Day 55: Cuthbert
Kirk Yetholm to Jedburgh. 17.5 miles. Miles to date: 819.6.
Today’s walk had something of an Enid Blyton feel.
If the Famous Five had taken a sabbatical from solving mysteries on Kirrin Island and headed to the Scottish Borders for a walking holiday the picture-postcard landscape they’d have found was mine today.
Azure skies with cotton-wool clouds? Check.
Rivers warm enough to swim in? Check.
Quiet country lanes bordered by colourful hedgerows? Check.
Picnic on a meadowed hilltop? Check.
A remote ruined castle with the possibility of secret passages below? Check.
Teashop selling (lashings of) ginger beer and fruitcake? Check.
All I needed was for my B&B owner to be a certain M. Quentin and for there to be a gang of dodgy looking antiques dealers loose in Jedburgh to get the Blyton Bingo full house.
There’s a beautiful scene in Gary Ross’ Pleasantville where the greyscale world the characters inhabit explodes into colour.
It was like that waking today in Kirk Yetholm.
Sure, there have been splashes of sunshine during the 267 mile Pennine Way, but they have been few and far between. For the most part the walk has been an austerity of colour: muted greens, sullen yellows, peaty blacks. I’ve come to expect grey on the horizon. It felt like I left summer back in Derbyshire.
But today was one of those rare days when the vibrancy of the blue above is twinned with a perfectly cool breeze. I’d not felt warmth on my skin like this for weeks.
So it was that I bade farewell to Kirk Yetholm and bounced off into the Blyton countryside, spring in my step and a smile on my face as the next leg of my journey opened on the St Cuthbert’s Way.
The St Cuthbert’s Way is a long distance trail that runs from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Holy Island off the Northumberland coast.
It traces the possible steps – and celebrates the life of – St Cuthbert, one of the all-time holy greats, who graduated from monk to bishop and finally to hermit, spending his last years in a cell on Inner Farne.
I’ve followed in the footsteps of greatness before, on the tiresome Monarch’s Way (off with its head!). But while poor King Charles II chose to zig zag around a few nettled thickets, overgrown ditches and sewage works in England, Cuthbert had infinitely better taste, picking a connoisseurs’ route around the absurdly lovely Scottish Borders.
Verdant green lanes, hillside paths, riverside tracks, woodland trails and quiet country roads were the order of the day for a route I’d only heard good things about as I travelled north. Among those who’d walked Cuthberts there was but one complaint: more road walking than you’d normally ask from a trail. But there are roads and roads. I’d not walk the A1, but watching the countryside roll by from one of these backwater lanes is a different thing. I saw three cars all day.
Everywhere there was interest. Distant lakes. Pockets of woodland. Layered hedges. People swimming in the river. Families lazing on the village green. Bilberries and raspberries. Cessford Castle – an old frontier stronghold built from lovely old red brick – was the kind of place that would have an ice cream van and gift shop if relocated a hundred miles north or south; here – in this tourist hinterland – it stood in splendid isolation, happy with its own company.
Lovely green lane rising towards Crookedshaws Hill.
Meadows beside Bowmont Water.
Retrospective of the Cheviots.
A fine day on the Cheviots. They didn't look like that yesterday!
A waitress in The Border Hotel had told me I'd pass runners taking part in the annual St Cuthbert’s ‘Ultra’ Trail Race, a 100km insanathon in which athletes with a screw loose attempt to complete the Way in a single day. I assume the winner – if one even makes it to the finish line – gets a Cuthbert-inspired relic or something. A chalice or a mitre, say. “It’s going to be busy up there,” she told me.
The first of the runners passed me as I was sandwiching atop Grubbit Law. “Hiya!” he called out as he hurtled down the flowered banks. He was followed by two more in close pursuit.
After that the ‘runners’ came in a slow succession of ones and twos. I say runners; by this stage (40 or so kilometres into their endurance challenge) most of the runners were walking.
I’d thought for a while – to add a little gentle amusement to the day – it might be fun to give those who passed me some ironic encouragement by standing back as they passed, clapping loudly and shouting things like: “Not far to go!” (when there was still 60km ahead) and “Keep up the great pace!”
But it felt a bit mean. While the weather was perfect for the long distance walker, it must have been hell for the runners, who were starting to pass in increasingly noticeable states of sweaty decline.
Anyway, as it turned out I didn’t need to invent any time-passing amusements, as the runners started doing it for themselves by getting lost at petty much every junction.
First it was a couple of Preston lads up here for what they called “the social element of the race” (it was obvious they weren’t here for the running element). Instead of following the signpost into the woods, they headed straight on down a lane which – if I hadn’t hollered and told them they were going off course – would have taken them into a totally different valley.
A few minutes later I watched as another couple of guys spent 20 minutes trying to extricate themselves from a farmyard when the path clearly ran around its edge.
I came across groups of confused athletes at path junctions, on field edges and outside pubs. As the day jogged on I adopted a role of unofficial route steward, getting the sporadically appearing lost and confused back on track.
It wasn’t even as if the St Cuthbert’s Way was hard to follow. On the contrary; it was so well waymarked I'd put my phone away.
Regardless, everyone who passed me had a big smile on their face and was up for a chat, which made the day's 17 miles pass all too soon.
St Cuthbert's Way is amazingly well waymarked. This stile had three separate signs. The logo is the distinctive cross of St Cuthbert.
Runner in running shock.
The valleys were barely populated and were all enchantingly lovely.
