Presence and precedent

It wasn’t until day two of the pilgrimage that I got a moment to myself to log an entry in my journal.

My first epistle stems from Wooler bus station where a Borders Bus has just pulled out of the terminal. On one such vehicle, my journey began, after two trains from Glasgow to Edinburgh then Edinburgh to Tweedbank, carrying me to Melrose Abbey – the start of the St Cuthbert’s Way.

Day 1 – Melrose to Yetholm

The Abbey is a Historic Environment Scotland monument and it’s always strange to see the green tartan waistcoats in a context you’re not used to. I think to myself, is the HES that they know the same one I do?

The monastery itself was closed to the public as there was high-level maintenance going on. The grounds were open nevertheless and I got a good look at the ruin from the perimeter. Seeing the medieval structure like this in a partly crumbled condition makes me appreciate the completeness of my own workplace, the 13th-century built Glasgow Cathedral.

I had little time to gawk and dawdle, however, as I was scheduled to complete not one but two legs of the Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose to Kirk Yetholm, right on the West/East Scottish border with England.

Harris-fenced Melrose Abbey

I set off from the Abbey at about 11 am. The first 20 minutes were light showers. Good start, I thought. It seemed I was the sole pilgrim today, although there was a group outside the museum suspiciously kitted out in hiking gear.

Luckily after this light spattering, the rain stayed off for most of the day. In fact, it was perfect walking weather – slightly overcast and a fresh breeze; conditions I can thrive in.

Because I was aiming to complete two legs in one, I took more direct routes at times to get to Yetholm before the hostel check-in time ended. At one stage I took a wrong turn on my alternative route to Harestanes – my halfway point. Having passed a dogwalker on my confident stride along the wrong road, I faced the humiliation of turning back and meeting him again. It turns out I needn’t have worried; he pointed out that just round the corner, in the direction I had been going before my about-turn, was the correct route to Harestanes, cutting through the forest via a gap in the dyke. It was a beautiful woodland path that I might have missed otherwise, totally bereft of human habitation and populated with diverse flora, particularly wild garlic whose smell was unmistakable.

Nature, I am in you.

Another example from earlier on in my journey of an attempted off-route shortcut was when I tried to avoid walking along the main road by cutting across a field. On the Scotland part of my cross-border route, I wanted to take advantage of my land access rights by virtue of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 Pt 1. This was a foolhardy endeavour because the perimeter was surrounded by an electric fence and the “shortcut” did not expedite my progress in the slightest.

It was only after finding the woodland path immediately preceding Harestanes that I learnt to surrender to the Way-posts and let them guide me. From then on, I largely ditched maps and apps for signage and my newly purchased compass to check the general direction.

After Harestanes was definitely the more arduous leg, not only because of fatigue but also the lack of features to give one a sense of progress. One of the worst stretches was along the seemingly interminable main road to Morebattle. Worse still was that I had expected to find a shop to bolster supplies and get something sugary to drink, which I did not find – the community shop had shut an hour earlier. The only thing open was a pub, which I filled my waterbottle up in. Though I longed to stop here I couldn’t afford to linger if I were to make the cut-off for check-in at the youth hostel.

The shut shop of Morebattle

Shortly after this came the all-time low of the pilgrimage, the battle post-Morebattle. The rain returned, and not the light stuff of the morning but big fat soaking droplets. Half an hour in and I was ready to hitch a lift. I felt no competing urge to complete the walk for its own sake. I was ready to be conveyed directly to my goal.

The problem was that this was when I realised how rural the Borders really is. The roads were desolate. Barely a car drove past and most in the opposite direction. Orkney is far less rural than this. The population must be very sparse. I had seen an advert to set up a community council in Morebattle; attached was a notice stating the plan had collapsed due to a lack of applicants.

I eventually made it to Yetholm. In the village, there are thatched cottages that look very English to me. Do people really live there? I wonder. Their rooves are getting tested tonight. I stop to take some photos and press on to the hostel.

The place is run by a couple, Tony and Helen. They and two fellow pilgrims make me feel very welcome, although I’m not an eloquent interlocutor initially due to utter exhaustion after having logged more than five times my Garmin step goal in one day.

