I walked the St Cuthbert’s Way at the beginning of April when the weather was still unpredictable. It is a 63 mile / 100km walk from Melrose in the Scottish borders to Holy Island (Lindisfarne) off the Northumberland coast.
One of the reasons for doing the walk was as training for my Pennine Way walk that summer. Because of this and because the walk is on familiar ground for me, I didn’t do as much sightseeing as I normally would at some of the lovely places on the route like Jedburgh, Town Yetholm, the College valley, St Cuthbert’s cave and Holy Island.
The route heads over the Eildon hills and towards the river Tweed. At Maxton it follows Dere Street, a Roman road, towards Jedburgh and then heads across country to Morebattle and up Wideopen Hill. The walk then descends into Kirk Yetholm near the border before crossing into England and heading across the Cheviots at the northern end of Northumberland National Park into Wooler. Here the walk crosses gentle hills to reach St Cuthbert’s cave and then heads towards Fenwick where Holy Island becomes visible on a clear day. From here it a short distance across the coastal fields to the pilgrims route across the sands to Holy island.
I walked for just over 4 days during which I experienced all four seasons from snowy winter to warm summer weather but luckily without any rain or snow. My daily distances were:
- Melrose to Jedfoot 15 miles / 24 km
- Jedfoot to Kirk Yetholm 14 miles / 22.5 km
- Kirk Yetholm to Wooler 14 miles / 22.5 km
- Wooler to Fenwick (West Kyloe) 13 miles / 21 km
- Fenwick to Holy Island & back to Beal 12 miles / 19.5 km
I took a coach from Newcastle to Melrose on the first day after the Easter weekend when the clocks had changed to British summer time. I spent a restful evening exploring and reading my guidebook.
Unfortunately my new large rucksack had not arrived on the day I left so I had unwisely tried to pack everything into my 35 litre daysack, which meant that the weight wasn’t evenly distributed. You can read my kit list and data sheet here.
1/ Melrose to Jedfoot
I headed off straight after a hearty breakfast to allow myself plenty of time to warm up for my first day of walking for a couple of weeks. The snowy Eildon hills looked beautiful against the blue sky and the woods beyond looked quite alpine in the morning sunshine.
Shortly after Bowden the path turns north east to follow Bowden Burn through the small Borders town of Newtown St Boswells, joining the River Tweed opposite Dryburgh. The route accompanies the Tweed for just over 5 miles with a short detour into St. Boswells, where some walkers choose to end their first day.
At the village of Maxton the trail turns south west along to the A68 where it joins Dere Street roman road all the way to Jedfoot. This was where I stayed, as I didn’t have time on this trip for the detour into Jedburgh.
I walked in this area for several years with a walking group, so revisiting familiar places and landmarks along the Tweed and Dere Street kept me cheerful for most of the day. However, by early evening my shoulders were aching because of my overloaded daysack, so I made the decision to send my camping things on by courier to my campsite near the end of the route. This turned out to be a wise, if pricey, decision.
2/ Jedfoot to Kirk Yetholm
The next day, with a lighter load, I followed pleasant paths across gentle, low lying hills to Cessford.
After the old castle at Cessford, once the stronghold of a notorious reiver family, there was another long section walking on tarmac to Morebattle. I was quite glad to move onto the grassy slopes of Wideopen Hill, which, at 368m, is the highest point as well as the halfway point of the route. It was here on high ground that the snow put in a second appearance.
It lay in patches drifting across parts of the trail which made the ascent and descent of Wideopen Hill into Kirk Yetholm quite slow. I began to realise that it would have been even harder with the extra weight of my camping things, and that it might still be too cold to camp as planned later in the walk.
Many walkers will know of Kirk Yetholm, famous as the end of the Pennine Way and also as the Scottish headquarters of the Romani people. I hope to be at Kirk Yetholm again, (hopefully not too much the worse for wear) when I finish my Pennine Way walk for Crisis UK.
When I arrived at the youth hostel I realised that I had unfortunately lost my phone battery and that the mains charger was faulty. This meant I was cut off from the outside world for most of the rest of the trip. Luckily I don’t rely totally on my phone for navigation as it would have been useless from then on.
Although I had put off doing this walk until the clocks changed in order to have longer daylight hours, the weather on the central section from Wideopen Hill to Wooler had not yet made the transition to British summer time and the snow was 30 cm deep in places with deeper drifts. Luckily I had been warned and had the right clothing and kit.
