Introduction: I've never written a blog about a walk before. So I'm not very sure how to do this. I want to include a lot of photos, some practical stuff (in case you want to walk this Way too, and some thoughts that I had while on the trip. As it turns out there might be quite a lot about feet.
Some basic information about the Way. It is 100 km (or 60 miles) long/short and stretches between Melrose and Holy Island (or vice versa). It is incredibly well waymarked throughout, and contains a real mix of terrain. The amount of road-walking has been reduced since the Way was launched, which is all to the good.
I remembered reading about the life of St Cuthbert in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People - and felt I had absorbed a lot about him through previous visits to Lindisfarne and Melrose. Given his affinity with animals I had always viewed him as like St Francis, but with less effective PR.
Summary of my experience? Incredible. Hot. Very very sore feet. Fantastic people. Not many people. Nice gins. Great finale.
Sixty miles doesn’t sound a lot (but 100 km sounds more) and the Way certainly isn’t long in comparison to more well-known routes such as the West Highland Way, the Pennine Way or the Southern Upland Way. But it would be a Big Deal Indeed for me – as the autumn’s enforced inactivity (detached retina) and then just General Laziness had reduced activity levels to zero beyond checking the sheep once a day.
I had originally planned to do this walk alone. It's one of my Big Goals for 2019: along with losing a specified amount of weight; getting some more Munros under my belt, a night wild camping and a night in a bothy. However, I've realised that it's good to have other people along for some of the time.
My main concerns about the walk in advance were:
1) having to walk so far each day that I had to rush and thus not be able to absorb where I was. So I made some quite short days and thought about where I wanted to spend more time.
I didn't always get this right. P weighed in later on and changed the route which meant we ended up with quite a long second day. But that’s okay as I made sure to remind him at regular intervals about whose decision it had been.
2) getting very wet. As it turns out not really a worry
3) having to carry too much - so I really thought about what (not) to take.
4) having to talk to people. We seriously considered making a 'Don't Talk To Me, I'm On A Silent Pilgrimage' card that I could wave at anyone I didn't like the look of.
I spent a long time thinking about the walk in advance: read up on it, read accounts of other people's walks, studied maps, spoke to a good few people who had walked the route, checked out the pubs and cafes along the route to ascertain levels 0f dog-friendliness in advance. Bought some new walking clothes from Mountain Warehouse and from Ebay (so I wouldn’t be mistaken for a vagrant) and broke in my newish Scarpa boots. Did lots of walks in the Lammermuirs and around the Tweed and Teviot. These are my boots. I love them. Despite all the pain and heartbreak on the Way. And my trusty old backpack (which is heavy even when empty, along with the St Cuthberts Way Cowl (which it was too hot to wear).
Melrose to St Boswells (1/2 day) Earworm of the day: Poor Man's Son by Kris Drever
I did this with P which involved the judicious use of two cars. Living so close to the start of the Way I preferred to return home at night for as long as I could. Would save on costs too.
The first day was Melrose to St Boswells - a short walk which broke us in to the route, and to the rhythm of walking. It was a very very hot day, but filled me with enthusiasm for the route ahead.
Given the presence of P, refreshment stops featured heavily and assumed great importance as regular breaks are essential to keep him going.
Parking in the centre of Melrose, we started out at Apples for Jam, a dog-friendly cafe which is open seven days a week. Well worth a visit. Had an amazing veggie breakfast and great coffee. Wondered if I was dawdling in the cafe on purpose.
The route from Melrose started from the square, up Dingleton Road and then took a left at the end of some houses and past someone's wheelie bins. From there it is an unrelenting climb up the side of the Eildon Hills.
There are LOTS of wooden steps which are covered in wire mesh which Hamish Dog hated, and then some bits of uphill path. It was hot, I was gasping for my life (or so it seemed) and I wondered if it was possible to just cancel the whole walk and just Never Mention It Again. I really can't do hills. It's a lung thing. i can walk for ever on the flat (feet permitting) but an incline is enough to turn me into a gasping wreck.
But the views back over Melrose and up onto the hill tops opened up quickly and the coconut scent of gorse was everywhere. Such a heady, head-filling, sweet sweet scent.
