Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, / And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, / To ferne halwes… – Geoffrey Chaucer, the ‘General Prologue’ to The Canterbury Tales
Day 42 saw us creaking a little at the seams after our Jedburgh rest day. Knees and hips are beginning to sense the miles somewhat, and once we had packed up all our camping equipment to start carrying it again (no more Brigantes packhorse service!) we could definitely feel the weight. We will now carry everything until we reach the start of the West Highland Way.
The sun had come out this morning, and although having a rest day was physically much-needed and useful admin and forward planning time, we could not wait to get back out into the countryside again and hoped to complete the day’s walk before the forecast rain came in, mid-afternoon. Jedburgh Abbey and its associated buildings looked stunning as we walked through town.
A short road walk out of Jedburgh takes you onto St Cuthbert’s Way, which runs from Melrose Abbey to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, tracing the route of Saint Cuthbert in life, and also the travels of his various coffins after his death as the community of faithful tried to protect his relics from Danish predations. It is a very popular walking route: quite easy underfoot and fairly flat, following as it does a number of river valleys, including the Teviot and the Tweed in the section we were walking today, widdershins if you like, as most people walk it from west to east, crossing over the causeway to Lindisfarne as a grand finale.
The route started with a walk up through some woods, the vertical bank seemingly held back by a bulwark of beech tree roots.
In the verges it was very clear that spring has ended and summer has arrived. The nettles are in full flower, and a miniature drama of life and death was playing out in the midst of tiny scattered rainbows, in a complex spiderweb spun between the fragile flowers of the last of the Queen Anne’s Lace.
We came across a part of the verge bank that had been excavated: an underground nest of bumblebees with white tails had been dug out and destroyed by a badger. There were disoriented and dead bees on the road, at the entrance to the excavated nest, and inside the remains of the hole itself where the bees had been nesting.
We had had breakfast that morning with a lovely young couple staying in the same B&B, Reverend Vanessa Conant and her husband Cameron, on a pilgrimage sabbatical walking Saint Cuthbert’s Way. We met them again just before leaving the road as they had been ferried out to the day’s starting point. Happy walking Vanessa and Cameron! We loved the photo you tweeted today.
In the woods time was moving on too. There was a strong smell of garlic as the ramson leaves turn yellow and die down. Two thrushes were fighting aggressively amongst the dog’s mercury on the woodland floor, more interested in each other than in the potential threat of two passing hikers. The wood opened out onto a short section of the Jed Water just before it flowed into the Teviot River. The banks were packed with stands of dark purple comfrey, much-loved by bees. The sky was clear, although it was forecast to cloud over later, and we appreciated both the blue sky and the glittering play of light on the surface of the river.
The Teviot, when we came to it, was a majestic, slow-flowing, shallow paradise for trout and salmon.
Reeds on the far bank reflected into the still pools, whilst on our side of the river next to the wide swath of grassy path, white, pink and purple comfrey mixed with bedstraws and patches of cross-worts, with a variety of willows down on the waterline itself. At a narrowing of the river a natural weir sped up the flow of water whilst creating a wide pool behind it.
A bouncy suspension bridge (one of the many infrastructure projects we have seen on this journey part-funded by the European Development Fund) took us into woodland belonging to the old Monteviot estate: close-growing, mature oaks, beeches, Wellingtonia, and yews, grand old ladies and gentlemen of the woods.
Ferns grew on huge rotting stumps, the decaying wood providing food and shelter for the invertebrates which are in turn food for the healthy bird population, including another good spot for us: a pair of bullfinches.
Once out of the woods St Cuthbert’s Way joined Dere Street, which creates a long straight stretch of decent footpath populated by numbers of walkers with rucksacks, many, including one particularly large group, on pilgrimage.
Dere Street here feels like a very old and self-managed ecosystem. Ancient trees, whose huge girth is testament to their immense age, constitute a whole habitat of their own. Some bird had built a sizeable nest using a rotting section of beech trunk about 20 feet off the ground as the back wall for its nest, very much like a house martin.
Two trees on and another enormous beech played host to a wild swarm of bees. A little further on again, and mice had dug tunnels through a fungus growing at the base of another mature beech. We commented that the very many woods we had traversed in the last six weeks had not felt such fertile ground for fauna, but this long thin strip of Dere Street woodland seems to provide immensely rich spaces for wildlife of all kinds. It seems ancient and untouched.
One section of the track was an enormous thicket of wild raspberries in flower, and as we passed we stopped to listen to the vast plural hum of the bees feeding on the flowers. The hawthorn and gorse are nearly over now, and the broom, and the bees are moving on to other food.
In another section the wood ends and fields of oats briefly take over.
We met two naughty old boys with soft Borders accents out walking their dogs and drinking a sly wee dram from their hip flasks (they offered to share!) They recommended taking a cunning short cut, staying on Dere Street while St Cuthbert’s Way wound lengthily on. ‘You’ll recognise it when you see my JCB’
Since it is the rule always to take local advice we listened to them – and were so glad we did, since we had a miraculous 50-foot strip of ancient woodland, running straight for miles, entirely to ourselves. Alongside it runs the busy A68, but on this secret way we had lunch almost knee-deep in thick, soft moss, sitting on a fallen tree-trunk.
As we ate we watched a tree-creeper working insects out of the bark of beech trees. A little further on we would be under the Eildon Hills where Thomas the Rhymer was supposed to have met the Elf Queen, but had she come towards us through the trees just then I would not have been surprised.
‘True Thomas lay oer yond grassy bank,
And he beheld a ladie gay,
A ladie that was brisk and bold,
Come riding oer the fernie brae.
Her skirt was of the grass-green silk,
Her mantel of the velvet fine,
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty silver bells and nine.’
The second part of the short cut was to take the Old Road out of the village of Newtown Saint Boswells. When the A68 bypass had been constructed, the road from the village to Melrose had been sealed off from traffic and is now a broad cycleway which runs around the edges of the Eildon Hills, in contrast to St Cuthbert’s Way, which goes over the top.
So thanks to the local knowledge from the naughty old whisky boys we shaved off about an hour’s walking, meaning that we could pitch in the dry before the rain started and had plenty of time to shop for treats from the Borders like Selkirk Bannock for breakfast and strawberries and raspberries from Fife. It is likely to rain all night – but we have our fingers crossed for a dry couple of days to come.