Sunday, August 26, 2018

Pilgrimage 2018: St. Cuthbert's Way, Scotland - England

I've been home for a little over a week and I haven't yet really gone through all of my journal, sketches, and photographs to share. But for now, let's just agree that this was a great hike over some challenging hill country with a spectacular finish on the Northumberland Coast. I started in the city of Carlisle in Northwestern England and spent 2 days doing research for my fellowship from the Institute of Pilgrimage Studies. A whole day was at a small country church named for Cuthbert not far from Hardrian's Wall were my son, cousin, and I hiked last year. Cuddy, my carved eider duck, a favorite bird of St. Cuthbert's, was quite popular here and whenever I took him out on this hike. This being a Big Tree themed hike year, I made sure to see as many ancient trees as I could and started with this 2,000 year old yew in the churchyard of St. Cuthberts in Beltingham, one of the "Parishes of the Wall."

Can you find Cuddy?

After Carlisle I took a scenic two hour bus ride to Galleshiels and began my walk on the Border Abbeys Way literally paces from the bus station. I walked through Tweedbank then into Melrose where I found the start of the St. Cuthbert's Way. I visited the ruins of Melrose Abbey where Cuthbert began his life as a monk the I walked up into the Eildrons and visited the first of many Iron Age hill forts I would encounter for the next six days. Nevermind being run into by an old man on senior scooter or being argued with by a staff person at the abbey, the effort it took to climb the first set of hills erased any grumbles I may have had at the start.

Eildon Hills, where Cuthbert worked as a shepherd before entering the monastery at Melrose.

Up and over the Eildons, through a tiny village, along creek then out to the River Tweed and into the beautiful little town of St. Boswells where I stayed two nights. My second day was mostly along the River Tweed and up the Roman road "Dere Street" stopping in Harestanes for lunch and on to Jedburgh for the day's finish. Bus service provided my lift back to the inn at St. Boswell's and forward my third morning to pick up where I left off in Jedburgh at the amazing abbey ruin there.

River Tweed, leaving St. Boswell's with the Eildon Hills beyond.

Cuthbert's Cross is the trail marker symbol. 

Amazingly, I met very few people on the trail though a hard-charging Norweigian pilgrimage group seemed never far from passing me when I was panting and trying to catch my breath! Through tiny villages scattered amongst the foothills of the Cheviots there was stunning scenery every step of the way. My fourth night in the small village of Kirk Yetholm was my last in Scotland before crossing the border into Northeastern England and in Northumberland National Park.

A Norwegian pilgrimage group and I kept leap-frogging each other all the way to Wooler. 
Leaving Scotland, entering England.

The tiny village of Morebattle provided a wonderful pilgrim break at the St. Cuthbert's Cafe before tackling a big rise of hills beyond. More later on all the wonderful people I met like Margaret and Richard as all these folks have a part to play in the fellowship write-up and a book chapter on pilgrimage.  But for now, I'll stick with scenery because it was just stunning all the way to the sea.

The high-rise hill after Morebattle was a breath-taking (literally) climb.

Miles through misty purple heather.

The Cheviot summit in the distance was shrouded in mist as I made my way from Kirk Yedholm in a light rain and over a dizzying array of hills and valleys for a long day onwards to the Border's town of Wooler. I crossed the highpoint and unofficial (and incorrect) halfway point at Wideopen Hill. The solitude was all encompassing and I felt very small in this section. The Norwegians appeared again and I followed them a little ways until I though my lungs would burst. They are fast! I stopped to chat to two wallers repairing a stone fence and learned that both young men were fifth generation wall builders and this is all they do in good months. "There's always wall work," they said, "So as long as we can lift stones we have a job." There's way more to it than that, I said. It really is an art form and from what I could see on their summer job in this section, they were real craftsmen.

Wallers rebuilding a 300 year-old livestock fence.
Wallers help install stone steps for hikers to climb the fences when stiles won't do.
I can see down into Wooler, where I stayed two nights.

