‘Cuthbert himself would probably be bemused that anyone should want to follow in his footsteps literally, like the page boy in Good King Wenceslas’
Extract taken from The St Cuthbert’s Way: A Pilgrim’s Companion
By Mary Low
Published by Wild Goose Publications
St Cuthbert’s Way is not an ancient pilgrim route, but parts of it were probably walked by pilgrims in the past, and other parts would certainly have been known to Cuthbert and his contemporaries. From the seventh till the ninth century, visitors would have come and gone regularly between Lindisfarne and its daughter-house at Melrose, either on busi- ness or on pilgrimage. Cuthbert would have known the area intimately, from his childhood and from his pastoral journeys. He was a great walker: he had to be. There were very few roads here in the seventh century and it was easier to walk or ride than to bump along in a cart. The countryside was criss-crossed by a network of footpaths and bridle-ways and these are what Cuthbert would have used. We know that he could ride and sometimes he went on horseback, but more often he did the rounds of the villages on foot. Sometimes he would be away for a week, a fortnight, even a month at a time, living with the ‘rough hill folk’. Bede tells us that he made a point of searching out ‘those steep rugged places in the hills which other preachers dreaded to visit because of their poverty and squalor’. If he were alive today, he would probably visit people in towns and cities as well, but he knew from experience that beautiful scenery is no protection against hardship and he made it his business to understand and encourage people, especially if they were isolated or in trouble.
Where exactly did he go? We can only guess, but ‘steep rugged places’ within a day’s walk of Melrose would include the southern slopes of the Lammermuirs and the Leader valley, the Black Hill at Earlston, the Eildons, Teviotdale and the hills around Hawick, and above all the great mass of the Cheviots. From his days as Prior of Lindisfarne, he would also have known the Northumberland coast, parts of Berwickshire and the hills inland towards Wooler. As bishop, he travelled even further afield.
No one knows exactly which route he took between Melrose and Lindisfarne. Sometimes he travelled by boat. The rivers Leader, Tweed and Teviot are all mentioned in his early Lives. On one occasion, after several years living at Old Melrose, we are told that he ‘sailed away’ privately and secretly. This can only mean that he sailed down the Tweed. On another occasion, he sailed from Old Melrose to the territory of the Picts and got caught in a storm along the way. The nearest Pictish communities of any size were in Fife, with some in Lothian, so he probably travelled downstream as far as Tweedmouth, then north, along the coast, past Coldingham and Dunbar. For visiting the hill-folk however, he can only have gone on foot. It’s impossible to imagine him not using Dere Street, the old Roman road. It was the only reasonable road in the area and ran very close to Old Melrose. From Dere Street, he would have branched off onto larger pathways, sometimes along the river valleys and finally onto mountain tracks.
Personally, I don’t think it matters very much where he walked. Cuthbert himself would probably be bemused that anyone should want to follow in his footsteps literally, like the page boy in Good King Wenceslas. If anyone had asked Cuthbert about his ‘way’ he might have said that he did not have one, not one of his own. He did, however, have a way of life, the way of Jesus of Nazareth. And if he is listening from his place in heaven, he is probably delighted to know that people still want to follow that way, the way of faith and compassion. He might ask you about your way, what brings you here, what you hope for. He might delight or unsettle you by talking about God. But you don’t have to be conventionally religious to explore what this journey might be about for you. There’s nothing like putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, in all weathers, for putting you in touch with the things that really matter.
The St Cuthbert’s Way: A Pilgrim’s Companion by Mary Low is published by Wild Goose Publications, priced £10.99