John, in his sixties, is also doing the St Cuthbert’s Way, although he stayed in Jedburgh last night so didn’t have the double leg, I inflicted on myself. Cat, maybe about 30ish, is doing a cycling tour of the Borders/Northumberland area. The former is naturally economical and prefers inexpensive holidays, the basics are all he needs. The latter sometimes volunteers for hostels and is keen to hear news from “the scene” via the couple who spend four months out of 12 away from home in their retirement vocation.

The hostel is part of the European Friends of Nature network. Or should I say, Naturfreunde? because it has German origins. A map from the 80s says something like “Nature knows no boundaries” – it still features West Germany. Perhaps there is at least one conceivable frontier.

In the night, after we’ve retired to bed, two lads from (it sounds like) Glasgow arrive back from the local pub. I’d decided to stay in and shared a basic but much-needed meal of tuna pasta with Cat. The next morning, I would visit the shop to stock up on provisions.

Day 2 – Yetholm to Wooler

At breakfast, John asks me why I’m doing this pilgrimage. I explain that I’m doing it because my friend from university who passed away at the start of the first lockdown walked the Way between exams and graduation, and I wanted to do something in tribute to him. “That’s a real reason,” he says.

The night before Cat had mentioned “Warm Showers” – a European overnight stays for cyclists network. Charles had used this on his epic tour of Europe by bike the summer before I met him.

In the Yetholm shop, they are discussing the distressing events of last night. A walker was seen acting suspiciously around the thatched house opposite. Was he trying to break in? What’s his business disturbing the elderly at that hour (7pm)? Look at the footage. I look at the footage. It’s me on CCTV. It could be me. Well. That resolves that then. I was taking a photo because I thought it looked unusual and out of place. Mistrust of vagrants is alive and well in frontier villages.

An incriminating image

Loaded with provisions I depart for Wooler. This time I should arrive mid-afternoon. Yetholm to Wooler is wild. There is nothing in between.

Trail runners zip past beyond the halfway mark and the accents change over the wall marking the border. So too does the land access law. Instead of the right to roam we have “public bridleways”, “permissive paths” and “access land” which ends abruptly as it begins. Here “trespassers will be prosecuted” and “standard security” is just the name for a CCTV system.

On the border

Wooler is the towniest town I’ve been to so far on my journey. A townhall clock chimes the hour. There are several busy pubs and something resembling a central square. I visit one such establishment for a good feed after I check into the hostel.

Enquiring about what kind of beer the Farne Isle ale is, the barman recommends the bitter then says get a pint of each – get pissed lad, there’s nowt else to do! I’m inclined to disbelieve him. Wooler has the most life of all the settlements on my journey thus far. There’s bingo in the pub, which everyone takes deadly seriously, though they have a good laugh in between rounds.

I get a sense of Verfremdung sitting there at my single table with my gigantic portion of lasagne and chips (steak and ale pie was off), which despite a valiant attempt, I cannot finish. This is the England I have known all my life but at a distance, on-screen and almost unreal. Yet here it is. To participate would be to destroy the scene. It is perfect in its self-contained, self-referential universality. These are a people who do not cringe at their mother tongue whose ancientness is worn proudly on their sleeves. And yet, it is not worn, it’s an unshed-able waterproof skin. Unlike the Scots who will trade a gansey for a jumper when it suits or breeks for trousers when require, the tongue of the Woolerians remains steadfastly Northumbrian. That is, apart from the cockney bingo-caller – an odd intrusion into the Woolerverse, but one, as I alluded to before that seems to confirm the ur-Englishness of the place in a peculiar way.

A quotation I found at the Wooler Youth Hostel. I like a bit of Ivor Cutler on occasion

Day 3 – Wooler to Lindisfarne

My third entry is written on the morning of Day 4, an addendum to the pilgrimage proper. I’ve stayed the night at Berwick-Upon-Tweed, having reached Lindisfarne the previous day.

Almost everyone I’d come across on the pilgrimage whom I’d told of my intentions said to beware the tide at Lindisfarne. Suitably scaremongered, I set off early to avoid any chance of being swept away by the North Sea flooding in.

