Walking the St Cuthbert’s Way

Opened in 1996 St Cuthbert’s Way is usually tackled in 4 – 6 days and to be honest that’s a really good idea. Over the course of three very long days Sharon, Ted and I tackled the route and discovered that pilgrimages don’t always have to be religious.

The route

The St Cuthbert’s Way winds for 100km from the market town of Melrose in the Scottish Borders, to Lindisfarne Island on the North Sea coast. It crosses through the Cheviot hills in the Northumberland National Park, takes in Roman roads and endless woodlands, riverbanks and open moorland. 

The route starts in Melrose, where St Cuthbert started his religious life in 650AD and ends in on Holy Island, at Lindisfarne Priory, his eventual resting place.

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Planning your walk

There’s a plethora of companies willing to sherpa your bags around and book you accommodation, but its not difficult to sort out yourself. The official route website provides fantastic links to accommodation along the route, but popular accommodation search engines are also useful. Decide how far you want to walk each day and plan your accommodation accordingly.

Starting in Melrose we found accommodation easily as there is a range of pubs and B&Bs available, with plenty taking dogs. Ideal places to stay, depending on how many days you wish to complete the route in would be: St Boswells, Harestanes, Morebattle, Town Yetholm, Hethpool, Wooler, Fenwick and Beal.

Depending on your fitness its possibly to carry your own kit and not have your baggage transported. We packed light with little spare clothing, and bought food en-route in the variety of local shops. Sharon even managed to carry food for Ted and we both carried knitting for the evenings (albeit we never actually did any!)

The real planning challenge with this route is dealing with how you get from the start and finish. We decided to drive to Melrose and leave our car. When we finished we caught the bus back from Beal, via Berwick upon Tweed to Melrose. This is straight forward but takes about 2 hours depending if you make the bus connections (we didn’t and had to have lunch in Berwick!) Bus timetables can be searched for via traveline.

It’s important to carry maps, although the route is very well sign posted with way markers, so we didn’t struggle to find our way. As a rough guide the Scottish section of the walk is really dog friendly, with all of the fences cross through gates. Once in England Ted had to clamber or be picked up over stiles.

Day 1: Melrose to Morebattle 40km (25miles)

Melrose is a lovely market town and worth a visit in its own right. We arrived on Thursday evening and only saw the Abbey in the dark so we intended to spend some time there when we returned.

The route starts from the town centre and heads immediately uphill to the Eildon Hills. These hills would be a significant feature of our first day as despite our progress along the route they remained visible for most of the day. This is the high point of this section.

Crossing through Bowden and into St Boswells the route follow the path of Bowden Burn till it reaches the River Tweed. In hindsight St Boswells would have been a good place to get lunch as there’s a range of lovely cafes and bookshops. But we were on a mission to walk 25 miles so pressed on.

From here the route winds along the River Tweed till it reaches Maxton and meets the Dere Street Roman Road.

Dere Street was a surprise. I expected a surfaced track, perhaps suitable for bikes but this section of the Roman Road is given over to woodland and is a beautiful walk between fields and trees. Eventually the route meets woodland and Harestanes Visitors Centre. We had planned to get a (very) late lunch here. The cafe is advertised as open till 5pm, but stops serving food at 4pm – worth noting if, like us, you arrive late. We luckily managed to get left-over sandwiches from the fridge and had to keep dreaming of soup.

From Harestanes we continued on. If like us you stop at the visitors centre it does mean circling back around through the woodland north of the Monteviot House and Gardens in order to get back on to the river.

Here you cross a suspension bridge and follow the river before getting back on Dere Street Roman Road – here it is a stony track. Continuing to follow the route along through woodland and fields we continued on, the miles slowly making our feet tired. Despite the late hour the walk through the rapeseed fields and woodland was magical, with deer and badgers appearing in the dusk.

The route eventually ends up on country lanes as it leads to Morebattle, and passes the impressive Cessford Castle, a huge ruined tower.

We had called ahead to the Temple Hall Hotel to pre-order food and they obliged by providing hot pizza when we arrived.

Day 2: Morebattle to Wooler 32km (20miles)

After a great breakfast and a visit to the community shop to find lunch we left Morebattle a little later than intended. The route starts by walking along the lanes before heading uphill to Grubbit Law. Its worth noting that on the map it looks like you need to ford a river to head uphill but there is in fact a wooden bridge just beyond the ford, making crossing easy.

