Reflections on St Cuthbert’s Way as a Pilgrimage

A walk without prayer is just a walk, surround the walk with prayer and it becomes a Pilgrimage. That was a thought given to me by my Spiritual Director, Fr Andy Hawes, at a study day he held on Pilgrimage. I knew, from that point on that I would have to seriously think about the prayer that would surround each day and also the purpose of my Pilgrimage. What did I wish to get out of it, what did I expect to get out of it and were those things achievable?

I was blessed with two things concerning the St Cuthbert’s Way and prayer, firstly, that my Dad was as keen as I was to surround the walk in prayer, that really helped! Secondly, that The Community of Aidan and Hilda have produced a booklet of prayers and songs for St Cuthbert’s Way. I decided that I shouldn’t re-invent the wheel and although I felt some of the prayers weren’t for Dad and I, and we certainly didn’t wish to sing on our way, I knew I could base our prayers on these. It is important to surround the walk in prayer, it gives it a different feel from just walking (as my Dad commented after we’d finished) and different styles suit different folk. My advise is to think about how you will do this before you go on Pilgrimage and make sure it works for you and any companions that you will have with you. It certainly helped me to feel I was walking with St Cuthbert, and that he was with us on the way, that we weren’t just walking in his footsteps. The beauty of the scenery also helped, Dad and I lost count of times we stopped and said “isn’t this stunning”, it made you want to give thanks all the more. The other thing that helped focus prayer were some of the sites and places on the way, the natural awe and beauty of St Cuthbert’s Cave being an obvious example and these places just made you to want to pray. A real chance to pause and give thanks or to contemplate where you were. So the first thing I got out of my Pilgrimage was a re-engagement with prayer in a more natural way. I am used to prayer the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, which work for me because they are formulaic and they give a rhythm for my life. Praying more “of the cuff” and more instantaneously isn’t so natural for me, but the walk, with its challenges, its ups and downs and its beauty helped me with that, in both a spoken and a quite way.

I also got a real sense of purpose and achievement from doing this. I can’t think of the last time, apart from when going on Retreat, that I have set aside time to do something that would enable me to seek God’s presence in a new way. Did it impact on me they way I had hoped? Yes, and more so. It gave me a chance to leave duty behind, to leave the Parish with its natural drives that are based on doing and being and the role I inhabit as a Priest, and to concentrate on God and trying to just be. Through the physical struggles on the way, I leant that I am a determined person, that I don’t “give in” that I am also a person who doesn’t rest on what I have achieved, I want more than that, I want to gain more. Above all else I wish to be closer to God so that I can, I hope, help others get closer to God too.

Finally, I spent some real quality time with my Dad, which had always been the hope. We, through this joint experience, had a fantastic time, were able to share purpose, prayer and the ups and downs of Pilgrimage together. That aspect made what we did together all the more special and made a truly unforgettable experience all the more so.

Tomorrow I will give some advise about going on Pilgrimage from my experience, and include in that some thoughts about why you might wish to go on Pilgrimage.

Day 6: Fenwick to Lindisfarne (6.5 miles)

We arose in buoyant mood, Chelsea were champions and we only had 6.5 miles to do and the weather seemed fine. Breakfast and farewells to our excellent host at The Red Lion in Millfield, where we had spent our last three nights, and we were off.

There were two things concerning me about this day. Firstly, we’d have to cross the East Coast Mainline and the guide said to use the phone at the crossing to check it was safe to cross. Secondly, the drive home after the walk. I decided not to dwell on these things as we set off. A slight climb out of Fenwick and we were now in sight of Lindisfarne! Soon we crossed the East Coast Mainline, the chap on the end of the phone was polite and gave us the permission to cross (relief!) and on we went. We went through some farm land and then down to the causeway. You can walk across the sands here, cutting 1.5 miles off the Way but they suggest you do that in bare-feet or wellies. Dad and I both agreed to walk on or next to the road. We saw, at a distance the 2 ladies from the previous three days, they had told us they were going to walk across the sands, we, therefore, marched on! We got in a great walking rhythm and walked with real purpose and made it to Lindisfarne in an hour and a half from Fenwick! (See picture below).

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We removed our walking boots at Dad’s car and in “comfortable shoes” walked to the ruined Abbey, (pictured below)

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and took our photo in front of St Cuthbert’s Statue (below!).

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Now we visited St Mary’s Church where we said our final prayers:

Lord, you are my island,

in your bosom I nest.

You are the calm of the sea,

in that peace I rest.

You are the waves on the shore’s glistening stones,

their sound is my hymn.

You are the song of the birds,

their tune I sing.

You are the ocean that laps my being,

in you I dwell.

You have been with us at the world’s beginning,

Be with us till the world’s end.

You have been with us at the suns’ rising,

Be with us to our day’s end.

