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Issue 24 - Saints, sinners and cuddly ducks

Scotland Magazine Issue 24
January 2006

 

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Saints, sinners and cuddly ducks

St Cuthbert's Way is a pathway stretching more than 60 miles. Sue Kendrick went for a stroll

As a boy he saw angels carrying the soul of a man into Heaven. As a man he healed the sick and restored the minds of the insane. In death he became a saint and 600 years later he is still remembered in a long distance footpath commemorating the struggles of the early Christian evangelists in what is now the Scottish borders and Northumberland.

St. Cuthbert’s Way stretches from the border town of Melrose to the holy island of Lindisfarne. It opened in 1996 and links many of the places associated with St. Cuthbert and other border saints in 62.5 miles of staggeringly beautiful landscape which is easily explored with the aid of a good map and a stout pair of walking boots.

Melrose itself, surprisingly, has little connection with Cuthbert. The magnificent abbey ruin that brings tourists flocking to this attractive market town was, in fact, built in 1136, long after Cuthbert’s bones had reached their final resting place at Durham cathedral.

The Cuthbert connection actually lies about six miles away at Old Melrose where a young Cuthbert entered a small monastery after seeing the soul of St. Aidan being carried into Heaven by a band of angels. Nothing now remains of this monastery and the spot itself is inaccessible.

Never fear. The later day abbey at Melrose makes a fine substitute and is well worth delaying the journey for a leisurely tour. Audio wands are available and reveal a host of startling facts, such as the discovery of an intriguing casket in 1996 that is thought to contain the heart of Robert the Bruce.

Although much of St Cuthbert’s Way is over undulating hills and gentle river valleys, there are some stiff climbs with the Eildons presenting themselves at the outset. Cuthbert would have been very familiar with these distinctive mountains that dominate the landscape and the folklore that still surrounds them.

They were said to have been formed by a demon and the seer, Thomas the Rhymer, obtained his gift of prophecy from the faery queen who supposedly still dwells beneath these faery hills.

Thankfully we met no demons or faery ladies and with the Eildons behind us, the Way follows a much easier path along the Tweed.

In late April it is alive with skimming swallows and dancing mayflies, while the ever present smell of crow garlic, growing in profusion along the river bank, adds a pungent, but not unpleasant perfume to this riverside stretch.

A short diversion from the Way brings us to Ancrum moor, the site of a violent battle in which the Scots defeated the English in 1545. Here lies a memorial to the fair maid, Lillard, who suffered gruesome amputations to her legs but fought bravely upon her stumps!

After 14 and a half miles walking, mainly in the rain we were hoping for better things after a night’s rest at Morebattle.

We were not disappointed. The sun spilled like glowing butter over the spring landscape, intensifying the greens of the budding trees and spring grasses to a vividness of colour that almost hurt the eye to look at.

Everywhere primroses and early bluebells lifted their faces to the sun while on the hillsides the cotton buds of new lambs skipped like sparks beside anxious ewes.

Easy walking brought us to Teviott House. The gardens are open to the public and feature a pets’ cemetery.

The small headstones commemorate the lives of generations of beloved dogs and cats belonging to the house and you can’t help but think that Cuthbert himself would have smiled to see them. The saint was particularly fond of animals and one tale speaks of otters wrapping themselves around his feet to warm him while in prayer.

Morebattle is our gateway to the Cheviots and hard walking against a strong wind brings us to Wideopen Hill. This is the half way point of our pilgrimage and the wind becomes a gale with teeth.

We huddle for photographs, but conversation is impossible as our words are torn away almost before they leave our mouths! Cuthbert spent a lot of time preaching to the heathen tribes of the mountains, but found it slow going. It isn’t hard to guess why.

The wind eases as we make the long descent to Kirk Yetham. Apart from marking the end of the Pennine Way, the village was once home to a tribe of gypsies and many are the tales of their misdemeanours and sharp practices. The last gypsy king reputedly died here in 1883.

