Walking the St Cuthbert’s Way
As Palm Sunday entrances to a Holy place go, there’s a bit of history to live up to. But finishing 4 full days with a barefoot crossing of a historic tidal causeway takes some beating for a dramatic ending to a pilgrimage.
It all started at 11am on Thursday morning in Melrose.
I’d slept about 3 hours. I don’t know why, but sleep the night before starting a walk always seems to elude me. Then it was onto the first train, and by the time I reached the Border Hills, April was looking very icy.
On reaching the start of St Cuthbert’s Way at Melrose Abbey, slushy rain was sheeting down. Seeing that the forecast showed the rain and sleet would be intermittent, I gave it another half an hour. As it happened, it didn’t stop until I’d been walking for over an hour and was well over the windy saddle of the Eildon Hills.
Day 1 starts steeply with a climb up the wooden steps, up the side of a field and then through the gorse to the Eildons. Around the higher reaches of the field, the icy rain had turned into full-on horizontal sleet. The hills were clearly not the place to be today, and I was pleased to be over the other side and into the cover of woodland.
It was in these woods that I was introduced to a major theme of the way- fallen trees from last year’s storms. Not only, over 4 days, did I have to negotiate something like 30 trees fallen across the path, but regular exposed plantations where whole sections had been ripped through and destroyed- in some other cases there was a clear “domino effect”.
The woods led, via a pleasant avenue, to the lovely village of Bowden and then via Bowden Burn to Newtown St Boswells. On the way into Newtown, amongst some small industrial units, I heard what I thought was bellowing Dancehall or Reggaeton music. On further inspection, the noise was a cattle market and the MC was actually an auctioneer.
From Newtown St Boswells, more woods led to the first view of the wide, meandering, fast flowing River Tweed. The Way follows the Tweed, roughly speaking, for the next 5 miles or so, with a detour into St Boswells, where I popped into the bookshop cafe for a bowl of soup.
Unexpectedly, the riverside path is not all flat- it occasionally climbs high above the Tweed, interrupting what I’d expected to be straightforward progress.
The other thing that was beginning to slow my progress was the large amounts of what I’ll call “slidey mud”. The sort that occasionally causes viral Tiktok videos. The treads on my boots are great, and I never felt close to falling over, but negotiating that stuff is still exhausting mentally, with concentration needed for every step. There were sections where the ground was covered with the tell-tale signs of previous walkers having lost their footing. I guess this was all down to a perfect storm of recent ice and rain and geology.
I’ve got one more excuse- I was using my new backpack, an Osprey Stratos 36. This is a fantastic pack which I would heartily recommend, but there are so many things to adjust that it took me a couple of days to get comfortable with it.
So it was gone 3 O’Clock and I was just parting ways with the Tweed. At this point I looked at the map and realised I was barely half way through the day’s walk. I decided to get a move on, but was resigned to probably end up taking a bus or taxi into Jedburgh, where I was booked to stay.
Through Maxton, I took a series of quiet lanes to link up with Dere Street. This is one of the best sections of the Roman Road, which originally linked York and the Antonine Wall, to walk. Or at least I’m told so. I was mainly concentrated on getting the miles under my belt and negotiating that slippy mud.
On reaching a country road a mile or so before Harestanes Country Park, I figured that I had time to follow this to the A68, and then follow the main road for around half a mile to reach the access road to Ancrum village and the bus stop. This was a risk- I didn’t know whether it would be safe to follow the main road here. As it happened, there was no path so it wasn’t ideal, but there was enough space alongside the road to mean that were no particular danger spots.
It also meant that I missed out a couple of miles of the official route, which is a shame, but the focus was on enjoyment of the trail, not walking every step.
I made the bus stop a couple of minutes before the bus to Jedburgh was due, and struggled up the hill to the absolutely gorgeous and welcoming Meadhon Guest House. Within not much more than 2 hours, I’d showered and eaten and was in bed.
If the first day started icy and miserable, Day 2 was the complete opposite, and it hadn’t been forecast. The day started out on a cold, frosty riverside path, but the whole day was dry and clear. Using the Borders Abbeys Way route to gradually climb to the official St Cuthbert’s Path, a view across the valley to yesterday’s end, and further across to the Eildons, unfolded.
The track soon entered one of a number of narrow strips of exposed woodland, along with the now familiar pattern of regular detouring around fallen trunks.
A dip down to the Oxnam Water revealed a quiet green valley and the climb out of the valley was deceptively long, leading to more strips of exposed woodland interspersed with crop fields across which the biting northerly wind gained strength. I stopped for a while in one of these woodlands and heard a nearby woodpecker, the first of two I came across that day.
The land opens out and falls away towards the prominent Cessford Castle, a beautifully placed 15th Century Ruin. From here the Way takes what for me was the most frustratingly lengthy road section for 3–4 miles, including a mile along a B-road through the lovely Morebattle, but this is necessary to transition into the Cheviots, my companions for the next day-and a half.
