St Cuthberts Way, Day 1: Bowden to Cessford Moor (19 miles)

I did consider leaving the tent to throw things at the loudly coupling badgers, but memory served that badgers are mean and, sometimes, a lot larger than expected, so I just waited it out as dawn started turning into day and packed up the tent ready for another walk that hopefully would be as lovely as the previous evening. I even put on shorts.

Bowden had not yet woken up as I went through it and by the old market cross. The heavy, fat blue clouds peacefully rolling up the night mists overhead and clearing up the sky as I ventured down to Bowden Burn. Bowden Burn turned out to be the most gorgeous stream with plenty of generous nooks for a camp, but I suppose that is now for someone else to find.

Crossing the burn, I eventually came out to a lane for around half a mile of road walking. Not normally anyone’s favourite, but there’s something peaceful about empty roads in an early morning as the sky is still tumbling through its phases to chase itself into day. Looking back, the three peaks of the Eildon Hills were prominent and clear; their festive markings against the pink and blue shades of the sky like a birthday tablespread. Eventually the lane made its way into Newtown St Boswells. Not to be confused with St Boswells. This is the New Town. From about the fifteenth century,

The path from Newtown St Boswells fell down to the River Tweed where I opted to cross a footbridge, off the trail, to skirt around Dryburgh and check out the elaborate Temple of the Muses built on a small hill by the bank. This sculpture, classically held in an open, domed and columned temple, is a tribute to the Scottish poet and playwright James Thomson who penned Rule Brittania. Why a neo-Grecian monument was decided to be an apt tribute to a man who’s legacy has become uncomfortably nationalistic is lost on me. This strange structure also has a bust of Thomson on top and whilst the interior figures that represent the four seasons do seem fitting (Thomson wrote a piece of that name) they are, in fact, a replacement for the original tableau of Apollo and his nine muses. I will give it this; it seems wonderfully odd, and its very pretty.

I headed around Dryburgh to see what I could see of the abbey, but found it walled and charging for entrance. Being snide, I decided not to hang around, and returned over the bridge to the path again. The Tweed runs 100 miles along the border and, in season, gets pretty heavy with salmon. It’s also where tweed cloth gets its name. Where the Tweed itself gets its name is very dull; it is simply the old Brythonic word for ‘border’.

I dipped through St Boswells (the original), a village that seemed to have as many sporting facilities as shops. St Boswells is names after St Boisil, the prior under whom the new novice monk Cuthbert was a student. The Venerable Bede, our man in Northumbria (and slightly prone to elaboration) records that as Cuthbert passed Boisil on his first entrance to Old Melrose Priory, Boisil was overcome with the sense of the great things that the young man was destined for and was then pretty vocal about it, which frankly sounds like an awful lot of pressure.

Boisil had foretold his own death; not from anything valiant or noble, but from ‘a pestilence’ (probably the yellow plague) which did indeed strike him down in the end. Cuthbert himself recovered from this pestilence, attributing his survival to the power of prayer, and went on to take over Boisil’s position as prior at Melrose. He’d already been guest master at a shiny new monastery in Ripon, and it was time to move on up the God chain.

It was a very pleasant walk by the river. Initially. Then it started to get tedious as it followed every bend and wrinkle in the river’s path. A long stretch across a golf course where the footpath had been shoved to as far to the side as possible, in the nettles and weeds at places (yes, I regretted the shorts), was a relief when it was done and river rocks and shingle and the ups and downs of woody banks was back on the walking menu. I came across a bank full of grazing cows. Now, I have not had great experiences with cows and cowfields of late. Cows do not like me, for whatever reason I am not their friend, I cannot sit with them, I enrage them.

Thankfully, I thought, when these ones charge me I don’t have to try jump fences, I can just go into the river. In fact I thought this was such a great idea that I hugged the very edge of the water anyway, going in a wide arc from and to the path leaving a shingle bay between me and the cows. Those grazing at the grass by the field side of the shingles looked up quizzically and seemed to side eye each other – just look at this moron.

A final bend and a hill saw me shake off the course of the river, and I sauntered through the colourful and sweet village of Maxton. I say saunter but the day was warming up, and I covered up in sunscreen again, stopping by an old fashioned water pump with some gargoyle like face to re-fill my water.

