St Cuthberts Way, Day 4: Wooler to Beal (13 miles)

I had woken at my normal early time and on finding my clothes not quite dry enough, had turned the heat up on the radiator and tried to get a couple more hours sleep. This simply resulted in having slightly less damp but still sweaty clothes, and now being sweaty already myself before I’d even started walking. I really shouldn’t have bothered.

Setting out at seven felt far too late and, knocked out of my routine, I was initially surprised to see other people out and about. An occasional dog walker passed, commenting on my supposedly early hour, as I made my way into Weetwood Moor.

The moor was known for its abundance of cup and ring markings; petroglyphs carved into the sandstone. These strange carvings consist of concave depressions, nicked into the stone usually surrounded by a pattern of concentric rings. This megolithic art is hard to date, and even harder to find reasoning for, Most are believed to be late bronze age, with earlier and later ones potentially having different symbolisms or uses but what those were we’ll never really know. It has been suggested that the carvings are actually a form of writing or mathematics that we do not have the knowledge to interpret. There is certainly an odd consistency throughout the UK sites to their form and structure.

I tried to fathom the person stood where I stood now, possibly six thousand years ago, chiselling these designs onto the rock and how much of the view, or even the moor itself, would have been the same. And whether in another six thousand years someone else would stand here and look at the same art and whether they would know even more about it, perhaps be able to read it, or whether whatever knowledge we already had would just be lost between now and then.

The Whitsun Tryst

An annual agricultural fair known as the Whitsun Tryst, used to be held on the moors on the third monday in May up until the 19th century.

The tale goes that it was often feared that it would attract the reivers, and indeed it did, but the Kerrs quickly abandoned their plans to lay in wait for whoever their latest enemies were and just joined in the fun of the fair. The merriment of the yearly event was clearly one that caused momentary peace in a fractious place.

I was back in grassy lowlands, ambling on paths taking their time around clusters of trees until the trail dropped to a road, crossed a bridge and started another arduous schlep of road walking. The later starting hour meaning I felt the heat more now and as it came in quick for the day, the exposed tarmac trudge was not ideal. Up the lane and past farms to eventually reach the Devil’s Causeway, another old Roman road, though much of this one has disappeared and what remains has been turned into tarmac.

As this would have been a patrol road, mainly for cavalry, it was laid in stone by the original builders. When the Romans vanished from the land and the Angles and Saxons arrived, they were familiar with building in wood, but not in stone, and were suspicious of this finely laid, extremely straight path, attributing its presence to the devil himself.

It was in turning into a gravel lane, that a car pulled up and two older ladies stepped out.

“Oh! A proper walker!” one cooed “We’re just part time!”

“Where are you headed?” I asked

“Lindisfarne!”

Now, I’m no gatekeeper, but these ladies were dressed in pressed, white linen trousers, one with a pashmina and another wearing loafers. As far as I could see neither were carrying waterbottles or backpacks. I chose to believe this was because they knew better than me about the path ahead, and knew that it was straightforward and that it was, in fact, myself that was overdressed. I quickly left them behind as they bade their driver farewell, faffed and giggled to each other. I hoped they’d find their way, but I wasn’t prepared to share neither water nor sunscreen.

The hard ground of the lane headed between two cowfields towards a burn. Mercifully, the animals were enclosed. Though they stared at me with their beady eyes, and we both knew they’d be killing me if they had the opportunity. I turned a corner and, there, sat on the side of the lane, was a pillbox.

It wasn’t the sight of the pillbox itself that made me stop, pillboxes are common sights throughout the country, left to grow over with weeds and moss at the sides of fields decades after being built as preparation, just in case, for an invasion of our shores. It was that in all my musings of war here at the border, everything from the ancient skirmishes with the Romans and the neighbouring kingdoms and neighbouring families, in a place where the history had never been far from war, I had not yet mentally caught up to realise that the warring didn’t end with the Jacobite rebellions. Fortifications were still being built last century. Same thing, different enemies, a new kind of violence. What next? Who would be the next threat to the borderlands?