It was a hot day and while not high it was a pleasure to be done with uphill and walk along the top of the fell to Wideopen Hill summit. The summit at 368m is the highest point on the route and is marked as the halfway point on the St Cuthbert’s Way. It definitely provides fantastic views across the Borders.

Once in Kirk Yetholm we enjoyed the shade and had lunch where the route joins the end of the Pennine Way. It was interesting to find myself back here, having completed the Pennine Way in 2004 and not expected to find myself in the tiny village of Kirk Yetholm again.

From Kirk Yetholm we walked along the road to head up the fell to the Scottish/English Border. Here the division in the countries follows the fell top ridge line, and while marked by a gate and a signpost, you’d be forgiven not realising there’s a border.

Crossing through the gate the landscape of the Northumberland National Park did seem different, as if the requirement to mark access land and the appearance of sheep somehow transformed the feel of the landscape.

We followed the route downhill through fields, a felled woodland and onto a long and tedious farm track guarded by sheep before reaching the quiet village of Hethpool. Ted hadn’t had that many opportunities to bark at sheep so far and so appeared to ignore the yank of the lead to keep him quiet.

From Hethpool the route heads East along the side of Wester Tor before briefly being redirected around the farm at Torleehouse, and heading uphill to grouse moorland and a landscape similar to our own Peak District. The moorland track continues for nearly 5km over Gains Law before finally dropping down towards the market town of Wooler.

We arrived late on Sunday in Wooler and the Black Bull Inn didn’t do food, but thankfully the Milan restaurant next door served food till 10pm so we had time to shower and make ourselves look tidy before we headed out for food.

Day 3: Wooler to Lindisfarne 29km (18 miles)

We managed to leave at 9am from Wooler and headed along the roads on to Weetwood Moor. I confess that I’d looked the map and decided it was entirely possible to miss this uphill and down hill diversion by walking on the road. However it is a lovely stretch of moorland with great views and provides a great aspect to see the Weetwood bridge from. The road is also quite busy and frankly this final day of walking has more than enough tarmac already in my opinion.

From Weetwood Hall the route takes in country lanes and track for around 8km, even when it crosses fields it’s still a stony track. In the hot sunshine this became a bit of a tedious walk with our tired feet. When we reached the woodland we sat in the shade to have lunch, a lovely spot for a break with a view across the fields.

Further on we came to St Cuthbert’s cave. The Cave is an impressive overhanging sandstone rock supported by a single piece of stone, making it look precarious. According to legend, monks carrying St Cuthbert’s body from Lindisfarne took refuge here.

From the top of the hill above the cave the path winds down through fields and the Sheillow woodland before it reaches the village of Fenwick and the busy A1 road.

We continued on from here, taking care to cross the mainline railway and wandering through fields the reach the end of the Lindisfarne Causeway. The traditional route follows the posts across the sands to reach Holy Island. We did follow them as we had a few hours before the tide started to come in, however the sand is really estuary mud and so is very sticky and unpleasant in places. Ted’s feet were also sore on the sand so we bailed off to walk the rest of the way on the causeway.

We’d luckily arranged a lift back from the lovely Fred at Brockmill Farmhouse where we were staying for the night, so we had an hour to have food in the Crown and Anchor before we had to leave and beat the incoming tide.

Reaching the priory, the end of the route, felt like a great place to end a tough 3 day walk, and we were pleased to arrive in Holy Island at the end of the day when it was quiet.

Finding our pilgrimage

Walking the St Cuthbert’s Way turned out to be a pilgrimage for us both after all, even if it wasn’t a religious one. It was a journey which tested our ability to walk long distances to reach our destination and provided opportunities for us to explore a new landscape, cross boundaries and see Roman and Christian history.

I’d definitely recommend this route – the variety of terrain as it winds through the Scottish Borders into Northumberland makes it worthwhile.

The final marathon to Kirk Yetholm – Day 15

Ok, not quite a marathon but I knew this day was going to be tough and so I was mentally prepared for the long walk ahead. 26 miles of bog trotting over moorland, it was going to take all of my willpower to keep going.

Bryness to Kirk Yetholm (25.75 miles/ 41.2 km)

I set out from Bryness campsite at 6.30am in order to make sure I had plenty of time to do the final leg of the walk and to be able to sit and have lunch (a thing I rarely do) and rest when I needed to (also not common).

From Bryness the Pennine Way heads straight up through the woodland to access the moorland. This is the last view of trees or civilisation I would have for hours as I headed our over the Otterburn Ranges. Much of this area is used as military training ground and so signs keep you from straying from the footpath.

