Adventure starts mid-July, 2012

Saturday, August 25, 2012

St. Cuthbert’s Way

Wheat field near Melrose
St. Cuthbert’s Way is a long-distance walk of 62½ miles from Melrose, Scotland to Lindisfarne (Holy Island), England, supposedly retracing the footsteps of St. Cuthbert, a 7th Century monk who started his career in a Melrose monastery and died as a bishop in Lindisfarne.  St. Cuthbert’s Way passes through some lovely and varied countryside of the Scottish Borders, an area that none of George, Ann, Janet or I had explored on foot.
You may recall that last year, when George walked four days of LEJOG with me, Ann served as our driver, delivering us to our starting point each morning and retrieving us at a designated meeting point each afternoon.  Although she desperately wanted to walk with us this year, she reluctantly agreed to serve in the driver role.  Additionally, Ann booked a cottage for us near the halfway point of the walk, so we never had to drive more than 15 miles to and from the trail.
One of our goals was to limit the daily walks to 10 miles.  To do so we eliminated as much road-walking as possible and devoted our walking mileage to the best segments of the footpaths.  As a result, our total walking distance would be close to 50 miles.
Day 1 – Melrose to St. Boswells.
From Melrose Abbey, St. Cuthbert’s Way quickly ascends into the Eildon Hills, with something like a zillion feet of elevation gain over the first two miles.  Thinking that a difficult climb may not be the best way to start our adventure, I chose a more level route along the River Tweed for our first day.  The Scottish Borders had recently been pounded by weeks of rain, so we expected some mud, but knew we could navigate around the worst patches.  George and Janet enthusiastically endorsed following the river, even though it meant not actually joining the St. Cuthbert’s Way until Day 2.

A result of floods?