The spring sludged somewhat out of my step as I rounded the pillbox to make my way to the burn and across. On my way up I came across the much instagrammed statue of St Cuthbert and, of course, took my own selfie.

I had just finished snapping my shot and turned back to the lane. I stopped. I stared. I squinted. I realised I had never seen a hare in the wild, in fact I wasn’t sure I had ever seen a hare at all, and here was one sitting in the middle of the road. Intellectually I knew it was a hare, but somehow my mind was still caught between ‘really gangly mutant rabbit’ and ‘odd fox with big ears’ by the time it noticed me and, nonchalant, leapt one slow, large, arcing leap, and another, until he was away.

He was just a hell of a lot bigger than I had expected.

St Cuthbert and the Otters

The otter at the feet of the statue allude to a tale of a monk sneaking out and following Cuthbert, as the newly appointed prior of Lindisfarne, to where he would walk at night on the beach.

The monk watched as Cuthbert stepped into the sea and, waist deep, fell into a deep, pious reverie, softly singing psalms until morning. On leaving the water, otters rushed up the bank and dried the saint’s feet with their fur. The monk, on witnessing the trust and devotion of even the otters in his new abbot, swore himself to secrecy and never muttered a word until Cuthbert had passed.

I’m not sure how effective wet otters would have been on drying wet feet, but the whole scene seems to have left quite the impression.

Up the other side of the valley, I now approached woodland in which was contained St. Cuthberts Cave.

See, the story of St Cuthbert didn’t end with his death in 687. His body was buried in the Lindisfarne Priory, but that would hardly be that. Eleven years after his burial, his sarcophagus was dug up, and his corpse found to be incorrupt – it had not decayed at all. Back then, this was one of the obligatory happenings for sainthood to be bestowed, and so it was that his escalation from venerated Bishop to Saint began,

His body only stayed re-interred until 875, when the Danes came to Lindisfarne and sacked the island, taking the monastery. On seeing the events unfold the monks dug up the sarcophagus of their now revered predecessor and left the island. That night, on having watched their home and island burn to the calls and whoops and shrieks of the Norsemen, they took refuge with the coffin in this cave. Exhausted and uncertain and frightened, on enduring the first attack by the Vikings on the British Isles, they had settled in for that night, not knowing what would happen or where they would go.

As it was they would travel for seven more years, carrying St Cuthbert’s coffin through the north of England as Vikings swarmed the rest of the land in devastating raids and sackings in an effort in install the Danelaw. The weary monks and Cuthbert’s coffin finally came to rest in Durham, and whilst his remains were transferred around the city a few times, they survived the Harrying of the North and the Dissolution of the Monastaries and now lie in Durham Cathedral.

The cave is within the woodland, fenced into its own grove. It is peaceful there, and calm. A natural sanctuary if ever there was one for a group of monks about to endure the seven year version of Weekend at Bernies.

Eventually it was time to carry on. Across a cowfield. I watched a man half a field ahead of me enter the cowfield and they just charged. He swung his arms and and shouted but they did not back off far. I froze behind the stile – if they react like that to this chap, how will they react to me? The cow infuriator. I yelled at the cows a few times from the safety of the stile to try get their attention away from him and I’m not sure if it worked or not, but he finally got enough space to make a beeline for the far fence and disappear. Only now, I had clearly put the cows attention on myself and there was nothing for it but to just sit here for a while until they got used to me or moved away. All but one moved away. I waited for the one, and waited some more, but tension was rising and eventually I threw myself over the stile and quick marched across the field, quickening my marching more on coming near to the far gate and hearing a fast clattering of hooves and the start of angry mooing behind me. I absolutely was not going to look back now and I hauled myself through the gate and slammed it quick.

Whatever was happening in the cowfield then, I didn’t notice, because here was my first view of the sea. Here, panting on the edge of the cowfield after a run for my life away from my mortal bovine enemies, I saw the sea.

I hadn’t really thought too much about reaching the coast or the distance or time it would represent and was suddenly spellbound. There in the distance, the blue skies gave way to blue waters that lapped a shoreline. I didn’t notice the other hikers approach down the lane behind me until they were close.

