After my lovely week in East Lothian, I headed by bus to Newcastle. This may seem slightly out of the way, but there is one stretch of the St Oswald’s Way with only one place of accommodation, and they were full the day I’d wanted. This gave me an extra day to play with, so I used it to go to Bede’s World in Jarrow. When I mentioned my interest in Jarrow, my father reacted with surprise, as to him what came to mind was working-class protests and a famous march to London by the people after the collapse of industry made for terrible unemployment in the 1930s.
I hadn’t been thinking of social activism; I’d been thinking of the Venerable Bede.
Bede’s World is located just up from the ruins of the Anglo-Saxon monastery of St Paul, and from the still standing Anglo-Saxon church. I would say it is a touristy place, Bede’s World, except that it’s more of a family outing for the people of Newcastle, so they can go learn a little bit about Northumbrian Christianity in the 7th and 8th centuries and also look at a working Anglo-Saxon farm (sort of). This has nice contrasts between the past and the present, I thought, but what I liked best was the truly ancient window on display inside the museum. It has modern leading but Anglo-Saxon glass, put together from fragments found in the area.
After Jarrow I took the bus to Rothbury, a small town with a notable Victorian mansion called Cragside just outside it. Cragside was built by one of those madly accomplished Victorians, lawyer turned hydraulic engineer Lord Armstrong, who was keen on hydro-electricity; his house had the first domestic use of hydro-electricity in the world.
It was also largely decorated in the Arts and Crafts style, with William Morris wallpaper and Burne-Jones stained glass, including a lovely set of the seasons in the dining room:
On the Monday I finished off my bus transport — for the nonce — by taking two buses from Rothbury back to Warkworth. I got off by the castle, still looking splendidly atmospheric in a shroud of mist, and set off inland for Hadrian’s Wall.
This haze was pretty much the last cloud I’ve seen until today, as Britain has been in the grips of a heatwave. Good for haying, and for the watersports in the Lake District (though I’m a couple of weeks away from there in this blog, which is lagging behind my actual journeying, of course; I’m writing this in the Ambleside youth hostel, looking out at sunset over Windermere); rather hot for walking, especially with what turned out to be over-ambitious days.
Warkworth to Rothbury was something like 30 kilometres, when you take into account the bit where the St Oswald’s Way signposting disappeared and my guidebook (which described the route going the opposite direction) sent me down the wrong plantation and three-quarters of the way around a field, and through a woods with macabre signs warning away poachers, I assume, in the form of dead birds hung iup at the end of the paths.
It was made up for by the beauty of the countryside, still very much in bloom, with roses and honeysuckle, meadowsweet and elderflower, and even the nettles:
No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-beak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
This was one of the first poems I tried to learn by heart, and it keeps coming to mind. The last ten days of walking have led me to formulate three sorts of days: the ones of plod, which are what they sound like; the ones of plough down sillion, which are beautiful but my feet hurt, and the days — moments, even — of gash-gold-vermillion, as splendid as a falcon stooping.
Leaving Rothbury for the south was a day that had sweat dripping off my nose before I’d climbed past the hospital. I kept going in the (as it turned out) vain hope that it would be cooler up on the moor, as I was heading for Simonside and a corner of the Northhumberland National park.
It started off well enough. I made a short detour (it was early in the day) to go see a rock marked with what are apparently significant cup and ring markings, though I defy any of you dear readers to have guessed that from the picture:
Then I went across my first moor.
You have to remember it is about 30 fdegrees Celsius at the moment. Oh, and full of biting flies. And spongy ground — peat bog, in fact, ten metres deep in places — underfoot. I was quite, quite glad it was so dry, because it would have been a morass to trudge through with much more moisture in it.
I met three couples out for a ramble around the park. One greeted me with: “I thought you weren’t supposed to meet anyone, walking up here,” and that was pretty much it for my conversation for the next three hours.
Across the moor, and down through the seemingly endless spruce plantation of Harwood Forest. I don’t like these English plantations. You get all the unpleasantness of a logging road (hot, gravelly, too wide for shade, boring) without the pleasure of a real spruce forest, with undergrowth and wildlife.
I stopped at the first farm I’d seen that day and asked for some water — an act that instantly made me feel connected to a very ancient tradition indeed, for giving water to wayfarers is a custom immemorial. I’m not sure the two girls playing with their dogs out the front really appreciated the weight of history in their act, but it made me feel somewhat better as I continued on through another hour’s worth of spruce. And then across a recently manured field where the path disappeared. And then along another plantation rather marshy underfoot despite the lack of rain.