The footpath we followed was not heavily used, and the overgrown grasses were wet from the recent rains.  Descending to the river, we left the grasses, only to encounter more mud than we had anticipated.  A dog walker we passed advised that the footpath ahead was an impassable quagmire.  We decided to check it out ourselves rather than endure a long uphill to retrace our steps to a road. 
As we moved along the river, the footpath became increasingly swampy, until we reached the area where the dog walker had turned around.  The mud was deep – well over the tops of our boots.  We couldn’t see more than 50 yards ahead, though, so I elected to check out the trail further to see if it was possible to pass around the mud.  Knowing that my companions wouldn’t want to risk a muddy bath, I suggested they remain where they were until I returned.
Gingerly stepping to avoid the worst of the mud, I gained about 100 yards before concluding that it didn’t make sense to proceed.  Turning around to return to George and Janet, I noticed they were right behind me.  Janet had had difficulty with the long steps that I had taken through the deep mud, but George had been breaking off dead tree branches for her to use like stepping stones. 
Around a curve in the footpath ahead, I spied what appeared to be solid trail, and once again advised my companions to remain in place while I investigated the route ahead.  But by now, George was so much into his Sir Walter Raleigh routine, that he and Janet continued to follow along.
Although the mud seemed to go on forever, it was probably no more than a mile, and after 45 difficult minutes, we finally arrived at a dry trail.  Of course, by then, we were covered with mud.  An intersecting trail provided us with an escape from the river trail, and we ascended to Newtown St. Boswells, found a public restroom, and cleaned the mud from our hands and faces.  Ann drove past us as we walked along the road to Maxton, but she wouldn’t let us into the car until we had removed our boots.
Day 2 – Maxton to Crailing
Dere Street
I assured everybody that today’s walk would be free of mud.  Most of the route follows Dere Street, the 2,000 year old Roman road running in a straight line all the way to the English border.  The Romans built their roads to last, and although the original cobbles have long since been buried by nature, the footing is still good, even in wet conditions.  We might expect a little mud near stiles and gates, where cattle tend to congregate, but that’s true in every pasture. 
Well, OK, there was more than a little mud – but only at the stiles and gates.  And in the depressions where Dere Street crosses streams.  And in the woods where the sun doesn’t reach the ground.  And in a few other places where years of decaying vegetation reduced soil into compost.  And except for some areas of clay, most of the actual soil drained quite nicely. 
Compared to yesterday, though, today’s walk was fine, except for the 1½ mile detour due to the closed footbridge near Monteviot House.  Actually, the footbridge looked fine, but it was barricaded with police tape at both ends suggesting that recent floods may have caused hidden structural damage.  The mile-and-a-half detour wasn’t too bad, however, because it led us to the Harestanes Visitor Center, where we found public restrooms and picnic benches for our lunch. 
The route from the visitor center to rejoin St. Cuthbert’s Way beyond the barricaded bridge wasn’t totally without doubt.  George inquired at the visitor center, and was advised that the only available route was for us to follow a road until reaching a highway bridge – adding another three to four miles to our planned route, and bypassing some of the best scenery.    I knew there had to be a better way, and suggested we follow a quiet lane 300 yards to the Monteviot House.  I remembered seeing the house last year, and it’s only 50 yards from the footpath we wanted.  After following the lane for 200 yards, we encountered as sign advising us that that the Monteviot Estate was private property and entry was prohibited.
The Monteviot House is an enormous, old Scottish manor.  Like many manors, maintenance costs are extreme, so it is opened for tours in July while the owners travel to Spain or some other exotic location.  But this is August, and tourists are excluded.
“No problem,” I proudly assured George and Janet.  “If we are confronted by a landowner, I’ll just tell him in my American accent that we’re lost.  That always works.  But George, you’ll need to keep silent so you don’t blow our cover.”
Approaching the house, I noticed video cameras aimed in every direction.  I just hoped they weren’t accompanied by guard dogs.  With the stealth of burglars, we slinked past the house, turned left at the driveway and walked another 50 yards to a point where the St. Cuthbert’s Way crosses the driveway.  Our pictures may be in every post office in the UK, but we successfully turned the recommended 3-mile detour into a 350 yard adrenaline-filled stroll.
Undamaged footbridge
over River Teviot
The rest of the walk was without incident, except for when George’s GPS showed we were heading due east and mine showed we were headed due north.  Unable to reconcile the differences, we merely followed the trail markers.
Jeff and Katy (note the guitar)
Continuing on, we encountered Jeff and Katy, who were walking to Edinburgh, unencumbered by either maps or GPS.  Instead, they were relying on route markers and instinct, which have obviously served them well since they had just completed walking the 274-mile Pennine Way.  Jeff was carrying a guitar; Katy, a ukulele.  They apparently didn’t have room for maps.
The rain commenced just as we arrived at Crailing, where Ann was waiting for us.
Day 3 – Morebattle to Yetholm
Most of the way between Crailing and Morebattle is along roads, so we elected to skip that portion and walk from Morebattle.  The guidebook describes the section from Morebattle to Yetholm as being among “the hardest of the whole walk.  It includes a sustained climb to over 1300 feet on Wideopen Hill, with a number of steep sections.”  The guidebook recommends an alternative road walk “during very severe weather conditions such as heavy snow, or in mist if you are unsure of your navigational skills.”  Hmmm.  One GPS reports east and one reports north.  How much more unsure can one be of navigational skills?
Half-way plaque marking highest
point on St. Cuthbert's Way
I suggested to Janet that she might not be comfortable on this section of the walk, but she wanted to continue on, so Ann dropped all three of us at the trailhead, and we ventured onto the wild moorland. 
As it turned out, the route was clear.  The steep hillsides drained water quickly, so there was no mud.   The views were outstanding and we made good time, arriving at Yetholm well before the appointed time for meeting Ann.  George telephoned Ann to advise her of our early arrival, and with only a short distance to travel, she arrived soon thereafter.  Fortunately, though, our drinks had already been poured, and we were heading into the pub’s beer garden when Ann arrived.
Day 4 – Yetholm to Hethpool
Another fine day
This was to be another difficult day with steep ascents onto the open moorlands, but except for losing the trail inside a thick plantation forest, the day was without incident.  It was also a short 5-mile day, chosen because the only alternative was a much longer 13-mile day with 1900 feet of elevation gain. 
Hethpool, today’s destination, lies on the only road between Yetholm and Wooler which intersects St. Cuthbert’s Way.  Not knowing the trail conditions, we didn’t want to commit to walking to Wooler, because there would be no retreat once past Hethpool.  Further, the terrain precluded cell phone reception, and we would be unable to contact Ann to update her on our progress.
Shortly before reaching Hethpool, we were lamenting our decision to make this a short day.  We moved along so quickly, that we reached Hethpool more than an hour ahead of time.  Clearly, we could have made the entire 13 miles to Wooler today.
Hethpool after the rain
But we didn’t lament our decision for long.  Just as we arrived at Hethpool, the sky opened up with a heavy rainstorm.  There are no facilities at Hethpool, so we couldn’t get out of the rain.  Instead, we took refuge and had lunch under the canopy of a row of trees along a country lane – the canopy effectively preventing the rain from reaching us.  When the rain finally subsided, we started walking down the 2-mile lane to Westnewton only to be intercepted by Ann driving in to meet us.
Day 5 – Hethpool to Wooler
Moorland heather
This would be another day committed to open moorlands.  Although there were a few steep ascents, most of the walk was on a high ridgeline.  The terrain was quite similar to that found on the Pennine Way – not surprising since the Pennine Way ends at nearby Yetholm.  Accordingly, I expected some bogs as I experienced last year on the Pennine Way.
What bogs?
While on the ridge, we encountered a solo walker coming from the direction we were headed.  He advised us that the route ahead was terribly boggy, and would be difficult for us to get through.  He pointed to his own boots covered with mud, and cautioned us against attempting the route.  He’s been hiking these hills for a long time – he’s 80 – and he did St. Cuthbert’s Way in 3 days.  The fact that this was our 5th day, and that we weren’t even wearing gators was all the evidence he needed to conclude that we were unprepared for what we were attempting.  He strongly recommended that we detour to a road and walk the road to Wooler.
Still no bogs
Preferring to rely on maps and our own experience than on his unsolicited advice, we thanked him for the information and continued on.  George, Janet and I unanimously concluded that he was nothing more than a bag of wind, and there was no reason to believe his trail description, although Janet was willing to cut him some slack due to his age.  My response is that even 80-year olds can be jerks, and he was living proof of that.  Indeed, the condition of the footpath was not nearly what he described – except for Day 3, the path was in the best condition we encountered, with only a few small boggy spots.
Had he been talking about the weather, we may have believed him.  Just as we arrived in Wooler, the downpour began.   But Ann was waiting there with our chariot.
Day 6 – Holy Island
The access to Holy Island is by causeway which is under water twice a day during high tide.  Based on the tide tables, the causeway would be usable today between 10:40 am and 5:00 pm. We would not be able to walk from Wooler to Lindisfarne in time to catch the low tide.  (We might have been able to get across the causeway before 5:00 to see the island, but if we did, we would then be trapped on the island.)