The backpack always feels so damn heavy when its just had 2kg of water re-added to it. In the summery vibes, with my clothing pared down, the weight of the pack felt a lot more than it did when I had three more layers between me and the shoulder straps. I ended up rolling up the puffy and threading it under them, giving it back some cushioning. I had actually brought along a spare water bladder, capable of holding another 2kg but was starting to suspect that even if I needed to use it, I probably wasn’t going to.

A section of road walking gave way to Dere Street. Not an actual street as we know it, but a dead straight path where a Roman road once tramped all the way from York to at least as far as the Antonine Wall. It would have been then, as it is now, primarily a footpath. Our mate Cuthbert would almost certainly have used it.

The Synod at Whitby

At a time when Christianity was taking a more organised shape in Britain, there were two interpretations – the Celtic interpretation and the Roman one. It was at the Synod that King Oswald of Northumbria decreed that he and his realm would follow the Roman version of Christianity, and not the Celtic one popularised by the monks on the west coast in Iona.

All this really was was deciding which date Easter should fall on, but this was all quite a big deal. The Venerable Bede still had his reservations about the authenticity of the decision as the ‘Roman’ date is actually the Alexandrian calculation. If anyone at the Synod realised this, it was probably wise they kept quiet as it was an argument that had gone on for too long already.

However, it was one of main councils that took place throughout Britain at the time that would see the Island’s religion organise itself. Some see it as subjugation to Rome, but it probably would have happened without any Roman interference. The Celtic version of Christianity was hardly old or settled itself and many of the Ionan monks had taken to the Roman calendar already. It bound the Northumbrian monasteries and other religious institutions in the area to be governed by Lindisfarne, and it was this version of Christianity and its calendar that Cuthbert preached.

Those Celtic monks were quite the walkers and covered a shed load of distance in between their placements and on their various evangelistic quests. These 63 miles along the border where the trail sits would have been nothing to them. They didn’t set out particularly prepared, and, if you ask me, developed far too much entitlement to the generosity of strangers. St Aiden was famously gifted a horse, but was apparently horrified that arriving anywhere on horseback made him look too grand and not quite meek enough so he gave it away. So now he looked meek again, but depended once more on the kindness of others. Good going Aiden.

Dere Street tracked through woods, lush and bright, and through long grasses and into more woods. It was here I bumped into a westbound hiker, this one heading eventually for Cape Wrath. An Australian; he hadn’t quite expected the Scottish sun to be so vicious and had burnt the backs of his knees, now having to cover the tender skin with leggings. Between now and the five weeks it would take him to get to Cape Wrath, the weather could change several times. My own pale legs, in their shorts, with as much sunscreen as the skin could carry, were frayed up already by the nettles on the golf course and the odd stray stone. Long distance walking is not an exercise that really helps you get beach ready – sure, you’re ripped at the end, but your skin is a spongy mess of many bruises and small altercations with nature where nature won. That beautiful bastard always wins.

He carried on, hoping to reach St Boswells (it had already been a long day) and I went on my way towards Harestones. I was starting to get a bit tired and hungry and quite fancied a sit down and a drink that was actually cold. Having re-learned my lesson on the Cumbria Way about actually eating enough, I was fully ready to splurge the cash on a sandwich.

Lilliard’s Stone

Along Dere Street, there is a stone that commemorates the bloody battle at Ancrum Moor in 1545. This was one of the many battles that made up the ‘Rough Wooing’ following England’s break from Rome and their attempts to both weaken Scotland, and to force an allegiance of marriage between the infant Mary, Queen of Scots to Henry VIII’s son Edward. The Scots did not like this plan.

An apocryphal tale told to sum up the determination of the Scottish defiance, tells of a person (sometimes a woman, sometimes a man) called Lilliard (and variations thereof) who carried on fighting the English even after their legs were cut off. Apparently using the removed legs as weapons in some versions.

As completely as the tale sums up the Scottish spirit, the name ‘Lilliard’ for the original stone had been in use long before and the person likely never existed. However Scottish fearlessness did win that day; the English lost 800 men and the remainder were forced to flee through the hostile countryside.

It would be three or four more miles before I got to the woods around Harestones. Fat, vibrant flowers in all shades of purple, sat like amulets on the bushes and the route got more refined as I entered the family friendly area around the visitors centre; lovely benches, cute shelters, signposts for walking trails just for the kids. Problem was I wasn’t exactly looking family friendly myself – it was just a day and a half of walking but already I was as pungent as a teenager’s bedroom.