You have been with us on our journey here

Be with us to our journey’s end.

Go before us in our pilgrimage of life.

Anticipate our needs,

prevent our falling,

and lead us to our eternal destiny. Amen.”

Some final photo’s around the Church of St Cuthbert’s window

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and the statue of the monks carrying his coffin and it was almost time to leave. 

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A quick trip to the Lindisfarne Mead shop for some retailing, a bite of Lunch and then the long journey home. Which was better than I could ever have imagined! We’d done it! Amazing! Over the next two days I will Blog my final reflections and also some advise to anyone thinking of walking this Way or any other and also some final thoughts on Pilgrimage!

Day 5: Wooler to Fenwick (11.5 miles)

I woke up and felt so much better! Today was going to be a better day, even though the weather was going to be a bit overcast. There would be no big ups, though a few climbs would be involved, and we knew we would see two important things on our route: St Cuthbert’s Cave and a sight of Lindisfarne.

In our prayers that morning we were reminded that Cuthbert, himself, had the plague, and although he recovered always walked with a limp from then on. We then prayed for our weary limbs and for those who struggle in life and on journeys. That thought stuck with me all day. On leaving Wooler we climbed quickly and then were on top of some lush grassland. Walking for a few miles was “easy”. We then dropped into a valley and over a beautiful bridge (pictured). Beyond the bridge we saw a climb we’d have to take.

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The climb was gentle, in comparison to other days, and from then on we were on a track which would ultimately take us to St Cuthbert’s Cave (or Cuddy’s Cave as the locals call it). On route to it we came to a road and on the roadside was a wood carved statue of St Cuthbert with an otter at his feet (pictured). A wonderful surprise and encouragement.

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Soon after this we climbed up a hill and came across the two ladies from the previous two days. They were bemoaning the Way Markers, my Dad said “Well Phil’s ace at spotting them so we’ve been okay! Follow us!” we soon left them behind and carried on. Dad said “We’ll stop for lunch at St Cuthbert’s Cave, I’m struggling a bit today”. There is a relatively steep climb to the cave but I was feeling fresh, Dad, however, had lost his “push” and climbs were an issue. We struggled onto the cave, where, it is said, the monks carried St Cuthbert’s body in their flight from the Viking raids c. 875 AD. It is an evocative place (pictures below), full of awe and wonder and feels special. We stopped for a prayer and then lunch.

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The cave is in woods and upon leaving the woods we had to climb again (but not before we stopped and watched a swooping Plover with its eerie call). Dad was still struggling which was made worse at the top of the climb where we could see no marker and the path parted. We walked a mile and a half back and forth with my Dad’s temper rising as his energy decreased until we finally found our way again. Dad had now lost his trust in Way Markers and his map reading abilities. I read from the guide for help and said “I am sure its that way, I can see a Marker, I think.” Dad remained unsure until we saw two walkers coming in the opposite way. As they reached us they confirmed they were doing the walk in the opposite direction and assured us that the Way Markers got better again. We all wished each other well on our way and carried on.

We were led into some woods and saw the welcome sign “Fenwick 2 ¾ miles”. My Dad had now got his second wind and through the woods we caught our first glimpse of Lindisfarne, though the Sea-fret was coming in. Through the woods we had another problem with Way Markers but the guide set us right and we then had a downhill walk to Fenwick. A prayer of thanksgiving and we were finished for the day.

The day had another happy ending, Chelsea beat West Brom 1-0 to clinch the premier league title! That made my Dad’s struggles that day ease and sent us to bed in very good heart! Only 6.5 miles left! We had almost done it!

Day 4: Kirk Yetholm to Wooler (13.5 miles)

A great breakfast and we were off! Today we would leave Scotland behind us and enter Northumberland. Dad had warned me that we had a steep-ish climb or two in the day but nothing like the day before. So fortified by a prayer we got going.

The way out of Yetholm for us was up! Kirk Yetholm is at the end of the Pennine way so you get a feeling that it is going to be up hill! First climb was on the road but the second was across the moors, it was stiff but not as bad as the day before and soon we were descending through woods towards Elsdon Burn towards the settlement of Hethpool. We began to notice that the Way Markers that had been excellent in Scotland were not quite so regular now we were in England but this was not, yet, a problem. At Hethpool we stopped for a drink and I took a couple of photos (below).