Priory ruins on Holy Island

Ann had been able to reserve the cottage for only 6 nights.  We originally planned to drive to George’s and Ann’s home after walking from Wooler to Lindisfarne, and to return tomorrow to visit Holy Island when the tide was out.  The weather forecast for tomorrow is heavy rain.  After weighing all the factors, we decided to forego the walk from Wooler to Lindisfarne (most of which was either on roads or through pastures), and drive straight to Holy Island.  Crossing the causeway at low tide, we walked around the island, visited the priory, had lunch at a nice hotel, and then returned to the mainland before the incoming tide covered the causeway.
We then drove back to George’s and Ann’s home, where we found a refrigerator full of beer.

(c) 2012 Ken Klug


  1. Wow....what a trip! I wish I could see Janet covered in mud....too funny. Ann must be happy she was only driving.
    You two had lots of fun in the UK, now it's time to get back to driving on the ....right side of the road!
    Have a safe trip back home.

  2. I heard a slightly different version on why Ann took the role of driver.

    Sounds like the walk went well. No all-day downpours, some expected intermittent showers with the resultant mud, then Ann's warm, dry car to rescue you when you were finished for the day. You even got in some trespassing, just to keep the walk legit. Then a refrigerator full of beer at the end of your hard day at work.

    Really enjoyed your blog, Ken. What's in store for next year?