In quite a few pictures P is on the phone. It was a Sunday and Celtic were playing. It's Very Important to allow him to check the scores. :)
We could see across to the Lammermuirs on the far horizon. This is always good as the Lammermuirs are home and I referred back to the Lammermuirs whenever I could see them.
The waymarking is good - and for the first part of the walk we were sharing the signposts with markers for the Eildon Hills Path. The Borders has a really good network of paths centred on each of the main towns in the region. Yes I am still calling it a region ...
The top of the hills was filled with runners -it's a popular venue for races throughout the year, for people who are a LOT fitter than us. Clad in day-glo vests, they seemed to float over the slopes all around us - criss-crossing the paths and making it look so easy. I used to have dreams that I could run: it's something I've always wanted to be able to do. Dreams that see me tackle mile upon mile with ease, hurdling fences and hedges.
The tops of the Eildons are stunning but, as it was so so busy, we pushed on. At the saddle between Eildon Mid Hill and Eildon North Hill the view to the south suddenly opened up, with Peniel Heugh, Wideopen Hill and the Cheviot all visible. They seemed a long way away indeed. Impossible to think I would get there and beyond on foot.
The walk down the southern side of the Eildon Hills was beautiful, through heady-scented gorse and then straight, burly beeches, along an old path. I found a 'staff' and thought I would channel St. Cuthbert. I suspected he might have had a donkey for the steep bits. It was St Aidan who gave his donkey away, after all. No body mentions St Cuthbert doing the same.
A quick dip into a shady glen, then up a pink slope through trees (more steps, more mesh, more canine dischuffment) and across some open ground and down to Bowden.
Bowden was new to me. Tucked away behind the Eildon Hills with some friendly inhabitants. I stopped to chat to a lady who was out walking a very hot-looking golden retriever, and to another lady who was tending a friend’s garden. P waited by the well in the centre and checked the football scores again. I was smiling as we met up – this was what I had hoped the Way would be like – peaceful, restorative, time to chat to strangers...
The Cicerone guide to the Walk had suggested that we look out for Aird’s House. We didn’t see it but will visit at some point. However I liked the sign in the wee shelter, the well and the general look and feel of the place. Reminded me of Garvald where we used to stay, although it doesn’t seem to have a pub.
The Way took us down out of Bowden and along the Bowden Burn through some trees. Eventually emerging up above the valley and on the road to Whitelees Farm and cottages. Then a first spell of road-walking in the heat down the hill to Newton St Boswells. This spell brought us our first overtaking etiquette dilemma. Some people had overtaken us on the north side of the hills (at which point greetings were exchanged), then overtaken us again at the farm as I was re-lacing my boots. More greetings. Then we overtook them on the road (but only because they stopped for water). More greetings.
Now what? This was getting awkward and we were running out of new ways to say ‘hello’. The only thing seemed to be to stay ahead of them for the rest of the walk although this would probably not be easy. We stepped up the pace a bit and they closed the gap. At St Boswells, they headed into the village to find sustenance and we ploughed on.
I read somewhere that people had found it hard to find the signs through St Boswells but it didn’t seem difficult. Look for green signs on the walls of buildings.
We took a path down behind some houses and I managed to find another gardener to chat to. Everyone seemed bowled over by the amazing weather and it wasn’t even Easter yet.
The path took us under the A68 and it made me smile to think of all the times I’d driven overhead, not knowing the path was here. Sheltered beneath trees the path finally moved away from the Bowden Burn and we got our first view of the Tweed, the path rising and dipping along the river until we reached a viewpoint back up the river towards Melrose, and a welcome bench. At which point our pursuers overtook us again with a cheery 'hello'.
As we headed along the back of the Tweed Horizons Centre, the path stepped down to a road end at a bridge crossing the Tweed, and the place to head across if you wish to do the detour to Dryburgh Abbey. Some cars were parked up and people strolled about, walking dogs, exercising children and pushing buggies.
It was a bit busy for us, so we headed on along the path and eventually clambered up into the back of the main street in St Boswells, just along from the wonderful Main Street Trading Bookshop (and dog-friendly cafe) which is open seven days a week. Coffee and cake felt well-deserved (although we had only completed 7.5 miles/12 km) and managed to bag two wonderful books including The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel. Being able to read both of theses books ahead of the rest of the Way, enhanced my thinking about what I saw and the glorious trees and widlife which were to come.