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Heading across the moors I couldn’t yet see the distance or terrain I would be crossing, or even the Roman camp at Chew Green which I was heading for first.

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This cairn marks the only archaeological feature I saw on the whole walk across Chew Green. But after bog trotting and already having damp feet when I saw the sign marking an alternative route to Windy Gyle which was half a mile shorter I took it. So I only looked down on the roman camp (only identifiable from the route by markings in the grass). Having not gone to the small car park I have no idea if there was something worth seeing there. From where I was, it didn’t seem worth the extra half mile to find out.  DSCF6265 DSCF6268

So I trudged on.

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Eventually the route comes to the old Roman Road of Dere Street which linked York and Perthshire and where this section is a scheduled ancient monument. Here the Pennine way skirts around the route to the right of the fence line.

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It wasn’t even mid morning and I was starving so when I reached Yearning Saddle Lamb Hill Mountain refuge I was very happy to have a short break and scoff and entire malt loaf. 10am. I couldn’t even use the excuse it was elevenses. I don’t think I would have wanted to plan to stay at the hut but it was perfectly clean and tidy (I’m comparing to Glen’s Hut a few days earlier, but it was pretty spotless for a hut) and would be perfect if the weather was horrendous or you found yourself benighted.

DSCF6283 DSCF6284Whilst I think paving on peat moorland is a necessary evil to prevent erosion, I don’t enjoy walking on it as it given the knees and feet a bit more of a beating. But after bogs so far I was actually happy to see paving across to Windy Gyle.

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I reached Russell’s Cairn Trig point on Windy Gyle just before 12, a perfect time for a break and a breather. Distance wise I wasn’t even half way yet, which was a challenge mentally rather than physically. Supposedly the site of Lord Francis Russell’s mysterious death in 1585 the cairn is actually thought to be bronze age. At this point in the walk the history washed over me and I was more interested in the chocolate I was scoffing.

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Not long after here I could see my first sight of Cheviot, the huge flat hill did not inspire me and having read the commentary in my 1974 Constable guide to the Pennine way, where Cheviot is described as miles of peat hags and lacking a significant view I had already made my mind up that if it was still like that I wasn’t bothering to make the 2 km addition just to visit the trig point.

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Thankfully the route must have been so bad even across to King’s Seat cairn that much of the Way has recently been paved, which is fantastic, even if my knees where beginning to grumble.

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However I reached the point at where the path splits for the diversion to Cheviot Cairn and the terrain across didn’t fill me with enthusiasm. I decided for the first time in my life that a trig point wasn’t worth the effort, and instead headed through the gate. Even though it means one day I will have to return to ‘bag’ it I still don’t regret it; at that point in the day I would have cursed all the way and been miserable. I was more interested in getting to the next Mountain hut and having a late lunch. (I’ve later read that it is indeed paved now, but still I was too tired to bother at that particular time.)DSCF6303 DSCF6301

So I headed through the gate and off to Auchope cairn where I stopped for a quick snack.

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It was 2pm when I arrived at The Schil mountain refuge and whilst my cheese and onion pasty was well and truly squashed it was the best thing I’d ever eaten.

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The Schil hut sits at the col before you ascend to The Schil summit and as such has a great view across to Cheviot’s better side, of Hen Hole where alpine vegetation remains. The sun had finally made an appearance and so had my smile, (perfect combination of sunshine and cheese!) I also formed the opinion around this point in the day that it was a shame that the huts weren’t like those I’ve been to in the Alps, as I could have murdered a coffee or a strong hot chocolate. But I imagine I was one of only a handful of people (if that) who were likely to walk past here today and its also nice to have the total quiet that emptiness brings.

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From there the route continues over The Schil summit and the splits providing a high a low alternative into Kirk Yetholm. I chose the low route (again not something I would usually do).

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The route has been diverted around Burnhead farm compared to my rather old OS map, but once there I reached tarmac and a long slog down into Kirk Yetholm on the road.

Farm’s often have unsually things lying around, but I think only in Scotland would you find a Tunnock’s container!

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Kirk Yetholm was a great relief when I arrived there 10 hours and 15 minutes after setting off and celebrated with a free pint in the pub (available to all completers!)

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Woodlands and Moors – Pennine Way day 14

Not the wettest day of the Pennine Way, but certainly not the driest! It was also not a particularly long day, which was good as by the time I arrived at Bryness at just after lunch it started and didn’t stop raining.

