpleasant weather, a sharp hailstorm which, mercifully, struck just before we started the long climb.

In some of this more rugged country we were impressed with the number of stout trees that seemed to withstand whatever the elements threw at them. This remnant of an ancient  hawthorn hedge seemed particularly heroic. It's not evident from the photo, but it had managed to produce a small spray of sweet-smelling blossom.

The hawthorn that refused to die

In Kirk Yetholm we stayed in a hostel run by the Friends of Nature, and ate at the Borders Hotel -  both for supper that night and breakfast next day. They're well used to catering for ravenous hikers, being sited right at the end of the Pennine Way footpath.

A first glimpse of the North Sea, from above Wooler

Next morning we crossed the border back into England and headed for our fourth overnight stop at Wooler. As we dropped off the high moorland and started our descent towards the town, we had our first views of the sea.

St Cuthbert's Cave

From Wooler the country became less rugged, the weather colder than ever, with brief showers scudding through on a wind that was now blowing at about Force 6. The forecast had suggested '9 degrees, feeling like 5' - and again it was spot on. After sheltering in the woods below St Cuthbert's Cave - his supposed resting-place en route between the two Abbeys - we decided we could postpone the climb to the summit no longer. Mercifully, the sun came out - and stayed out for the rest of the day.

We were now descending towards the Great North Road (or A1) and the East Coast Main Line. We got across the highway okay, but at the railway had to telephone the signalman at Berwick to check that there were no 100 mph trains in the vicinity. Once over that obstacle, we were within sniffing distance of the sea and our final challenge. We grabbed a final snack by these remnants of World War II, designed to halt any German tank battalions that might land on the shore:

Vintage WWII tank traps, a mile or so inland from the coast
There are two ways of getting to Lindisfarne on foot. One is to wait for the tide to ebb and follow the causeway as it emerges from the sea. The main problem with that route is that you share it with motor traffic. So we opted to follow the more direct, but wetter, route used by pilgrims in times past and indicated by a row of tall wooden marker poles as it crosses three miles of sand, mud, and shallow sea-water. For that you wait a further hour after the opening of the causeway, then prepare to get your feet wet.

Setting off across the mud-flats. The tower here is one of two places along the way where you could shelter if caught by a rising tide. It would be a long wait.

It's a dramatic way to approach your final destination. With the wind now approaching full gale force, we were buffeted across an elemental landscape. The various warnings we'd read about possible dangers seemed to err on the side of caution. The water was rarely more than a few inches deep, while in several places grasses were growing. With my boots and gaiters on, and a few carefully executed leaps, I managed to stay dry, and we made it to the far shore in a little over an hour. From the landing-point it was barely ten minutes' walk to the Ship Inn, a huge dinner, and a taxi-ride home.

Nearly there

I'd recommend St Cuthbert's to anybody who wants a scenic hike along a beautifully maintained path. There is sufficient accommodation along its course to allow you to plan a walk of three, four, five or even six days. Although we both had maps and guidebooks, we were never reliant on them. The way was marked frequently and clearly. And if you want to make life really easy, there is a baggage-carrying service available. We also met a number of people whose B&B hosts had arranged to collect them by car at the end of each day's walk. There was every indication that all the people and businesses with an interest in promoting the use of the trail had put in a huge effort to make it an agreeable experience from one end to the other. I'd rate it as one of the most enjoyable hikes I've ever done. My only complaint is that it didn't cure my cold - but then I don't think staying at home would have done either.