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From Hethpool again the only way was up. We also had our first taste of Yomping as the trail got a bit marshy. We at one point thought we’d have to do some mountaineering as the path seemed to take us down through some gorse and down a sheer hillside, but this was the first case of the Way Markers letting us down. We’d made our first mistake on the whole route, but in terms of distance this was not a big one. Now we were continuously on the up and I was beginning to feel it, for the first time on the walk I was struggling to keep up with Dad. After what seemed like a really steep climb I was out on my feet. Thankfully we then bumped into the two ladies from the day before and stopped for a drink and a chat. Whilst with them we caught a glimpse of a Mountain Goat or two, as the guide had promised we might. We said our farewells and carried on. There was a bit of climb but now I was a long way behind Dad, my legs just couldn’t keep the pace up. Dad suggested we stop over the next brow for a snack and a break. We were now in moorland (pictured), bleak but with its own beauty.

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Image may contain: sky, cloud, mountain, nature and outdoor

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After our break we carried on but I was still struggling. After a few miles we met two ladies who were doing a circular walk which crossed the St Cuthbert’s way having lunch. A chat and a laugh with them lifted my spirits, and the elder lady said “How many days in are you?” My Dad said “Well its the 4th Day but effectively the 3rd whole day.” To which she replied, looking at me, and knowing I was struggling, “Its like having a baby Day 3 is the worst after giving birth after that its all plane-sailing”. We laughed and left them. Thankfully I’d found my second wind!. Soon before us was Wooler a welcome site but, as we went through some woods we lost sight of it and didn’t see it again for a good half hour, tantalising and yet discouraging too! After the woods we climbed again and the Way Markers and the guide couldn’t help us. Eventually my eagle eyes saw a Marker in the distance and disgruntled, and annoyed off we trudged. Eventually Wooler appeared again and we descended into the Town. A welcome stop for an Ice-cream, and we were finished. A prayer of thanksgiving was in order!

That evening Dad assured me that every long distance walk delivers up a day of struggle for each walker and usually its a different day, thankfully, for each person. That encouraged me and I thought “Tomorrow is another day, things will get better.” Only 11 miles the next day!

Day 3: Brownrigg to Kirk Yetholm (9miles)

As we ate breakfast we both admitted that we were both a little daunted by the day ahead. It had 3 massive climbs in it but started with a fairly big climb anyway. However, there was nothing we could do about that but get on with it. Dad also said that he was now convinced that the knee issue would not stop him, that he could “walk it off” and that if he phoned his physio she’d just say “keep walking!” so that’s what he was going to do.

Soon after leaving Brownrigg we had a short steep climb, I think our breathlessness during it made us more apprehensive about what was to come but on we went. We were soon amongst some more wonderful countryside and the sun was out, fabulous! We came to the settlement of Cessford, a farm and some cottages where a lady in a car stopped to chat to us asking us if we were doing “St Cuthbert’s”. We said we were and that we were a little daunted by the route to Kirk Yetholm to which she said “Aye, there’s a tough climb towards Yetholm but if you’ve got plenty of water you’ll be fine”. We assured her we had and thanked her for her encouragement. Cessford also has a ruined Castle (pictured below) which is really nothing more than a keep, but none the less beautiful for it.

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From Cessford we descended by road to Morebattle. Morebattle is a lovely village built around two dried up lakes. It has a village school and a few local amenities including a coffee shop called “St Cuthbert’s”. Leaving Morebattle by road we had a steep-ish climb before walking into the Cheviot Hills, we could see looming what was before us, the only way was going to be up! We crossed a stream and then braced ourselves for the first climb, only 326 metres above sea level but all up. I lost count of the number of times we stopped for breath but then had a positive thought “We won’t be dropping so far down between each peak, this is the hardest bit!” Thankfully, I was right. We dropped down about 20 metres before the next climb to 368 metres above sea level, at the top of which my Dad said “We’re at the highest point” and gave a thumbs up, which I smiled and returned! We then met some fellow travellers, two ladies doing The Way who had started their day at Morebattle, we compared notes and said “We’ll see you again” and then climbed on. The next climb was “only” to 306 metres above sea level, at which point we paused for breath and then I took a photo (below) and Dad said “I think a prayer is in order!” We said a prayer before carrying on.

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Now was basically down hill, through some wonderful countryside towards Kirk Yetholm. After a couple of miles we walked next to Bowmont Water towards our stop for the day (pictured below). We gave each other a “high five” and felt invigorated, this was the biggest challenge (we thought) achieved.

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We travelled to our over night stay (base for the next 3 nights) in good heart. The beer on the bar was called Seraphim which seemed appropriate for Pilgrims! Sleep came quickly that night too. Only 13.5 miles to do the next day, surely a piece of cake?

Day 2: St Boswells to Brownrigg (15miles)

After a hearty breakfast it was time to get on our way. I must admit that this day had me somewhat apprehensive as 15 miles would be the longest distance I had walked since I was in my early twenties! My Dad often walks 11 or so miles but even he was a little daunted.

