St Cuthberts Way: Information, Advice and Personal Reflections

Start: Melrose

Finish: Lindisfarne

Distance: 64 miles (103km)

Total ascent: 6,805ft (2,075m)

Traditional sections: (west to east over five days)

  • Melrose – Harestones, 15 miles
  • Harestones – Kirk Yetholm, 17.5 miles
  • Kirk Yetholm – Wooler, 13 miles
  • Wooler – Fenwick 12.5 miles
  • Fenwick to Lindisfarne, 6 miles
Map from St Cuthberts Way official site

For context to the below observations, opinions and advice; I backpacked solo self supported with five walking days including an alternative route via The Pennine Way and The Cheviot between Kirk Yetholm and Wooler. I am a petite woman in her early thirties with a maintained, high fitness level. I have extensive hiking experience and moderate but varied backpacking experience. I am reasonably confident in both navigation and first aid. Please take my report with the source in mind and adjust for your own prior experience, expectations and arrangements. I am, of course, open to all questions and will do my best to answer them appropriately.

Would I Recommend This Path?

St. Cuthberts Way is one man’s love song to an overlooked part of the country, from its bloody history to its beautiful hills. It’s a path that is constantly interesting and has something for the nature lover, the history buff, the architectural nerd and the spiritual seeker alike that both starts and ends in style and magnificence. It is not particularly challenging, and two of the days contain a fair bit of road walking which would likely de-prioritise it for those of us that relish more extreme paths, but I was certainly glad that I did not overlook the path on this point. There was much more to it than just another hike, and it certainly felt like a path designed with extreme care, enthusiasm and attention to detail.

I would absolutely recommend it. For those who want to be pushed more, the route detour I took into the Cheviots on Day 3 may suffice (if not a longer period designed on those hill paths), alternatively I came across a number of people travelling westward that were walking it as a first stage on their way across Scotland on their way to more taxing trails.

How Challenging is the Trail?

I feel it would be dismissive of me to state that it was ‘easy’ – it certainly begins with a far more instantly demanding push than many, and there are climbs and rocky paths that would definitely require more attention and strength in more difficult weather. The LDWA rates it as ‘challenging’ which I also feel isn’t warranted and may be off putting to those perfectly capable of completing it. Let’s go for an in between and call it ‘moderate’.

Would you Recommend it as a First Long Distance Path?

I think it is a perfect first long distance path. It is thoroughly waymarked to a ridiculously impressive standard, the path is extremely well maintained and, perhaps apart from the time in the foothills of the Cheviots, is never too far from civilisation to make an exit for a rest or an emergency. In other words the challenges associated with more wild or extreme paths are not ones that one might find here and there is a lot that a novice backpacker would be reassured by, even if the variety of the path itself may seem daunting.

The path itself travels by rivers, through forests, over grassland and pastures and dips in and out of hills. It isn’t a boring one by any stretch, and it finds its way by historical ruins and spaces that make each day a series of interesting and curious waypoints.

I think it is a beautiful introduction to long distance walking, but definitely should not be dismissed by those more experienced either.

How Long is the Path?

The traditional route is 63 miles (the route I have written up is 69 miles)

What is Accomodation Like?

On my time on trail, I wildcamped on two nights, spent one night in a bothy, one in a hostel and then one on a campsite. I also, thanks to the generosity of my parents, spent a night on Lindisfarne itself in a hotel which is something I would really recommend. If you do hope to spend the night on the island, make sure to book well in advance as the small amount of accommodation books up fast and camping is forbidden on the island.

For those like myself that have a tent and prefer to camp, outside of wildcamping there are still plentiful campsites, most of which could easily be booked on the day or the day before. In this case the normal websites like campsite.uk and pitchup are somewhat useless and certainly did not list the amount of sites I passed. It is probably more helpful to contact nearby tourist information centres or ask on local forums and subreddits.

The LDWA lists a few hostels and bunkhouses. There are a fair amount of high standard hostels along the route in Melrose, Kirk Yetholm and Wooler. The one place I would suggest is more difficult for the person who prefers camping or hostels is Fenwick or Beal. There is a campsite at the Barn at Beal, where I stayed, but they have limited spaces, and the surrounding areas are not ideal for wildcamping. Many get a bus to Berwick Upon Tweed to stay in a hostel there for that night instead and return in the morning.