Five miles in I was enjoying myself so much I thought about breaking Cardinal Rule #2 of my LeJog: No alcohol during the walking day.
As the village of Morebattle approached the germ of an idea was gaining traction.
The day was so fine, and the countryside so beautiful that it seemed almost wrong not to find a little village pub and sit in a beer garden to wile away a happy hour.
Besides, I was so knackered after finishing the Pennine Way I hadn’t really celebrated last night.
And I was in Scotland now, which was as good a reason as any to raise a glass.
How lovely, I thought, it would be to walk the remaining few miles in a lazy sunny haze, sung home by the skylarks.
What was the worst that would happen? I’d end up finding a mossy seat in a sheltered bower, or against a haybale, where I’d doze as the shadows lengthened and the pole star rose.
I was starting to see the glistening drips of moisture slipping down an ice cool glass in my mind’s eye when divine intervention came in the form of St Aiden's Church tea shop.
The small but perfectly formed teashop in St Aiden's Church.
Tea! How it should be done.
Funniest sign of LeJog to date.
Teapot Street. I loved Morebattle.
St Aiden’s is a church in the pretty village of Morebattle that last hosted a service in 1962. Since then – like many others – it has fallen into disrepair. But back in 2010 Richard and Margaret Pedersen had a dream: to turn the church back into a church.
So they bought the building and instead of making a quick buck by developing it into luxury flats, they have been working tirelessly ever since to give Morebattle a second place of worship but also, critically, to offer sanctuary to pilgrims walking the St Cuthbert’s Way.
Two things struck me as rather wonderful about their dream. Firstly they’ve been pragmatic – the first thing they did was build a little teashop into one side of the church which was doing a steady trade selling tea and cake to passing walkers.
Secondly, they’d hung a sign that read DAD’S SHED on the front of the church. Which was, frankly, enough of a reason for me to abandon my lager temptations and support a far worthier project instead.
My cup of tea and slice of fruitcake was fuel enough to take me the final few miles – through fields of golden corn and down shady wooded pathways – to my end point for the day, the fine Royal Borough of Jedburgh.
Country lanes. No traffic anywhere. No wonder they were in such a good state of repair.
I was loving this walk.
The ruins of Cessford Castle, one-time stronghold of the Ker family. Its defensive walls were four metres thick.
Welcome respite from the heat in one of many woodland thoroughfares.
There’s a problem with food in Jedburgh.
The problem being that there is none.
I go into two pubs: they’re not serving. The restaurants are closed. The only option seems to be the kebab house.
Which feels odd in a market town, population 5,000.
So I buy a pint of Tennents and ask what’s going on.
It is the day after the night before, I am told. Specifically, the hungover Saturday to Friday’s Callants Festival.
What is the Callants Festival? I ask.
The barmaid says something about Riding. I can’t make it out exactly as a band is playing Lynyrd Skynyrd to a beer garden of well-oiled locals out back.
(I try and find out more about the festival on the way to my B&B by asking an older gent who’s been out in town. He also says something about Riding and Investitures and Henchmen, which is all foreign to me. But even he’s fuzzy on the details. Finally, I go online and do some old fashioned research. But after spending the best part of ten minutes looking through the official Jedburgh Callants festival website I’m still none the wiser. What I can tell you is that on the Saturday night the main event is drinking until you need to either throw up in a doorway or get an early cab home, both of which I understand fully.)
Anyway, I ask the barmaid I can barely hear for eating suggestions. The best she can give me is the pop-up burger van in the funfair. (Maybe I could have candy floss for pudding?).
As it is, the B&B owner (not an M. Quentin) has a better idea. There is an Indian restaurant on the high street that I missed earlier which is not taking part in the festivities. So I head there.
Inside the restaurant is divided into two sections. There is the dining area, in which just two tables are occupied, and the waiting area for those ordering takeaways, that has the feel of a dentists’ lobby.
I tell the owner I’m after a meal for one.
He tells me to take a seat in the waiting room.
I do so, wondering why I couldn’t just take a seat at one of the many empty dining tables in the time honoured way. When in Jedburgh though, you do as Jedburgians do. (Do Jedward come from Jedburgh?)
After half an hour spent reading back issues of Horse & Hound magazine, I ask him when he thinks he’ll be ready for me.
“What are you doing here?” he asks as if he hadn't told me to sit down 30 minutes earlier.
“Waiting to eat.”
“You didn’t order take away?”
“No. You told me to sit down here.”
“No. Take a seat in the restaurant.”
So I go through. There is only one occupied table now. All the others are filled with piles of dirty plates, half drunk pint glasses and curry-stained face towels. He asks me to take a seat.
Soon the various eccentricities of the restaurant are explained: the waiter is also the manager, the potwash and the chef. He is somehow keeping on top of a busy takeaway and a less busy restaurant all by himself. It is a supreme performance for a one man band. And when the curry comes it is as good as any I’ve eaten on LeJog.
As I tucked myself into bed an hour later I wondered how many of the St Cuthbert’s ‘Ultra’ Trail Race runners had made it to Melrose. Very few probably. Instead the organisers would be picking up lost and stranded entrants from neighbouring valleys and counties for weeks.
I drift off to sleep dreaming about the pint that got away.
Runners getting lost. On the horizon is the Wallace Monument.
Jedburgh. A lovely town.
Next: Day 56 – Jedburgh to Melrose.
Previous: Day 54 – Byrness to Kirk Yetholm.