3/ Kirk Yetholm to Wooler
From Kirk Yetholm, the route heads out eastwards following the Pennine Way towards the border. From here it crosses into England, through conifer woods and across moorlands to Hethpool in the College Valley, where it turns northeast to Torleehouse Farm. Here it turns sharply east across the foothills of the Cheviots, which had some more deep snowdrifts. I walked cautiously along this section towards Wooler.
Fortunately I had walked this stretch on day walks, so I knew the route well enough not to rely on the landmarks which were now covered in snow. I would probably not have attempted the Northumberland National Park stretch otherwise. I later learned that quite a few people had cancelled accommodation along the route because of the weather. I didn’t take many photos during this monochrome stretch of snow and grey skies, focussing instead on where I was putting my feet. The Youth Hostel at Wooler was a welcome sight at the end of that long, slow but exhilarating walk over the hills, which were completely transformed by the blanket of snow.
4/ Wooler to Fenwick
By contrast the next day seemed like an early summer’s day, with sunshine, blue sky and larks singing as I left Wooler behind. I climbed up towards Weetwood moor to see the snow still lying on the Cheviot.
The sound of skylarks accompanied me over the gentle hills dotted with farms up to St Cuthbert’s cave.
According to legend Cuthbert himself may have lived there as a hermit before moving to the Farne Islands, and the monks took shelter here when they traveled south with his body and their holy relics. As it was quite busy, I just took a quick snap and carried on but it is a lovely place to stop for lunch on a quiet day.
From there a short climb affords the first views of the sea and Holy Island which can be beautiful on a clear day.
The route then heads north east through the woods into the small hamlet of Fenwick. I had originally planned to camp near Fenwick, but luckily I was able to upgrade at the last minute to their B&B, as the nights were still much colder than anticipated. The B&B felt like a little bit of heaven after the previous couple of days walking through the snow.
5/ Fenwick to Holy Island
I had to leave early next morning for the final short stage of the walk, to make sure I could be off the island before the tide closed at 11.30am. On weekdays there are buses, but as this was Sunday I had to walk both ways. There was a fog clinging to the coast which was blocking out the morning sunshine as I left the B&B. The landlady was kind enough to give me a lift back to the trail at Fenwick for the short walk around the coastal field margins to the pilgrims route beside the causeway.
On the final mainland stretch, the trail weaves between rows of large concrete anti tank blocks which have been there since the World War 2 to protect the Northumbrian coast from enemy landings. The sea fog was still keeping out the sunshine when I set off at about 9am to follow the pilgrims route for the first time across the sands to the island
The sands were cold and slightly sludgy in places, but it felt like the only appropriate way to end my journey.
I didn’t stay on Holy Island on this occasion because of the tide times which you should check here. This was also because I know it quite well, but if you have time it is well worth spending some time there. I would recommend the castle and the priory, as well as a walk around the coast of the island, which is trying hard to strike a balance between being a sustainable village and a holiday home and tourist destination.
For anyone interested in exploring Holy Island, this is a video of a day walk around the island on a quiet day in February:
There are a couple of GPX downloads of Holy Island day hikes on my Viewranger profile. Other places to visit in connection with St Cuthbert are Melrose, Inner Farne where Cuthbert had a retreat and died, and Durham Cathedral where he was eventually buried.
The Long Distance Walkers Association gives the following statistics for the route:
- Distance: 102 km (63 miles)
- Ascent: 2,296 m (7,533 ft)
- Maximum height: 368 m (1,207 ft)
Observations about the trail.
The walk is varied with some long stretches of road, river and woodland walking, as well as more challenging stretches across Wideopen Hill and the Cheviots. It is well waymarked, with signs at most junctions along the route. There are options to head into Jedburgh and to continue north from Holy Island to Berwick. The most populated section is from Melrose to Morebattle which passes through several border towns and villages. After Morebattle it is wise to take packed lunches as the walk crosses some more remote countryside with few shops or places to stay except at Kirk Yetholm and Wooler.
There are opportunities to wild camp on the Scottish side. On the English side I am aware of campsites at Wooler, West Kyloe, and Beal. I believe that camping is prohibited on Holy Island. The walk has a memorable finish across the tidal sands to Holy Island but always beware of the tide times when deciding whether to cross. For information I used the useful Cicerone guide and the Harvey strip map for this route.