Once again, for those looking for hotels, guesthouses and BnBs, I am not a good resource, but I expect you have a decent amount of choice. Do book in advance for Kirk Yetholm; it is the start/end of the Pennine Way and can get busy with walkers and their supporters.

Can I Wildcamp?

In Scotland wildcamping is legal as part of the Right to Roam. In England, it is not. However, if you abide by the following general rules in England it is often overlooked.

  • Where possible, obtain the landowner’s permission
  • Solo or small groups
  • Pitch up as it is getting dark, leave early
  • Choose a space that is out of the way of main paths, is unobtrusive and discreet.
  • Be aware that where you choose to pitch is not an area of protected growth or where ecological restoration attempts are being carried out.
  • No fires. Definitely no fires sourced from trees in the area.
  • No music
  • Leave no trace. Understand that this encompasses more than just picking up your litter, it means leaving no impact. Nothing that will cause damage to the ground or surroundings, or disturb the environment (no fires, no music, pitch somewhere clear and unprotected). If you need the toilet, bury your waste and pack everything else out, this includes loo roll and female sanitary items. If this all sounds like effort, no fun and kinda icky to you, please don’t wildcamp.

How Easy is it Resupply?

Very easy. At least once, and often twice, a day you’ll be somewhere with a shop and a pharmacy. Sunday trading hours don’t affect Scotland, but do affect England. So if you are hiking on a Sunday either time it right or resupply the day before or after. There are also plenty of places to eat if you plan on carrying minimal food and dining in restaurants, cafes and pubs along the way.

How are Water Sources?

Apart from the day in the Cheviot foothills, water sources from taps are plentiful as you pass through many villages and it is unlikely that you’ll have to fill from natural sources. That being said, don’t get laid back about it or aim to carry less than 2L; there’s a lot of fairly exposed walking where the water goes quickly in hot weather.

What Should I Bring?

The only thing I would advise to bring in addition to your normal base pack is midge repellent. Of course, this is dependent on the time of year, but they can be hardy little bastards. It is best if you also treat your clothes and, if possible, your tent. Tick tools (and knowing how to use them) or tweezers are also advised.

What Guidebook and Map Do I Recommend?

I researched from two guidebooks – the Official St Cuthberts Guidebook and the Rucksack Readers Guidebook. I would absolutely recommend the former over the latter. Rucksack Readers may be cheaper, but it has no idea if it is an information book or a guide and then half arses both, the map isn’t a map at all – it’s just a pretty picture – and the whole book is kinda patronising. The tone is one that paints the path as so challenging that it might deter people completely capable of it, whilst at the same time misrepresenting it for those who really want something hardcore. Just don’t bother.

The Official Guidebook is written by the man that put the path together – Ron Shaw – and articulately gives all technical information and route details as well as wonderful and thorough historical and local information, all contained in a perfectly portable book (though RR does have the advantage in being spiral bound). The separate map it contains is actually such a good map, I probably didn’t need the Harveys XT40: St Cuthberts Way map.

Ultimately the path is beautifully waymarked and the amount of use a map might see is minimal to none. I’m just oldschool and like to know the exactitudes of the route. I would always recommend for a hiker to carry some form of physical map and a compass for the occasion that they might lose the trail. Whilst GPS and phone based map devices can be extremely useful, I am not personally happy with relying on navigational tools that will require charging and risk losing battery or breaking. But, at the end of the day, whatever you use, just try to have something as a backup to the waymarks.

For the alternative route I took to the Auchope Hut and Cheviot, I used Ordnance Survey Explorer OL16: The Cheviot Hills.

What Other Write Ups Would I Recommend?

There are less in depth write ups about St Cuthberts than there are other trails, but plenty still exist.

  • The long-standing and well respected Rucksack Rosie walked St Cuthberts in training for her Pennine Way hike and knows the area well. She mainly stayed in hostels, with one hotel and one campsite.
  • For a more entertaining and less technical approach, Sharon Gallagher does this well. She wildcamped and used campsites and a hostel.
  • Old hand Anthony Linick provides a bit of both entertainment and technical information whilst walking shorter sections. He stayed in BnBs.

For sources of information, both the official site and the LDWA are very thorough. For questions and queries, the good (yes I said good) folk down at r/UKhiking are a treasure trove of decent input.

When hiking and camping in Scotland, be familiar with the Right to Roam and the Access Code. Always follow the Countryside Code and leave no trace.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s