I wish I’d spent a little more time in Morebattle, it’s a gorgeous little village with a fantastic independent community-run shop (great for stocking up on snacks!), a community-run cafe and a proudly walker-friendly hotel.
But it was time to get climbing. Wideopen Hill is only 369 metres (1210 feet), but the highest point on the Way and definitely the longest climb. It perfectly sets the scene for the rest of the walk. Once the open fell is reached by a wide grassy path typical of the Cheviot section of the Way, Wideopen Hill is a series of grass-covered mounds clustered along a ridge. Once you’re up there, it’s easy walking with great views
It took longer than expected to reach Yetholm from the valley and there were a couple more miles along the road, but the scenery is so pleasant that it was just nice being there.
I stayed at the Friends of Nature Hostel (formerly the SYHA hostel). It’s a small and basic hostel, but like every establishment I set foot in, there was a friendly and helpful welcome.
So many former YHA and SYHA hostels have gone independent in recent years, and many are in real walking hotspots- Kirk Yetholm, Kirkby Stephen, Osmotherley and dozens more. Some (like Wooler tomorrow) have remained affiliated with the YHA, others have been let go completely. Walkers should be extremely thankful at how many of these have been kept open.
Dinner in the Border Hotel was huge, and they were happy to offer me breakfast the next morning.
Day 3 (Kirk Yetholm to Wooler) was the shortest, but also the most remote and hilly day. It starts by taking the “wrong direction” along the Pennine Way’s final descent. It’s easy here to look back at down the hill and imagine what it must be like for a walker with 268 long and muddy miles under their boots to look down through the dying light and see the finish in their sights.
It’s another fairly unchallenging slog up the hill, and I was pleased that the route stays well clear of the highest (and boggiest) part of the Cheviot massif to my right, which still had a few snow patches visible. Instead, once at the top, it’s a few miles traversing between (but not over) countless moundy grassy hilltops and across the border wall into England.
It’s a gentle descent for 2–3 miles down Elsdon Burn, including a short section through replanted forest, protected from sheep and deer by a stile and deer gate in one, which is so difficult to negotiate it also keeps out walkers who don’t want to take their backpack off. I stopped for some water here, and was accused of stopping to have a laugh at struggling hikers.
The descent ended in the beautiful College Valley at Hethpool, from where a gradual (and occasionally boggy) climb started up the other side of the valley. After a couple of miles, a right turn is taken onto my favourite of many green tracks on this walk, up to the top of the moor.
There then follows an undulating stretch for about 4 miles across the moor. This section is different to the other upland parts of the SCW in that it’s clearly very intensively managed for grouse shooting, with frequent signs of muirburn and grit trays. There’s the sort of eerie silence- punctuated only by the sound of red grouse- that walkers across such moors anywhere in the UK will be familiar with. But the setting here is truly memorable, and Wooler soon appears down below.
On reaching the minor road down to Wooler, there’s usually a long loop through some attractive woodland. But not for me- at the start of the woodland trail I bumped into a couple of fellow walkers I’d seen the day before who told me they’d tried getting through and it was absolutely impassible because of fallen trees. So a shortcut into Wooler it was.
I really liked Wooler. On the face of it, it’s a fairly regular attractive market town with a few old inns and a town square. But something about it oozes friendliness that I’ve rarely seen anywhere else. One slight difficulty was finding somewhere to eat- staff shortages were hitting hard that weekend, but the Italian restaurant bent over backwards to find me a table, and it was absolutely smashing.
And Wooler Youth Hostel deserves special mention. Another one rescued from closure by the YHA, it’s now run by a family with a strong background in the outdoors. It’s one of my favourite hostels I’ve stayed in for some time, despite the fact that they doubted my ability to be out of the place the next morning before they opened reception.
Day 4: the last day saw me out of the door by 7.30 and (following a trip to the Co-Op for some juice and pastries) on my way across an early morning blanket of frost. The uplands are left behind, and the morning undulated across rolling hills, fields and quiet lanes.
I had to leave early for a very special reason. Today I’d cross the causeway into Lindisfarne. There are 2 routes to cross. The most common way of getting to the island these days is to take the road, which floods twice a day, but tides meant that option was open to me all afternoon and well into the evening. But before the 1950s, and in the days of St Cuthbert, the way to get there was on foot across the sands. More about this later, but the optimum time for safe crossing meant that I had to be at the coast by 3:15 that afternoon, and that meant getting my skates on.
The frost lifted and left me with, for the 3rd day in a row, a sunny but cold day with a biting wind. After a few hours, a wooded ridge became prominent up ahead. The route hit this and veered left to the impressive St Cuthbert’s Cave, where once the remains of Cuthbert were hidden from Vikings, and now the people pose for instagram shots.
After negotiating the rise behind the back of the cave, the North Sea and Holy Island come properly into view for the first time. Shortly after this point, the Way combines with it’s sister trail, the St Oswald’s Way and heads into, and then alongside the woods. This was the most annoying part of the whole walk for diversions, but there are some lovely spots along the way.