Leaving the village behind, we climb once more into the Cheviots and experience the full force of this wild and potentially hostile country as the wind hurls itself at us with renewed vigour. It is a dangerous place for those ill-prepared, but Cuthbert, in his woollen robe and leather sandals, had complete faith in his God and had no qualms for his safety.

We cross the border in mist and driving rain. Such are the vagaries of the weather that a few miles later we are walking in bright sunshine over high, wide moorland. Around us, the plaintive cry of distant curlew and the clap-clap of startled grouse exploding at our feet.

Hethpool House, deep in the College valley, is our destination and is built in the fashion of a small border, manor house. There is a fairytale turret at one corner and the remains of a Peel tower in the garden. The views across the fishing lake to tumbling hills are breath catching, so are the mounted animal heads in the hall, but not for quite the same reasons.

Our hosts advise us to leave the St Cuthbert’s Way and use an alternative, more scenic route.

The walk through the river valley to Kirk Newton is a joy and puts us in good spirits for the short diversion to St. Gregory’s church.

A little further on is Gefrin, marked now by a monument, but in the sixth century this was a township of British Kings. In the nearby river Glen, Paulinus, another Christian missionary, performed a mass baptism in which thousands of pagans were baptised.

A further day of hard mountain walking brings us to Wooler, the largest town the Way passes through. Once a haven for tuberculosis suffers, Grace Darling was one patient who, sadly, failed to benefit from the town’s healing properties.

Not unnaturally, there is a lot of God in this walk, but every now and then the voices of much older gods whisper through the landscape. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Weetwood moor where we leave the St. Cuthbert’s way for a couple of miles to search for mysterious cup and ring marks and a stone circle.

We find both on a broad, open hill top and lay for a while on our backs feeling the breeze and sunlight play across our faces, watching huge banks of cloud boil over head before sliding benignly over the horizon.

Imagination, they say, is the landscape of the soul and at St. Cuthbert’s cave our minds wander freely. The strange cross-like marks etched into a huge boulder provokes visions of frightened monks taking refuge from Viking marauders.

A short, but stiff climb from the cave brings us to the mons gaudium. It means ‘hill of joy’ and is a pivotal point in any pilgrimage when journey’s end is sighted.

Our joy is great indeed when we catch our first glimpse of Lindisfarne, a bluish smudge in the far distance.

A metalled causeway links the mainland to the island, but true pilgrims will eschew this for the ancient route across the sands. Marked with poles and intersected with two refuge points, it is a two and a half mile trek only to be attempted at low tide.

Incredibly, after a warm bath and change of clothes at the very comfortable Ship Inn, the sun breaks through and the island shines out in glorious spring time beauty.

The ruins of the abbey, still watched over by the gaunt figure of St. Aidan, become drenched in a golden, almost ethereal light, while St Mary’s church provides a fitting setting for our lighted candles at the end of our pilgrimage.

Now, the cuddy ducks. These black and white birds were great favourites of Cuthbert. They are in fact eider ducks and if you are prepared to don your boots for a little more walking to nearby St. Cuthbert’s island you may just catch a glimpse of these docile birds.

If not, the distant honking of seals from far away Inner Farne can sometimes be heard, perhaps, still mournfully lamenting the passing of a man, who despite the elevation of sainthood, always found time to remember his lowly brothers of fur and feather.

FURTHER INFORMATION

St. Cuthbert’s Way is well supplied with a variety of accommodation throughout the route. Public transport is very good which means it can be split into day walks by catching a bus back to your accommodation. Most bed and breakfasts will also pick up from more inaccessible spots with prior arrangement.

The walk is usually done from Melrose to Lindisfarne. There is an island minibus service that will take you to either Berwick, where you can catch the service bus or all the way to Melrose.

Tel: +44 (0)1289 389 236
holyislandminibus@btopenworld.com

St. Cuthbert’s Way
Scottish Borders website.
www.scot-borders.co.uk/stcuthbertsway Gives details of route, accommodation and public transport