Day 1 of St Cuthbert’s Way: Melrose to Harestanes
We laid our waterproof pants out the night before in anticipation of the rain, which was still falling when we woke up in Melrose. We pulled on all our gear, packed up our bag and left our comfortable room a little reluctantly.
However, Sheila had made us a gorgeous big breakfast to get us on our way. Full Scottish Breakfast, to be exact. This was Anna’s first experience with full Scottish breakfast, which consists of eggs, toast, a variety sausages (and sometimes haggis), bacon (which in the UK is thicker and more like ham), baked beans and tomatoes. Plus fruit, yogurt, tea and coffee.
“The weather is just terrible,” Shelia said, “Better just let me drive you over to St Boswells.”
We were hoping to be at St Boswells by lunchtime and Sheila had already recommended a darling bookshop and café.
Since we did not think it would be very good sport to get a ride for the first leg of our walk, we turned down her kind offer and said goodbye after eating so much we could hardly move.
As we practically felt like rolling down the lane from Sheila’s house, we remarked that at least we would not be hungry for a while.
We stopped for a photo or two in front of Melrose Abbey. And then, while trying to ignore the rain, we pushed forward the direction we felt that St Cuthbert’s Way went from the Abbey. There is no sign marking the trail at the abbey, but it is the official beginning. Up the road towards the Eildon Hills we walked for a good mile before we met someone on the way who asked us where we were walking.
There are lots of people out walking in the small towns along this trail but those who are hiking from town to town (or hillwalking, as it is called in the UK) are distinctly recognizable by the swishing sounds made by waterproof pants. So often we found ourselves being asked by locals who assumed correctly that we were walkers, “Where are you walking?”
“We’re walking St Cuthbert’s Way,” which we followed with, “Do you know where the trail leaves the main road?”
“Oh you’ve gone the wrong way. You need to go back down the hill, back through the center of town and underneath the overpass. You’ll see a sign.”
It is possible that at this point Anna was already feeling a bit skeptical about my plan for her to fly all the way over from Chicago to go with me on a long walk. If two days of rain had not already put her off, my inability to actually find the start of the trail was sealing the deal.
We would walk past the exit to the trail again before finally turning around to find it.
If you’re walking St Cuthbert’s Way and you can’t find the beginning of the trail in Melrose, it is probably because you are not used to walking into someone’s backyard. You turn off of the road into an alley that holds someone’s trash bins in order to get on the trail. If you’re walking down the hill, the alley is marked with the sign, Eildon Hills, which you know from your guidebook that you are supposed to follow, but if you are walking up the hill, you see a sign for St Cuthbert’s Way that points up the hill and you have not yet learned that this means you should be looking for a small trail to the left. Once you walk down the alley and pass the trash bins, you can see behind the houses that yes, there it is, a trail, over the water and straight up into the Eildon Hills.
As we made our way up the giant staircase leading into the hills, I told Anna between breathes that now that we had found the trail, it would be easy to stay on it. Not to worry, I’m sure it will be fine.
She nodded and graciously did not point out to me that we had walked three miles before actually beginning what would already be one of our longest days of walking.
Now would be a good time to mention that during our walk, Anna was wearing a gadget I’d never before heard of called a FitBit. She mocked me a little for being out of the loop and told me that they are all the rage in America. Over the course of the next five days, I came to have a love/hate relationship with Anna’s FitBit. It would make a little noise when we had hit five miles, and you wanted it to make this noise so much so that you would know you had gone five miles, but then on long days, you could be discouraged because when it went off you felt that surely you had actually gone ten. The FitBit was handy because Anna could always tell us exactly how far we had gone, but it was amazing how this news could be alternately encouraging and disheartening.
But now we were finally on the trail and getting high up into the hills made us feel our progress. Melrose got further and further away. We slipped around a bit in the mud as we grabbed for our footing on the trail, rising above the sheep fields and watching the bridge over the River Tweed turn into a tiny line. When we got to the shoulder where we would drop over to the other side, Anna called, “Goodbye Sheila!”
Going downhill is so wonderful after a good climb up and we were proud to manage not to fall down the mudslides. We descended into a forest in the valley and sloshed our way to the tiny little village of Bowden, where there is an old school, an ancient well and a church. And not too much else. The best part of Bowden was that it stopped raining there. We were so grateful and we stopped to adjust our wet layers and have a granola bar because it was lunchtime and we were still a long way from St Boswell’s.
The rain stopping makes everything seem a bit brighter and at some point between Bowden and St Boswell’s I managed to win Anna over to going just a tiny bit out of way to visit Dryburgh Abbey, where Sir Walter Scott is buried. It is possible that I misrepresented how out of the way it was, mainly because I did not know. Our guidebook said, “a minor diversion” and honestly, when we crossed the bridge to get to the side of the River Tweed on which the Abbey stood, I felt that surely we would be able to cross back further up the road. We were still walking towards St Boswells, just on the wrong side of the river. Anna knew better of course, and as we walked to the abbey, she was pointing out that we would probably have to walk all this way back to that same bridge we crossed.
“Oh no, I’m sure there will be another way,” I said, and of course there was not, which is probably why on Days 2-5, Anna took on the bulk of the map reading.
But Dryburgh Abbey, and of course I can say this now that I am at home in my cozy house and not in any danger of being rained upon, but Dryburgh Abbey was totally worth the extra mile or two. I do not know what it is about an abbey ruin that is so incredibly romantic to me but they just leave me feeling like I’d like to put up a tent and stay for ages. Like if I’m quiet and still for long enough that I could hear the singing, or the soft steps of the monks. I am undone by this strange melancholic combination of joy at the purpose of this place of long ago and grief that its day has passed. They make me want to cry and sing and read and pray and study and love all at the same time.