Bellingham to Bryness (15 miles/ 24 km)

Leaving Bellingham from the north of the village I could see I was heading for the rain and into the clouds. Unlike the day before when I’d tanned quite nicely whilst bog trotting from Housestead, it was immediately clear that it was never going to get sunny on the way to Bryness.

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Just beyond Blakelaw farm there is an alternative path marked on the map, and while not an official Pennine way diversion (at least on my 15 year old OS map) there was a fairly old signpost suggesting it as a diversion. In hindsight the shortest route is not always the best. The upper route contours around the hill to Hareshaw House, the lower route follows the wall lower down and probably cuts less than 1km from the walk. I’d have preferred to have walked an extra 1km!

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So I chose the alternative route, and waded through and jumped across the bogs to get to the track just below the house. Not worth the diversion at all!

Once I reached the road and donned my waterproof, I crossed and headed into the mist. Despite the route crossing open moorland it is very easy to follow, even in the mist.

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As the path gets near to the woodland at Brownrigg Head its clear that the woodland is in the process of being felled.

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This little chap is the only conversation I had all day, and he was only a fledgling so he was probably a bit startled!

Eventually the path skirt the edge of the woodland and after more damp feet it joins the woodland track and on to terra firma!

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The track is however long and a bit dull to walk down but does take you all the way in to Bryness, so there is no need to take the tiny Pennine Way diversions which loop on and off the track. Why get more wet? Eventually the track comes down to Blakehopeburnhaugh where the path diverts off and follows the river on a lovely woodland path to Bryness.

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Heading ever northwards – Pennine Way day 13

As the Pennine Way heads northwards it drifts from towns to only crossing through small farms and villages. Heading to Bellingham the only conversation I had all day was with the odd sheep!

Housestead to Bellingham (13.5 miles/ 21.5 Km)

I was lucky enough to get dropped off on the road just below Cuddy Crag where the Pennine Way turns off Hadrian’s Wall to head northwards. I could see right away though that it was going to be a day of wet feet.

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The walk is across moorland and through woodlands for much of the way, so when I arrived at civilisation at both Willow Bog farm and Leadgate road, there was a certain amount of relief to standing on firm ground!

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This is an uninteresting photo below, but at this point in the day I was finding it childishly funny that I was looking at Shitlington Hall.

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From here I climbed the small crags to head down into the town of Bellingham.  DSCF6217 DSCF6218

Along Hadrian’s Wall – Pennine Way day 12

A day off from wading through bogs was much appreciated as I headed out over the section of the Pennine Way which overlaps with the Hadrian’s Wall national trail. This section of the route is possibly the best signposted along the whole route, probably due to the popularity and that two national trails link up here.

Greenhead to Housestead (10 miles/16 km)

It was nice to know I only had a few hours of walking today and that I would be able to avoid bog trotting, so it was even nicer to have the sun shining too. Starting at Greenhead the first encounter with Hadrian’s Wall is Thirlwell Castle, which was actually built in the early 14th Century by John Thirlwell as a family home; built from recycled Roman stone. It did however prove to repel attacks during the Anglo-Scottish border raids in the 15th and 16th centuries until it was abandoned in the 17th century. Saved from further dereliction by Northumberland National Park Authority there is an information board highlighting the castle’s history. Despite it being at the start of the walk, it’s worth a look.

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From here the route heads eastwards crossing a few minor roads and former quarry sites, now restored as wildlife habitats. Much of Hadrian’s Wall is a World Heritage site so despite the loss of sections to quarrying and theft of stone for local buildings over the centuries it is still an impressive structure and a fascinating opportunity to get close to Roman history as you walk.

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The path generally follows quite close to the Wall itself, allowing you to see the best of the Wall itself. If you are able to stay in the Haltwistle area and have a free day from walking it is worth visiting some of the large Roman forts in the area which are a few miles from the route.

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At Cawfields I reached another quarry, which has destroyed much of Hadrian’s Wall by removing the face of the Whin Sill. As the sign below notes, “Whinstone is the local name for the hard, fine-grained black rock called dolerite, which here is part of an enormous sheet, forming the Whin Sill. This was valued particularly for the surfacing of roads.”

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I continued on towards Housestead Roman Fort where the route gets particularly busy due to the popularity of the Fort. After today’s walk I’m certainly keen to do Hadrian’s Wall National Trail at some point!

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