Finally, my longest day of nearly 20 miles brought me to Wooler where I stayed two nights and did a day of rest and research with Rev. Brian Cowan and the wonderful church folks of St. Mary's. This was the only place I found pilgrim mass and joined the Norweigians for an early morning service. I had two great pub suppers and lunches at the Angel Inn and the Back Bull and totally enjoyed wandering around this town to find people to talk to. I met two hikers who were doing a weekend section of the trail and who had been to the U.S. many years ago to visit places where John Muir walked in California. They remarked that the U.S. doesn't have a very good public pathway system does it? Nope, I said. (Note to self - The John Muir Way is in Scotland ...) I climbed Tower Hill and saw the troop of hard-charging Norwegians walking out of town. This was the last time I'd see them. The next morning I continued to the final destination and trail's end at Holy Island, Lindisfarne, on the North Sea. But there was still a lot of hiking to go!

I met the striding saint as this fantastic wood carving. Note the otter!

St. Cuthert's Cave where the saint's coffin was hidden and guarded against Vikings by monks from Lindisfarne.

This last day included walking past several WWII "pillbox" bunkers, so I knew the sea was near. I stepped aside for a herd of cattle trot past and talked to an older farmer on his ATV. He had stories of his mother and father who served as aerial observers during the war. "They saw and reported quite a few German squadrons," he said. "From the hill tops with good scopes, they could see warships as well as watch for planes." As I walked past other farmers bringing in huge harvests of hay, I left for good the Border's valley and began the climb up the sandstone ridge to visit St. Cuthbert's Cave and have my first clear view of Holy Island and the North Sea on top.

My first look at the North Sea with Lindisfarne, Holy Island just off the coast.
Before crossing the high speed train tracks, all hikers must get the all clear via phone.

I spent one last night on the mainland before crossing the sand flats at low tide to Holy Island. I was not prepared mentally for the amount of tourist traffic that poured on to the island just as I was arriving to find my quarters at Marygate House. The town is very small and at low tide - during safe crossing times - the population of this tiny fishing village swells to 5,000 and more in summer!  Holy Island has always been a pilgrimage destination, but so few come via the trail I had just completed. Most come by road in cars or buses - by the thousands! Most folks, said Don at Marygate, only stay a few hours to see the abbey ruins, have a pub meal (there are five pubs for a permanent population of 150 people!), stroll out to the cove or climb to the castle. Then they leave. My full day exploring Holy Island was thankfully spent without gads of tourists as I wandered the wild dunes and sea side cliffs.  Of course I had to find the farmers on the island and from a wonderful woman on horseback following sheep, I learned about salt hay and the many hidden fresh water wells - some still in hiding from past invaders like the Vikings and threat of German occupation.

Miles of hiking through the wild dunes and sea cliff area. 

Cuddy reaches the sea - at low tide.

All told, counting my extensive wandering on Holy Island, Lindisfarne, I walked 80 miles with two days rest, one day in Wooler and one day on Holy Island. Throughout the hike I conducted interviews and visited sites important to my fellowship research. This included another two days in Durham where I didn't walk except to get back and forth from my host's home to the Cathedral for more work and meetings. 

Finishing my fellowship at the Shrine of St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral was the perfect end to nearly two weeks of walking and research. It was a wonderful walk and without the extra days doing work, a hiker could complete it easily in 5-6 days, or, if one is Norwegian, in four days!  I am really very grateful to the Institute of Pilgrimage Studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia for this amazing opportunity. There's still more work to be done, more conversations to have, interviews to transcribe, and so many more books and articles to read thanks to the recommendations made by my interviewees. Next year (2019) I'll present my paper at the conference in Williamsburg and hopefully be ready to publish the book!


Institute for Pilgrimage Studies

The Yew has a long and rich history associated with religious and sacred sites in the U.K.

Official website of St. Cuthbert's Way, an amazing week-long walk that left me breathless on several levels.