I managed to keep to the official route right up to about St Cuthbert’s Cave. It was a steep ascent to get up there, but I caught up with a displaced German lady, her two boisterous blond children and their dog who kept me company during the climb. She suggested I take a right and visit the impressive Felsen. Unfortunately, I had to disappoint her and say I was in no mood for detours at present. She warned me of the tides, told me of cars getting “flushed away” and bid me good day.

At the cave, I met the two guys, who I was later to learn came from Paisley, and who were doing the route on the same schedule as me. They were just heading off as I sat down for a bit of a break before my next landmark – the village of Fenwick. Supposedly the Cave is where the relics of Cuthbert were sequestered after the Viking raid on Lindisfarne at the end of the 8th century. Many have carved their names into the rockface here. Quite a few from the 1800s.

The approach to the Cave

My next point of significance was unexpected. Just a few hundred metres further on was a rocky mound with a crude wooden cross made out of tree branches on top. Out of curiosity, I decided to approach the summit. When I made it, I was hit with a wave of emotion I was totally unprepared for. This was my first glimpse of the final destination – after two days inland, the North Sea and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

From there I veered off slightly because many routes met and diverged from there, but I eventually got back on track and managed to find Fenwick. My penultimate stop before the island was a service station off the A1 where I got a Costa coffee and ate my lunch.

Going through Beal and over a level crossing, I finally arrived at the causeway. For a few hundred metres I did as is supposedly the tradition and took off my boots to walk barefoot on the sand.

It must be said I underestimated how long it would take to make it to the priory from the coast. In my imagination, I had the idea that it might be similar to the Brough of Birsay, but in reality, it was a good hour, if not more, to reach the ruins at the far end of the island. I resolved to hitchhike back – cars cross this causeway and in large numbers.

On my approach, I met the two guys from Paisley sitting outside a café. I went over and they said they’d booked a taxi to Berwick for 5, and I was very glad to tag along. This meant I had about an hour and a half on the island.

The first statue I saw was not of St Cuthbert – the quasi-official end of the pilgrimage – but St Aidan, founder of the abbey. To find Cuthbert I had to enter the ruins properly. The lads had told me they (English Heritage) would let me in for free if I told them I’d just done the Way. That didn’t work; I got a well done but would still have to pay. I had another card up my sleeve, however, my Historic Scotland staff pass, which did allow me gratis entry.

Again, after the initial joy of reaching the end, I felt a sadness for what was missing. I recognised the tufty, sandy mounds on my approach from that first episode of Vikings, which I like for its use of old English for the monks and new English for the raiders, setting up our perspective on the scene. Nothing structurally remains of that raided abbey – it was mostly wood and has rotted away. There are artefacts, most notably the Lindisfarne gospels, but the stone walls and arches are mostly from the 12th century.

I find St Cuthbert’s statue, not before having my picture taken by two ladies in their 60s who have also completed the Way (I offer to take theirs too). It is sort of ghoulish and scary compared with Aidan’s proud, uplifted confidence.

What I don’t find at the end of the pilgrimage is something hard to define. It’s not the neat tying of a bow or the sustained final chord of a symphony’s last movement. I visit the church adjacent and find a building that is an echo of the Surrey kirkyard I came to on 1st November 2020, his birthday. This time there is no pre-recorded sermon but towards the east end, just before the choir, is a foil tray to catch the wax of a dozen or so tealights. I don’t strike a match – that seems too extravagant – but lean the wick of a fresh candle to one already lit and place it there, as I did that day.

By undertaking a pilgrimage, you are participating in a tradition going back more than a millennium. But you’re also committing to the present as well as precedent. You’re signing up for pain, discomfort, bewilderment (in more ways than one) but most importantly – whatever you find along the road. This sense of radical openness to experience was one of the greatest lessons Charles showed me through the example of his adventures. It is this I wish to carry with me through life as part of the legacy of a remarkable human being.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
This entry was posted in Life, Personal experience and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Presence and precedent

  1. Pingback: (Re)tracing my steps | Flett-cetera

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