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April 23, 2010

Saint Cuthbert - and the Pilgrimage Addiction: Lincoln Allison walks from Melrose to Lindisfarne

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Last year we walked coast to coast, roughly along the "Wainwright" route and I remarked that it was a very sociable experience, comparable to the Canterbury Tales. In retrospect, we acquired the taste for walking long distances. For me, it is a kind of drug which takes you out of normal existence. The urgency and simplicity of the task - follow the route, reach the destination, avoid or protect the blisters - drives all the normal constraints and negotiations from the mind. It is in some respects like my hitch-hiking youth, when nothing mattered apart from surviving, finding food and water, getting there. We had to do it again.

We chose St. Cuthbert's Way, which runs from Melrose in Scotland to Lindisfarne in England, a supposed distance of 65 miles, to be walked over four days and requiring five nights accommodation. But there is no question that with diversions and meanderings and the need to find our accommodation we walked over eighty miles. The route links the two places most associated with the saint - Melrose Abbey, where he became a monk and Lindisfarne Priory where he was Prior before retreating to a more contemplative life on the Farne Islands south of Lindisfarne. Fancifully, one may imagine oneself to be walking in the steps of St. Cuthbert, though most of the time this is probably not the case. The Way crosses into England through one of the most charming international boundaries imaginable: a dry stone wall, high on a Cheviot ridge, a stile and a small carved wooden notice which says WELCOME TO ENGLAND.

The comparison with the previous walk is inevitable and the contrasts are strong. Whereas on the C2C we met people all the time, here we met no other recreational walkers for the first two and a half days. We met three local dog-walkers, all effusively friendly. I don't know where the "dour" Scots live, but it isn't in the Borders. Otherwise, it was man and wife, alone on the path, following each other through every kind of woodland, through many acres of wild garlic (ramsons, to give it its traditional English name), along the cliffs above the Tweed and up onto the high fells.

The following, in Scotland at least, was remarkably easy because this is the best signed path I have ever seen; in fact, on a clear day - and the weather was splendid at that stage - you could follow it without a map from post to post, each one marked with a Celtic cross. This is quite different fro the C2C where there are often no signs at all and it did deteriorate once we reached Northumberland. There was also a problem in some woodlands: not enough walkers to beat a clear path and no use of the French system of a dab of paint on the tree.

The wildlife was prolific. Chiefly, the amount of game was extraordinary; an hour out of Melrose, over the Eildons, we had already seen grouse in a profusion I hadn't seen in years, fat, lazy pheasants and woodpigeons by the dozen, lots of rabbits and deer skittering through the woods. Later we were to see big hares bounding through the fields and wild goats among the Cheviot gorse.

The average European peasant with his shotgun would have thought he'd died and gone to heaven if let loose upon this Way. And that is because it is a land which had no revolution, where the peasants never got their rapacious hands on aristocratic privilege and where the late Sir Alec Douglas-Home's description of the best day of his life consisted of a two page entry in the game book.

It is hardly worth listing the inedible creatures, though, as a former child bird watcher, I enjoyed seeing yellowhammers, goosanders and a golden plover for the first time in years. There were also plenty of adders sunning themselves on the English side of the hills, we were told, though we never actually saw one.

If the question is, "Has there really been an improvement in British food?" the C2C answer would be "Not really" because there is far too much lazy, easy money catering for tourists who have no choice and will not return along that route. But you could recommend St. Cuthbert's Way as a gastronomic tour if our experience was anything to go by. On four of the five nights we ate in places proud of their fresh food and local sourcing. There were excellent venison, bacon and lamb, but my personal highlights were all fish: Eyemouth Cullen Skink in Kirk Yetholm, kippers and fresh crab on Lindisfarne. Innkeepers delighted in talking about the farmers and fishermen who supply them and the keen young chefs who cook for them. I learned, for example, that diners in Lindisfarne have shown a consistent aversion to crabmeat which is removed by machine.

This was much better eating than in the three national parks crossed by the C2C chiefly, I suggest, because the Northumberland National Park is England's least populated and least visited and hostelries in and around it have to please local regular customers. It was also better, I must insist, than eating in France these days and not only because real beer and fresh vegetables were on offer. In the pub-restaurants of the Anglo-Scottish border you can usually find a decent bottle of Antipodean wine for around 10, in sharp contrast to the ridiculous prices most restaurants in France charge for very mediocre stuff.

The exception, gastronomically as in other respects, was the town of Wooler in Northumberland. Part of the philosophy of travel is that you put up with what you find on the way and that when you stride down from the fells into a small town you accept that it might be quite unlike the last town you were in. Jedburgh, for example, on a Thursday night was the quietest place I have ever been: there was nobody in the streets, no other guests in the guest house, no other customers in the restaurant and just three oldish men in the pub. If you are looking for the peace that passeth all economic understanding then try Jedburgh on a Thursday night.

Wooler on a Saturday night, however, had nothing to offer by way of food other than good old-fashioned grease 'n chips and rocked and rioted into the early hours all around our bedroom. Interestingly, when I remonstrated with the local populace in my dressing gown the men were much more sympathetic than the women.

The particular problem at this stage was the nature of our destination, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne because we had to get up very early to cross the sands before the tide came in. There was absolutely nothing romantic about the journey to the island because it had been raining for ten miles as we trudged the three miles across the causeway. But when we got there, the sun came out, the tide came in, the day visitors had gone home and we had to ourselves the priory and the castle and the long views of islands and mountains.

The faults of the St. Cuthbert's Way are that it can deviate and zig-zag infuriatingly and that too much of it - about 25% - is on roads, though there is no traffic on these roads. Serious hill-walkers might find it frustrating because you can see the snowy slopes of the Cheviot much of the way and of the Lammermuirs behind you but you never get up there. On the other hand, the view from Wideopen Hill, at the northern tip of the Cheviots, is one of the finest you will ever see and you do climb the equivalent of two Scafells in total.

The glory of the Way is the variety of the landscape, the combination of wild and pastoral. Somewhere in my mind is an image of the Cheviots and the borders as a continuation of the Pennines as I know them, but the reality is often softer and more opulent, more like the Cotswolds than the Pennines. There are beautiful woods and parklands, much cultivated land, rich beech hedges and wild fruit bushes, all evidence that this eastern side of the hill country is drier and more sheltered than the hills I am accustomed to. Above all, there is the reminder, to those who live in the more populated parts of Britain, that there is another version of our country if you want it, older, quieter and more spacious.

Our walk took place during an election campaign of great complexity and uncertainty - and, arguably, of great importance. Yet nobody we met or heard in the hostelries we were in ever mentioned politics and the number of cars and houses which signalled a party affiliation was a small fraction of 1%, all of them Liberal Democrat.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

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