At this point I found a stile in the shade, sank down, and called my dad for a chat unfortunately interrupted by a bad connection. Feeling marginally better, however, I turned into the next very long field, and was promptly chased by a herd of cows.
After escaping through a side gate into another field that didn’t actually lead me where I wanted to go, I spent some time cursing the makers of the St Oswald’s Way, and then did my best to make friends with the cows. This involved taking off my hat (which seemed to alarm them), folding up my stick (so I guess it was a good thing I couldn’t find a proper pilgrim staff on Lindisfarne), and feeding them grass through the gate until they stopped kicking out menacingly.
The day never seemed to end. I eventually got out of that field, only to pass into another full of cows with calves. Fortunately this was a very large field, and I could make a wide berth around them. They stood and watched me for over a kilometre, and any time the ground led me a little closer, the nearest would move down the hill at me.
It’s okay if you want to laugh at this point. Everyone else I’ve met has. It’s like the story we heard in Australia of a man who was bitten by a wombat, whom everyone came to visit on account of the sheer unaccustomed hilarity of the event: but I at least did have signs warning me about aggressive cows with calves. Even if I did laugh at the said sign when I saw it in Warkworth.
After crossing through a farm on the far side of the village of Knowesgate, I was confronted with yet another field of cows, this one like corrugated iron underfoot so there was no way I could manoeuvre quickly, especially not at the end of the day . . . and so, I said enough was enough, turned back towards the gas station in the village, where I was eventually picked up, a mile short of my destination in Kirkwhelpington. My hosts at the B and B (who have a monopoly on accommodation in the area, hence the willingness to pick walkers up and drop them off) dropped me off the next morning at the lower village, which meant there was a mile of England uncrossed by my feet.
The next day was still warm, but a day rising from plod into plough down sillion, by sleep, no flies, and the beauty of the place. I made some more cows run madly across fields, and the packed lunch made by the B and B lady unfortunately had moldy bread, but this was made up for by a pub in Great Whittington being open and serving excellent tea, and by the fact that after Great Whittington the path was very well signed, there were no more aggressive cows, and at length I found myself on Hadrian’s Wall.
Now, I saw more people in the first two hours on the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail than I’d seen in the previous three days, and more people in the first full morning on the Wall than I’d seen on the whole of the St Oswald’s Way, if you discount dog-walkers on the Northumberland beaches. It was a very different sort of walk than what I’d been doing, and the only plod came about because of my feet get blisters when I go more than 29km. (This seems fairly consistent, alas.)
So, while I’m not sure I’d recommend following the St Oswald’s Way from Rothbury to Hadrian’s Wall, and if you do so make sure you take a map and not just a guidebook describing the route in the opposite direction — do go to the coast, and to Hadrian’s Wall. I persevered, and was utterly delighted in the visitor’s centre at Once Brewed, where I bought the next map, to tell the woman at the counter that I had walked the whole 96 miles (as the raven flies, the emblem of the walk) of the St Oswald’s Way. She responded with, do you want to buy a t-shirt?
I had not thought of biuying a t-shiort, I confess. I asked her why, fearing that I smelled that terribly, and she said that they’d just that day decided that there was never going to be anyone coming to Once Brewed who had walked the St Oswald’s Way, so put the t-shirts in the discount bin. Well, for five pounds and a clean shirt and the pleasure of being the first person to come by there I was sold.
And so I continued along Hadrian’s Wall, up and down along the ancient Roman walls, past Housesteads fort and museum and various milecastles,
and generally up and down the Whin Sill, a ridge of stone that I had first seen at Dunstanburgh. I have to confess the heat and the prospect of another 30-km day and its accompanying blisters defeated me, and I took the bus between Walltown and Lanercost Priory. It made for a lovely day, and I got to see the splendid Lanercost Priory church, which was being decorated for a wedding with some of the most beautiful flower arrangements I’ve ever seen, and had Georgian chant playing softly in the background.
And on Saturday I arrived in the little town of Crosby-on-Eden, just upriver from Warwick-on-Eden, where I spent a happy few days with an old friend of my father’s. I did a little touristing, going to a Sunday service at Carlisle Cathedral — another building for which the word ‘splendid’ is the only one that comes to mind — to the Tullie House Museum, which was excellent, full of local finds from prehistoric, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and Border Reiver periods (and a whole series on the Pre-Raphaelites, the original owner having been a patron of theirs), and a short visit to Brampton to see St Martin’s Church, which I’d long wanted to see. It closes off my week quite nicely, as, like Cragside over to the east, it is also an Arts and Crafts style church, with the archistecture designed by Phillip Webb and the stained glass windows by Burne-Jones.
Next up: The Lake District!