Just as there are different levels of rigour and toughness within the various monastic orders – with the Carthusian rule of St Bruno still being one of harshest regimes – so it is with long-distance walking routes named after saints.
You have your entry-level “novice” walks, such as the 14-mile Abbesses’ Way in Shropshire, much of it a gentle amble along the River Severn after lunching in the garden at an old 14th-century almshouse-turned-pub like The Talbot. Or St Swithin’s Way in Hampshire, starting at Winchester, which follows the Itchen with riverside pubs every few miles. Easy stuff.
On the other side of the scale – up in the wet and rugged North – is one of Britain’s toughest pilgrimage walks: St Cuthbert’s Way, a 62-mile trek (100km: for it to qualify as a pilgrimage you have to cover at least that distance) along the highest peaks of the Borders, and ending at the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.
We reached that destination (which gives its name to the celebrated 8th-century Gospels) after crossing over the Pilgrims’ Path, which allows you to walk to the island when the tide is down. Our boots and trainers were soon clotted with tar-black silt and tiny scallop-like shells that were scattered like confetti across the sunken sands.
Get the tide times wrong and you can be swept out to sea – though reassuringly, there are some treehouse-style structures that you can climb up and be rescued from (a photo of your folly almost certainly appearing in the local papers).
Lindisfarne is one of the most important Christian sites in Europe. It was on this desolate island that St Aidan founded a monastery in 635. Its appeal as a retreat has endured for centuries. In 1901, after Edward Hudson, publisher and owner of Country Life, stumbled across the island’s ruined castle by accident – or was it fate? – he bought the craggy, romantic ruin and hired Edwin Lutyens to restore it in the shape of a ship.
On pilgrimage, one is not merely walking. One is also wheeling along one’s rota fortunae, the wheel of fate. I’m yet to go on a pilgrimage without strange coincidences occurring, causing one to ponder that perhaps it’s not just a GPS signal that is guiding one along the 62-mile route. The path mapped seems part of a larger plan.
Lindisfarne is where the Christian mission to convert the heathen in the north of England and Scotland began.
St Cuthbert, a monk and later abbot at Melrose Abbey in Scotland, was originally buried at Lindisfarne in the 9th century, before his miraculously preserved body was dug up by the monks in 875 (11 years after his death), so as to protect it from the Viking raiders who were attacking Holy Island.
Although St Cuthbert’s Way only opened as an official walking route in 1996, in order to revitalise the Borders tourism industry, the route is not simply a marketing invention (as so many modern pilgrimage routes are). The St Cuthbert’s Way is an authentic pilgrimage trail: it follows many of the historic sites connected with the travelling, homeless monks of Lindisfarne who for eight years carried – in a timber coffin on their backs – St Cuthbert’s decomposed body around northern England. His body finally ended up, more than 100 years after leaving Lindisfarne, at the newly constructed Durham Cathedral in 955 AD.
One of the highlights of our walk was through St Cuthbert’s Wood on day five, when we walked inside the famous St Cuthbert’s Cave. It was here that the Lindisfarne monks had rested their treasured and saintly cargo in a natural sandstone cave, made from an overhang of huge rocks. (Alas, these have been desecrated over the centuries by tourists carving their initials into the ancient stones.)
The other highlight of the six-day walk was on the very first day when a strange coincidence occurred. We started out beside the gates of Melrose Abbey in the town of Melrose, famous for holding the heart of Robert the Bruce. What neither my wife nor I had known as we posed for tourist photos outside the abbey gates (thanks to Covid, there was no access to see the graveside marking where Bruce’s heart was rediscovered in 1996) was this: the reason his heart ended up in Melrose Abbey was partly thanks to a 14th-century knightly ancestor of my wife: Sir Alan de Cathcart.
Robert the Bruce died in 1329. On his death, he requested that his heart be given a “tour” of the Holy Land and taken to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem before returning to its final resting place at Melrose Abbey.
The embalmed heart was duly placed in a metal urn secured to a necklace and handed to Bruce’s friend, the warrior knight Sir James Douglas, known as Black Douglas. He duly set off with an entourage of knights, including Cathcart, to the Holy Land. But before they got to Jerusalem, the knights were ambushed in Spain by a force of Moors and had to fight a pitched battle. Douglas was killed, but not before – in the thick of battle, and surrounded by foes – he had handed the heart necklace to Alan Cathcart and another knight, who managed to escape.