I had expected Harestones to feel a bit more ‘walkers are welcome’ than ‘artisanal village’. I definitely seemed to be the only obvious hiker among the nicely dressed families floating around the gallery and the made up couples entering the gin distillery. I uncomfortably got in a queue outside a cafe stand as the woman in front brayed to the owner for ten minutes about her child’s medical issues oblivious to anything or anyone else. The child wasn’t old enough to realise he should be cringing yet, but give it time.

I was finally able to get close enough to squint up at the board. It was one of those places that was just too bougie to serve a sandwich in actual slices of bread, no, they were all in toasted pitta breads because loaves are just trashy. I looked in horror at the sad, meagre, little flippers that were being passed out as ‘sandwiches’ and was suddenly torn between staying and continuing on to Monthooly. Hunger got the better of me and I begrudgingly ordered a sad little flipper of my own. For three pound fifty it wasn’t nearly substantial enough. I could have eaten six. Screw this place, I was going for a second lunch.

I blazed away from Harestones, through the rest of the gentrified forest, and over a jingly jangly suspension bridge over the Teviot river. The midday sun way starting to beat down and the exposed sections of grassland quickly became wearisome with not enough food in my belly, but I directed my grumbling at the audacity of the Harestones cafe and not at the trail which was, in reality, quite lovely. The colours that adorned the fields had not yet lost their novelty or their edge and this new river was wide and deep and happy. I would later learn it was highly susceptible to flood and regularly caused ridiculous amounts of damage, but it wasn’t flooding now.

The trail had me clamber over a road barrier to get onto Jedfoot Bridge where I turned, determined, into Monthooly and was able to bag the last lunch order of the day there. A plate piled high with fishcakes and a pint glass to the rim with diet coke all under an umbrella and I was a happy lass. Of course I would tip generously. I strongly believe that if businesses are going to accommodate smelly, dirty hikers with grace and friendliness, then at the very least we can fork over thirty percent extra.

But now I was in a pickle. My original plans had been to camp in the woodland where the trail turned away from Dere Street, but it was so early and that just seemed premature. I had marked another potential place further along by a stream, so I supposed I should head there and see what was happening. Happily replenished, I stomped onwards, up into the woods and eventually left the Roman road. I deliberately dawdled my pace as the woodland gave way to grassland and swerved uphill by more lovely waterways. I saw the space I had marked for the second potential camp but found myself just continuing to walk. It was fairly soon that an alarmed voice in my head tried to order me to just stop! But, I just didn’t want to, not yet. A couple more hours of weaving my way in a lovely daze, ignoring the voice of reason, saw me suddenly out on moorland with seven in the evening approaching. Oh no, moorland camping isn’t very discreet and I only then took note of how much my legs just wanted to stop.

Dotted around the moor by the trail was bursts of forest. Excellent. Except these weren’t lovingly maintained forests or gentrified forests like near Harestones; these were clearly really ancient forests, where the floor sagged and bounced above centuries of rabbit holes and mossy growth and the roots of trees, both alive and long deceased, all knotted and lovingly twisted together. Even with the best will in the world, there was no flat area for a tent plus, it felt like I was invading a place of old intimacy that I could never live long enough to relate to. Eventually driven by my body’s own demands to stop, I settled at the edge of one of the groves, on the moorland. The Cheviot hills swooped up against the far skyline to my right as the sun started lowering to my left. Once again I sat and waited to make sure the day was done here.

On setting up my tent, I performed the necessary tick check, pulling out three of the tiny nymphs from the back of my knees. In recent years, the rising numbers of deer has made Lyme Disease a very real thing again. The deer ticks are small; the size of a poppy seed, and easily missed, but doesn’t it just add to the glamour of all this backpacking nonsense?

Happily tucked up after another happy day, I took another look out my tent flap at the Cheviots, far away on the horizon. That was where I was aiming for tomorrow. It would be a long day and I would need a long sleep. No lusty badgers tonight thank you very much.

  • Distance: 19 miles
  • Ascent: 380m
  • Terrain: Footpaths, woodland, and quiet road
  • Toughness: 3/10
  • Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: St Cuthberts Way

Day T-1: Melrose to Bowden (4 miles)

Day 2: Cessford Moor to Auchope Hut (18 miles)

Day 3: Auchope Hut to Wooler (12 miles)

Day 4: Wooler to Beal (13 miles)

Day 5: Beal to Lindisfarne (3 miles)

6 thoughts on “St Cuthberts Way, Day 1: Bowden to Cessford Moor (19 miles)

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