“Look at it!” I insisted “Isn’t it beautiful?!”

“It’s lovely” the one agreed. I happily turned to walk the trail, the way they had come from, but thought quickly to turn around.

“Watch out” I warned “Those cows are seriously mean”

They nodded, but I don’t think they really listened, and started undoing the gate. I didn’t want to watch the inevitible slaughter so I continued quickly away. Fenwick had to be close now, and Beal only a step away from that. Unfortunately now I was in the midday sun and, whilst the route took me into more lovely woodland, I was, frankly, now just impatient to end the day.

I blazed through the woods and wound around fields for another two and half miles, before plopping out at a lane to Fenwick. Beal could not be far from here, the coast was in sight! I had not reasoned on Ron Shaw deciding the last leg just had to be a winding one, and after a dash across a main road, his vision plunged the hiker into more curving field paths and, surprisingly, a hill or two that seemed to stretch on for miles and miles and miles. I noticed Lindisfarne appear on the horizon, but wasn’t about to stop for it because the view would be so much better when I finally got to Beal.

I came to an abrupt stop at a railway line. There sat a phone by the side of a stile and a somewhat alarming notice saying I had to call the signalman before crossing. I gingerly picked up the receiver and was gruffly greeted by a voice the other end.

“Um, I’m at…” I squinted at the sign “…Fenham Hill and I need to cross the track please.” Please? Like he was going to stop a train if you ask nicely?

“How many of you?”

“One”

“How long will it take?” I looked at the railway line, it suddenly seemed three miles wide. Was he asking that because a train would be there in five minutes or one? How much time should I give myself to avoid being squashed?

“…a minute?”

“Go now”

Go I went. Scrabbling over the stile and hurtling across the tracks to the stile on the other side. I flung myself to the ground, genuinely expecting a train to come barreling down the tracks that second. Of course, real life is rarely like in films, and that didn’t happen at all. I was half a mile away by the time I heard the next train.

Finally, it was just a left turn down another field and onto a footpath by a road and then I was in Beal. I was ravenous. I set myself outside the Barn restaurant, ordered a fish and chips and a very large cold drink, took a breath and finally looked out at the island. Small and flat, with the silhouette of the castle rising on the south side. It looked so ordinary from here, only three miles by one and a a half, and yet had been the site of the centre of Britain’s Christianity for centuries, had been a target of the Vikings and the Normans and the Germans. It had been pillaged, sacked, raided and burned over and over, and it had resurrected time and time again.

Cuthbert would have known the meaning of Lindisfarne better than we understand it today. Whether it comes from the Brittonic for ‘stream’, the Old Irish for ‘territory’ or the Old English for ‘traveller’ is unknown. After he died and the island started being associated with both himself and Saint Aiden, it was only then that it started being known as ‘Holy Island’, and whilst that name is still what the parish is recognised as, ‘Lindisfarne’ is used by travellers and pilgrims.

Whilst I had been abruptly determined not to be classed as a pilgrim, I was happy in this moment to be one. Not for Cuthbert, he had quite enough already, but for the extraordinary work of Ron Shaw and his dedication to creating this path so I might discover this incredible in between part of my own country. A part that might be likely to be restructured again should Scotland finally win a long awaited independence; not by sword and blood this time though, but by paper and referendum.

My fish and chips arrived, a plate bigger than my head. The sun was bright and my drink was cold. Tonight I would camp looking out at the island and tomorrow I would walk across the sands where so many others have walked before and see myself to the end of the path.

  • Distance: 13 miles.
  • Ascent: 360 metres
  • Terrain: good footpaths, woodland, tracks and minor roads
  • Toughness: 3/10
  • Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: St Cuthberts Way

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

Day 1: Bowden to Cessford Moor (19 miles)

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

Day 3: Auchope Hut to Wooler (12 miles)

Day 5: Beal to Lindisfarne (3 miles)

6 thoughts on “St Cuthberts Way, Day 4: Wooler to Beal (13 miles)

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