WTH St Cuthbert's Way

Walking Through History ran for four seasons on Channel 4. Each episode follows Tony Robinson on a four day history themed hike. When we last checked in 2019, it was no longer streaming on the C4 website, but all the episodes were being streamed on UKTV and Amazon Prime.

This Quest follows Tony on Series 2 Episode 5, 'The Dark Age of Northumbria'. Despite its name, this episode is based around the life of St Cuthbert, loosely following St Cuthbert's Way (SCW). Hardly any of the places he visits are actually on SCW. We will flag the Quest Points anyway.

C4 and programme producers Wildfire Television want people to follow in Tony's footsteps. They published a route guide for each episode on the C4 website. Alas, the links were lost when C4 stopped streaming the series. We will make them available. Series 2 Episode 5 is here.

Tony starts at Melrose Abbey. It has nothing to do with St Cuthbert, having been built 600 years after he died. Rather, it is the best known surviving place near to where Cuthbert trained as a monk.

Melrose Abbey is a semi-sacred place to many Scots as the burial place of Robert the Bruce's heart and King Alexander II's body. We are more inspired by David Brewster, who is buried in the adjacent graveyard. He wrote the definitive study of Isaac Newton's papers. He was a notable inventor, whose best known innovations were the kaleidoscope and the first practical 3D stereoscope. He was a founder of the British Science Association, a friend of William Fox-Pitt and played a role in the deveopment of the camera. Sadly, he is remembered these days only as the ring leader against natural selection and evolution. It is a shame that his reputation has been  tarnished by a single mistake. We intend to make amends in a blog one day.

Tony takes the SCW out of Melrose towards the triple peaks of the Eildon Hills. He clambers up Eildon Mid Hill to the southwest of the Way. It was foggy on the day he went. When we were there, as he says, the fabulous view is 20 miles or more in every direction bar the northeast. The iron age hillfort blocking that view is one of the biggest in Scotland, with accommodation for roughly 2000 people.

Coming down the other side, SCW leads to St Boswells, where Tony spends the night at the Buccleuch Arms. Beforehand he takes a detour to Bemersyde (55.5922,-2.6486), a regular haunt of Sir Walter Scott. When Scott was there he used to ride up Bemersyde Hill to look out over Melrose and the borders. His vantage point is now known as Scotts View (55.6000,-2.6500). The walking route from SCW crosses the footbridge where it meets the River Tweed at Newtown St Boswell, passes the heinous Temple of the Muses statue, then heads north on the B6356. Half way up it passes close to the William Wallace Bemersyde statue.

The view from the layby at the top of Bemersyde Hill looks out over the bend in the river that used to house the original Melrose Abbey. This was where Cuthbert trained as a novice monk. Being Scotland, it is not illegal to wander around the location of the original abbey even though it is on private land. We don't recommend it. There is nothing left to see and it is on the other side of the river.

Next morning, Tony meets an archaeologist at Maxton Kirk (above), which is dedicated to St Cuthbert. They walk to Hares Well. The C4 Route Guide shows it near the cemetery. We couldn't find it. Tony is too busy to say but his route passes Lilliard's Stone (55.5397, -2.6044) and the site of the Battle of Ancrum Moor, where the Scots defeated an English army in 1545. Nearby is the Monteath Mausoleum (55.5336, -2.6151).

Just before the SCW emerges from Doivet Ha Wood, there is a path up to the 50m high doric column Waterloo Monument (55.52909, -2.54931) near the summit of Peniel Heugh. We understand from someone we met there that a key can be rented that provides access to a spiral staircase to the top. Unfortunately, we didn't have the time (or probably the stamina) for it.

Tony takes another diversion off the SCW, this time west from where it crosses the B6400 to Ancrum. He stops to chat on Ancrum Pack Bridge over the River Ale (55.516139, -2.600138). It is between Castle Hill iron age fort to the east and the ruins of Ancrum Kirk to the west. He goes west to meet another archaeologist. She immediately points out the iron age fort. The hogs back grave she shows him is at 55.515833, -2.600833.

Twenty miles later, with virtually nothing to see apart from hills, Tony arrives at Gefrin on the edge of Northumberland National Park. Apparently it was an important Anglo-Saxon palace in the 7th century. Gefrin is Old English for Goat Hill, which is presumably why the gate he passes through has an Anglo-Saxon goat carving on its gate post. The gate is 20m east of the Gefrin memorial which sits in a brick half-cylinder in a car layby on the B6351. An archaeologist shows Tony the exact location of the palace. We could have done with his help too. Not only could we see nothing man made, but we could not even see the hill.

The final accessible location on this route is Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island. The existing ruins are 13th century. Cuthbert became Bishop of Lindisfarne at its predecessor, of which nothing remains. Cuthbert tried to live a solitary life on St Cuthbert's Island, but gave up when the monks shouted at him from Holy Island. Eventually he moved to Farne Island. Tony hires a boat to take him there. It is not accessible to the general public.