Lunch (and tea) safely tucked into our stomachs, it is time to resume our trudge eastward. The next major attraction on the route is Cessford Castle. Now just a ruined box of crumbling sandstone walls, it once served as the stronghold for the Ker family, Wardens of the Middle March, and notorious border reivers.
Although the country we are passing through is peaceful today, it has long been a place of bloody and violent conflict between the English and the Scots. The Borders served as a buffer between the two sides in the protracted war, a land of relentless fighting. During the uneasy truces, the border reivers, — whose primary business was livestock rustling, with the occasional opportunistic bout of looting and pillaging — rode the moors in search of their prey. Respectable families by day, the reivers took advantage of the cover of darkness to rustle cattle from across the border, or even from other Scottish clans.
Cessford Castle was built for defense; its thirteen foot thick stone walls were designed to resist the Ker Family's enemies, both Scottish and English. Built in 1450, it served as the principal stronghold for the Kers, who aside from their clandestine operations, also served as Wardens of the Middle March. The castle was occupied until the 1560s, but today it is simply a gutted stone shell standing in a field.
The next town on our route is Morebattle. I am hoping to find a cash machine here, as it is the largest town we will pass through until we reach Wooler. Although there aren't many shopping opportunities along St Cuthbert's Way, I find that I did not bring enough currency with me. Much to my surprise, our evening lodgings are not accepting credit cards. It is a cash-based society here in the Borders. That impression is reinforced in Morebattle, where I fail to find a cash machine. Not much else, either. The town's solitary grocery store closes its doors at 1:00 on Saturday afternoons, denying me a chance to swipe my debit card and pick up some currency. I am finally able to get a twenty pound advance on my card from a nice lady in a pub.
The sensible people we have encountered on the trail are stopping in Morebattle for the evening, but we take pride in our lack of common sense. While those good folk are unlacing their boots and putting their feet up, David and I plod out of town. The map tells us that six miles separate us from our goal. That's six miles on the horizontal axis; the trail planners have another ordeal in store for us: Wide Open Hill, the highest point on St Cuthbert's Way. 1,150 feet of muscle-straining, hope-draining, climb.
This is almost too much to believe. Who would put such an obstacle at the end of a day's hike? Why didn't we stop in Morebattle? With tears in my eyes, I plod up the green slopes of Wide Open Hill. David, fueled no doubt by his spot of Earl Gray, hops up the path like a sprightly elf. As the trail steepens and the air thins our from the increasing altitude, I find myself slowing and stopping often to admire the scenery. The trail was breathtaking, in more than one way, but as our day's mileage count moved past twenty, I find myself less-diverted than I might have been under different circumstances. The hill would have been difficult when fresh in the morning; coming at the end of the day it was near impossible. The temperature falls as we ascend. A freshening Scottish gale provides a stimulating wind chill. Fortunately the wind is striking our rear, left quarter. Hiking into the rising wind might have sent me wailing back to Morebattle.
I crab about having to climb up a hill, I crab about the the trip down the other side. As difficult as it is to pull yourself up a steep slope, it can be every bit as taxing when you descend, tired legs and joints struggling to brake a gravity-accelerated load. There's no pleasing a pilgrim. Well, that's not true: as we near our evening stop, Town Yetholm, I dream about a table, a hot meal, and a bottomless glass of wine. The pain of the day magnifies the pleasure of stopping
After hot showers, we stroll across the parking lot to take dinner at the Border Hotel. I don't often offer unpaid advertising, but let me depart from my customary practice: I heartily recommend this fine establishment. Underestimating the demand, we have failed to make reservations for the dining room. Nevertheless, the delightful hostess takes one look at our trail-wasted faces, and announces that she will squeeze us in. The dining room is packed, so she clears a place for us in the bar and serves us there. The food could have been awful (it was actually very good) and I still would have awarded the restaurant a Michelin Star.
May St Cuthbert's blessing rest on the Border Hotel.