Faced with being ambushed again and losing Bruce’s heart or returning to Scotland, they decided (wisely) to turn back, and ensured that the heart was buried by the high altar at the abbey. The burial site was lost following the dissolution of the monasteries, but in 1996 during excavations of the abbey, the metallic urn was rediscovered and Bruce’s heart was finally buried within Melrose Abbey. Alas, it wasn’t until we got back to Norfolk and were told this remarkable story by Laura’s father that we learnt of her family’s special connection with the starting point of St Cuthbert’s Way.
I suppose I should have done my history homework. We have vowed to return.
Never assume is the first rule of journalism. On the train up to Berwick, I had looked up the history of the 7th-century abbey of Old Melrose on the banks of the River Tweed. This was where St Cuthbert was a novice monk and later abbot. Yet it did not feature on the St Cuthbert’s Way walking route. Odd, I thought.
The 62-mile walk officially begins at New Melrose Abbey (not to be confused with the old one). But that abbey – now a picturesque ruin in the centre of Melrose market town – was not founded until 1136 by King David I, several hundred years after Cuthbert’s death.
Cuthbert had actually begun his monastic career at Old Melrose Abbey. The reason it doesn’t feature on the official walk (inconveniently) is that first, it is located off the A68, on the privately owned Ravenswood Estate; and second, there is no abbey ruin to be seen – though there was a tea room, an antiques and vintage shop, and a small exhibition on the wall. Sadly, not a single stone from the old abbey remains. But just as I was feeling a little deflated, rota fortunae intervened.
“Are you looking for the old monastery?” The speaker was in his early sixties. He introduced himself as John, with a heavy Scottish accent. It was a fine, cloudless morning and he was walking his dog.
“Yes, but I gather that there’s nothing left to see. The Vikings must have destroyed the place, or else the old stones were moved to build the new abbey in Melrose.”
“Aye,” he said. “I’ve been working here for many years and I’ve not found any stones. But I can show you some monk bones if you like.”
I looked at Laura. “Yes please,” she said.
He then led us into a huge tool shed, beside the old dairy, full of strimmers, tractor mowers, and quad bikes and maintenance equipment for the estate. Opening an old cupboard, he pulled out a plastic bag and started handing us a selection of very light bones, which had the texture of balsa wood.
“I know they are human as I’ve had them checked by a doctor friend,” said John. “They come from the site of the old monks’ graveyard. We were doing some construction work and they just popped up. I am told they date back to the 9th century, so they are almost certainly those of some ancient monks laid to rest over a thousand years ago.”
“Maybe the monk knew St Cuthbert?” I said hopefully.
Of such wild and improbable conjectures, without any foundation, pilgrimages have been made for centuries. Handling the bones of a contemporary of St Cuthbert was certainly an unexpected start to our pilgrimage walk, and more than made up for the fact that when we finally reached the ruins of 12th century Melrose Abbey in the town, we found it closed due to Covid.
My other favourite “unexpected” moment of the walk was on day four, when memories came flooding back from my childhood years.
It was March 1977, I was 11 and obsessed with following the walking adventures of John Noakes, the “action man” Blue Peter presenter who had his own spin-off show called Go With Noakes. One of the episodes I had most enjoyed was when he walked into the Border Hotel bar in Kirk Yetholm to claim his free pint of beer after trekking for 268 miles along the Pennine Way – Derbyshire to the Scottish Borders – with Shep his dog. As Laura and I had walked into the bar at the Border Hotel, we did not know that the lovely historic pub was not only right on the St Cuthbert’s Way but it also marked the official end of the Pennine Way. The free beer tradition continues, but now walkers get just a free half pint for finishing their gruelling walk.
As we had a scampi lunch after our morning climb in the spitting grey rain across the Big Wide Open – as the hills are called around Morebattle – I reflected that it had been watching John Noakes’s Pennine Way walking adventure in 1977 that had first made me think of one day going on a long distance, all-weathers walking adventure; probably with my mother, sharing a tent, and not qualifying for a free pint at the end as I would have been under-age.
Little did I know then that it would be over 40 years later that I would walk into that very same Borders Hotel and enjoy lunch with my walking (and life) partner: my wife Laura. There was no free pint but something perhaps even better: 50 per cent knocked off the bill without even asking, thanks to the Boris “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme.
William Cash is chairman of the Catholic Herald
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