David and I hike out of Melrose at 11:00, after a morning spent touring the ruins of the abbey. It becomes immediately obvious that the planners of Saint Cuthbert's Way, lacking a detailed itinerary of his journey, decided to indulge in a certain vindicative sadistic streak. The most startling of their sins is a tendency to send the trail switch-backing up the sides of every mountain between Melrose and Lindisfarne. The designers, presented with a choice between a leisurely stroll around the base of a hill and a path that ascends over a heather-clad peak, will invariably select the course with the greater scope for cardiovascular improvement.
This nastiness becomes apparent in our earliest minutes on the trail. The smell of hot oil and cod, wafting from the last fish and chip shops of Melrose, has barely cleared our nostrils before we are forced into an ascent of the Eildon Hills, a "gentle," nearly 1,000 foot gain in altitude. Melrose and its abbey slowly fall away beneath us as we slog higher into the sub-alpine zone. Near the top, there stands a gap between the pair of peaks labeled "Mid Hill" and "North Hill." The trail planners show they are not completely devoid of kindness by shooting us through the gap rather than sending us over the top of the least convenient mountain.
I may have given them too much credit: a later examination of the map reveals that we could have detoured around the base of the Eildon Hills and arrived at the same spot on the other side — a grove of beech trees — without having exerted quite so much effort. I can't help but believe that Cuthbert would have opted for the more sensible (flat) course.
On the other hand, Bede suggests that Cuthbert was a creature of these mountains, roaming their slopes, preaching, teaching, and spreading the Gospel among the Anglo-Saxons who had settled here. His fame spread to such an extent that an Abbess named Ebbe begged Cuthbert to visit her monastery in Coldingham in order to offer instruction to the monks and nuns who lived under her guidance. Cuthbert did not want to reject the entreaties of such a distinguished lady (she was the daughter of Aethelfrith, first king of Northumbria), and so he traveled to Coldingham.
Cuthbert's ascetic practices, like the trail named after him, were rigorous; the sisters and brothers living at Coldingham were reputed to have favored a more luxurious lifestyle. After participating in their daily hours of prayer, Cuthbert found that he needed an extra dose of ascetic activity to meet his needs. One evening, one of the brothers spotted Cuthbert slipping into the night. The monks and nuns of Coldingham did not have the best reputations, and the spy must have assumed that the pious Cuthbert was on his way to a romantic tryst. He decided to follow him. Much to his surprise, Cuthbert marched straight to the beach, waded into the frigid waters of the North Sea, and did not stop walking until he had immersed himself to his neck. Then, following the Irish custom, he spent the night in prayer, arms raised above the waterline.
When dawn began to light the eastern sky, Cuthbert waded back to the shore. A pair of otters followed, frolicking in his wake. The two animals took turns rubbing Cuthbert, drying him with their soft fir. After they had completed their task, the saint blessed them, and then returned to the monastery in time to share the morning office with the brothers.
I suppose the moral of the story is that Cuthbert never avoided hardship: maybe he would have chosen the steep and taxing way.
Having descended like Moses from the mountains, we pass through a wood and decide to have our lunch at a picnic table on the outskirts of Bowden, the first village on our trek. This land once belonged to the Kelso Abbey, and later was the ancestral home of Scotland's Ker family (see episode five). There's not much here today. We don't linger.
From Bowden the trail follows a ridge through a rural landscape. We hike along a watercourse, the Bowden Burn, which leads us into our first major town, Newtown St Boswells. As its name suggests, Newtown St Boswells is a "new town" dating back to the sixteenth century. I don't know if we are simply caught up in the moment, or if Newtown has little to recommend it, but we do not stop. Up over another hill, through a dilapidated residential district, and then, with a sigh of relief, back into open country.
Eventually we break out onto the Tweed River, which will be our companion for several hours this afternoon. I find the path along the river a bit trying: the trail attempts to stay close to the water, but in doing so, continually gains and loses elevation. It is like walking a roller coaster track, up and down, dodge left, shunt right. Moreover, it is a narrow path — more deer run than trail — and finding a flat place upon which to set my feet requires an annoying degree of alertness.
In places the river shallows and seems to accelerate, water scraping across shallow files of rapids and pebble bars.
Then one last big push and we are back in civilization again. St Boswells, a tiny town that shares its High Street with St Cuthbert's Way. It feels like it should be enough, but our day is not over yet.