The path emerges near the village of Fenwick and after passing through the village, crosses the A1 (not as bad as I was expecting) and then the East Coast Mainline (probably more scary) and then through the last couple of fields to hit the coast a few hundred metres South of the causeway. I’d made it, around 15 minutes before my target time, so the pilgrim’s crossing was on!
I was feeling pretty worn out after the long day and didn’t know what to expect. Despite having read every possible review and article I could find about the crossing, I felt I knew all about how to stay safe, but nothing about what it would actually be like to cross. So here’s a link to the best safety advice I can find, and I’ll concentrate on describing the actual crossing.
I found a corner of the disused car park at the start of the road crossing to get myself sorted out. Everything I wasn’t going to need went into my bag.
The first part crosses the “river” that’s left (even at low tide) by the road bridge. This part of the road made me even more thankful that I was soon going to get off the road and onto sand. Once it’s safe to do so, you can descend onto the “beach”, and then make your way over to the line of tall poles that mark the safe route across. On this beach, I took my boots and socks off, and carried them for the next hour-and-a-quarter.
The safe route is a very straight line, the road takes a boomerang shape off to the left- at the furthest distance it’s close to half a mile to your left and you stop hearing the traffic. At a couple of points there are “refuges”, like railway signal boxes on stilts, so that if you get into trouble, you’re expected to make for these and call for help.
It was cold, it was windy and it was wild. These sands and mudflats are home to an impressive range of birds. I passed 3 groups of people along the way, and judging by the footprints, there’d already been about 20 people and one dog crossing that day only one of whom (plus, presumably, the dog) had done so barefoot.
Underfoot, the crossing can be separated into distinct sections. The crossing took me about 80 minutes, so let’s separate it out that way.
The first 2 minutes are across slightly stony sand, with a few stones and shells to dig into the feet.
There’s then 2 minutes across shallow mud and shallow water, enough to get the feet covered.
After that, you’ve got 30 minutes of hard, flat, smooth sand. This is really easy walking.
But out of nowhere, you get 2 minutes of stinky, sinky mud. It looked like the best route through was to stick slightly left through this, but I still sunk to my shins a couple of times.
And then it’s another 30 minutes of hard, flat, smooth sand.
And another 2 minutes of shallow mud and shallow water, just enough to clean the feet.
And then you’re back on the beach for the last 2 minutes, just outside the village of Lindisfarne.
The symmetry of all this is absolutely fascinating.
Whatever you do, do it barefoot. It’s not just a piece of historical re-enactment, it’s just so practical.
And that was it. I was straight to the Crown and Anchor, where they fed and watered me brilliantly and the bed was super comfortable.
The next morning I had to wait until lunchtime for the tide to go out, so spent the morning at the Castle and Abbey at a time that there were very few visitors.
So, how is the St Cuthbert’s Way?
Fits neatly into 4 equal sections
Great start and finish
Great views for not so much climbing
The grassy paths and frequent sections of woodland
Historic importance and interest
Towns and villages are so friendly
Bit harder to split the second half into shorter days if you’re not camping.
Not an amazing range of wildlife on view
A few long road sections
Not much accommodation for non-campers around Harestanes- best going to Jedburgh
Surprisingly (given the territory) few services at times
Marks out of 10!
Accommodation ease: 9/10 Had no trouble at all booking a couple of months in advance, as long as you’re happy to stay in Jedburgh. A good range everywhere, though there’s no budget accommodation on Holy Island. Baggage transfer is available.
Waymarking: 8/10. Very comprehensive. Only went wrong once and rarely needed to double check with a map. Only criticism is that about 3 different “house styles” are used interchangeably- it’s far easier looking for just one clear symbol like the wooden thistles/acorns on national trails.
Guidebooks/maps: 7/10 I took the official guidebook which was truly fantastic on historic background. Would have been nice to have an accommodation list in there. There’s also a Cicerone Guide Available. Map-wise I took the Harvey’s strip-map, but hardly used it. Most actively, I downloaded the route from WalkHighlands and followed it on LocusMap using OpenAndroMaps.
Cow factor? 9/10 Only passed through 2 fields with cows all week, and both of these were the most chilled out cows I’ve ever seen. This can vary from month to month, and there were admittedly a couple of “cattle in field” signs on entrances to cow-free fields.
Mud factor? 7/10 So there was the slidey mud in the first day, and a couple of slightly boggy moorland sections after Hethpool. But apart from that, really good.
Many other walkers? I was surprised at how many other SCW walkers I came across- something like 5 or 6 other groups, so around 15–20 in total, which is as many as I saw on the whole Coast to Coast Walk last October.
Overall: The St Cuthbert’s Way has gained a good reputation through word of mouth in recent years and it’s easy to see why. It stands up well against many far more established trails of similar length. Ultimately, it’s a well planned walk through a fantastic piece of countryside, and I’d recommend it to more people.