After our prayer to begin the day we walked through St Boswells down to the banks of the Tweed, this was beautiful and we gained an understanding as to why this is prime fishing country. Along the bank we came to the Crystal Fountain (pictured) which was a spring that had been converted my the Laird so that it had a mule driven pump which meant the water could be pumped up to the manor House above and save the legs and time of his serving maids. It looked wonderful amongst all the blue bells.

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We then climbed steeply away from the Tweed and the came to Maxton Church (pictured), the only Church on St Cuthbert’s Way dedicate to St Cuthbert. It has a History going back to the 12th Century.

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Soon after Maxton we found ourselves on a road for a mile and a half. Prior to the Pilgrimage my Dad and had an issue with his knee, he’d warned me that it would “go” at some point each day and that he’d shout out in pain and then after a few paces he’d be fine. He cried so loudly on this stretch of road that I jumped, sadly, however, all was not well, the knee didn’t do what it normally did and my Dad was hobbling. After a mile or so of this we came to Dere Street, an old Roman Road (path) which Cuthbert would have known himself. We had a choice, carry on, or I go back to St Boswells and get the car. My Dad, one of the most determined people I know, carried on. I leant something about prayer and pilgrimage over the next mile or so. A few steps along Dere street amongst some trees my Dad tripped on a twig and yelled in pain, thankfully that reset the knee and we were off again. I then learnt a lot about thanksgiving!

Along Dere Street we saw some wonderful sights, a Deer bounding of along the track before us, a wild beehive in an old rotten tree trunk. Dere Street led us for may miles to Harestanes and into the ground of Monteviot House, with its beautiful estate. Through the estate we had to walk alongside the Oxnam Water and here the path, as described in the guide, became confused. We were told “just” past the ruined Dovecote was a bridge. “Just” turned out to be 600 metres! We leaned to trust the way markers which in Scotland were excellent (more of that another day!). So we crossed and walked beside Oxnam Water until we climbed away towards Dere Street again.

We now began to climb, initially at an easy gradient but, as we left Dere Street to walk toward Brownrigg, soon very steeply indeed. After 13 miles of walking this was not very welcome and we both struggled up the Hill! This was compounded by the fact that my Dad’s knee went again on the minor slopes. My lungs were burning as I gasped for air, stopping many times. (In fact all through the evening I coughed as my lungs readjusted!). Once at the top I could tell we were now at our highest point yet as I looked back to the Eildon Hills. A mile of walking through some woodland and we were at Brownrigg! My prayers at journeys end were full of thanksgiving, the longest day done!

A quick journey back to our Hotel and a very welcome pint of beer. After another excellent meal and a chat we were both ready for sleep. Dad told me that I’d be surprised how fresh I’d feel in the morning, I hoped he would be correct because Day 3 promised us the hardest climbs of the whole Pilgrimage! A daunting thought as I fell asleep.

Day 1: Melrose to St Boswells (7.5 miles)

After all the preparation we are finally ready to go. I’d been blessed the day before by Fr Andy Hawes ahead of my Pilgrimage, my car was packed and I’d stayed the night at my Dad’s so that we were closer to the A1. We drove up to St Boswells on the Monday morning, a journey of just over 4 hours, had lunch and were now at Melrose. We were ready to get started. I said a prayer asking for blessing on our Pilgrimage outside the ruins of Melrose Abbey where Cuthbert first entered the monastic life and later became Prior. Then we were off!

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The first few metres are okay, a slight incline as you walk through Melrose, but then the shock of the first climb! Up some very steep “steps” and then we climbed to 320 metres above sea level to the “shoulder” between to the two Eildon Hills. It tells you in the guide that you can take a detour to the top of either hill, a climb of a further 50 or 80 metres but Dad an I were so exhausted at the top that we said “forget that!”. Near the top we had met our first fellow travellers a couple who were nearing the finish of their St Cuthbert’s Way having done it in reverse from Lindisfarne to Melrose. They were glad it was dry for their decent into Melrose, wet conditions wouldn’t have helped! Having paused for breath and a photo at the “shoulder”, as from here you could see where our walk would lead us for the next couple of days, we descended into a wood.

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The wood was beautiful and easy walking and Dad and I soon got into a rhythm with our stride patterns. 

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After the woods we went through some farm land until we came to the village of Bowden. We stopped to read about the water fountain there (pictured) which was the first means of “clean” drinking water until the mains were put in for the village.

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From Bowden we meandered alongside Bowden Burn until it led us to Newtown St Boswells.

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From there we climbed up and down until we arrived beside the River Tweed which then led us to St Boswells itself. We’d made it! It felt good! We said a prayer of thanksgiving for the day and after collecting our cars, and settling into the Hotel for the night it was time to contact the family to let them know we were safe and well. Then a restorative beer or two and an evening meal. Relief, satisfaction and hope for the next few days, helped by the food and drink and the knowledge that our team, Chelsea, and won 3-0 and were now 3 points from the title, we slept well!