Somehow the fact that it had been raining all day made it all even more perfect. Pink stones and green grass just glistening. We tried to move slowly, but that we were still not even halfway through our day’s walk was weighing heavy enough that we pulled ourselves away from Dryburgh before too long.
We retraced our route back to St Cuthbert’s Way. Along the way, we passed a hill to our right, marked by a sign that we could not read from the road. “Should we just go read the sign and see what it is?” I asked Anna.
“No, I’m hungry and it’s already so late.”
“You’re right,” I said, reluctantly. “This is why I never get anywhere on time. Good thing you’re here to keep us on schedule.”
An hour later we finally walked into St Boswells and were overjoyed to find the little café Sheila recommended. She had not led us astray. It was an absolute gem of a spot and we ate what we both agreed would probably be our favorite meal of the entire week. Of course, the fact that it was almost 3pm might have had something to do with our enthusiasm, but it really was divine. Also divine? Taking off wet jackets, coats and backpacks. We took off as much as possible and set everything on the radiator to dry. I’m pretty sure it looked like we were moving into Main Street Books, and I would have liked to. It was far too soon that we were packing up and getting back on the trail.
“Should we just call Sheila?” Anna asked as I finished off the last of my tea.
Back on the trail, Anna noted that there was a large bend in the river and that if we followed St Cuthbert’s Way along the River Tweed, we would be going a good bit out of the way instead of the general direction of the next town.
Now that Anna had the map, she was frequently pointing out times when it seemed like we were headed in the opposite direction of our destination. And in her defense, it was a bit discouraging that after we walked for two hours after lunch we crossed over a road with a sign that indicated that St Boswells was less than a mile away. However, the bend in the river also turned out to be one of the most beautiful stretches of trail we wandered that day.
We were often tempted to take a different road than old St Cuthbert, but all in all we stayed on the trail in the hopes that the mapmakers were leading us astray for beauty’s sake.
After the River Tweed we walked long country lanes to a little village called Maxton, with a darling little church and views of the Eildon Hills in the distance. It seemed like such a long time ago that we had been on top of those hills. Was that just this morning?
After the trail left the country lanes and turned onto a muddy path, an old Roman road actually, we found that we were really dragging. We had phoned the Allerton House in Jedburgh where we were staying to say that we thought we would reach the pickup point by 6pm. I was a little worried to see 6pm come and go, and for the following hour we kept saying every ten minutes that we were surely almost there. There are very few markings on that last stretch so it was difficult to know how much progress we were making. As we were tromping along in the mud, sliding and at one point, falling in it, we might have begun to regret our side trip to Dryburgh Abbey and even not taking a short cut at St Boswells.
By 6:30 we had passed the point of being discouraged and had become sort of delirious. We started laughing about how much our feet hurt and about how ridiculous it was that we thought we were going to hike 18 miles on Day 5 before the tide rolled in. We were so covered in mud that we figured that the man who was picking us up would sooner let two pigs into his car than us.
Also, we had not seen anyone since we left the river. No one. It was so quiet and even though it was no longer raining (which I kept pointing out: “At least it’s not raining!”), it was still very cloudy. Low afternoon light on a cloudy day has this funny way of making you think it’s about to be dark for like four hours. I knew it my head that it would not actually be dark until 9pm, but it still felt like it was about to be dark any minute.
Finally we reached a forest that was mentioned in the guidebook as the end of the day’s walk. Fields and forests had pretty much been the terrain for the last hour or so. I hesitate to say that we reached a dark forest on a dark day at our darkest hour, but I promise you that it felt that way. Just a little bit. Like if I fell down in the mud, I would just stay there. One time my husband took our friend, who was very out of shape, hiking in late September in Colorado. There was an unusually early snow and the trail was covered in snow and mud. Our friend tells this story about trying to keep up with my husband while they were hiking and feeling like he was dying and finally falling face down in the mud and snow and not caring if he ever got up again. We love to hear him tell that story because he is super dramatic about it and he makes us all laugh. But I have not ever really considered how it might feel to be that tired. So tired that you actually don’t care that you are face down in mud. Well, now I can say at the very least, that I have been close. I was dang tired.
At 7pm, we were so happy to see the signs for the Harestanes Visitor Center that we almost cried. I called our ride, Chris, who came right over from Jedburgh, which was three miles away.. Fortunately, his car was covered in plastic coating. Clearly, he is used to muddy walkers. He told us that we were his last group of walkers, but that he had been picking them up all day. He drove the car through the little town of Jedburgh, pointing out Jedburgh Abbey and a couple of spots where we could grab dinner. Then he made a left turn and proceeded to climb a giant hill. Anna and I looked at each other, both of us wondering the same thing. “How far is he going to drive this car up this road?” I’ll tell you how far.
He showed us our room and I fell on the floor. Glory be. I was so happy to be in a hotel. I stripped down and fell on the bed and told Anna I was never leaving. Anna was already looking through a book of local restaurant menus. She proceeded to go back out and ask Chris to make us a dinner reservation.
I could not believe she expected us to walk down (and more importantly BACK UP) that hill for food. And in like thirty minutes.
But twenty minutes later, we were showered and changed and I was hobbling down the hill to a very mediocre dinner at an even more mediocre restaurant in Jedburgh. I was only not irritated by this fact because we did get to see the abbey up close, through the locked gates. And it was beautiful. It was not the first or the last time I considered climbing a fence to get into a closed abbey on our trip. But I had to save my energy for the hill.
We both made whiny noises all the way up the hill. Thankfully, Chris has whisky and sherry decanters in the common room, so we popped our ibuprofen with whisky and promptly went to sleep.