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A missionary’s lonely ramble

The British Ramblers Association has 143,000 members. They swarm over countryside where ancient routes to market trod by English and Welsh peasants are enshrined in law. Walkers on 208,000km of public rights of way are allowed to open farm gates, split herds and, if the farmer has planted crops over the path, trample those crops.

But only dwindling numbers tackle any of Britain’s 19 National Trails. These range from the self-explanatory South-West Coast Path to the more opaque Peddars Way. In the 1960s the 430km Pennine Way was churned by hordes of ramblers into a mud slick thirty metres wide. When I walked it in high summer a few years ago I took a tent. I thought I’d be banished to the lawns of overflowing hostels. The tent turned out to be dead weight. I had whole buildings to myself and met three other walkers, all retired.

The decline of the long-distance walk is a cultural shift. Many Britons now wouldn’t contemplate holidaying at home, especially in the chilly north where the classic trails are. They chase the sun. The young focus on Europe, where food and fun are done with finesse. They enjoy superior beaches and ski slopes, though they themselves are overall less active. Doing something truly arduous in your free time is not the idea. The Continent can also be relatively cheap. With no-frills airfares you can, perversely, spend less weekending at a French resort than going out in London. And though rambling is as popular as ever—and 20s to 30s walking groups are the new marriage market—many don’t have time for a week-long bash through entire counties. That would need the patience of a saint.

Against this background a friend and I decided to walk St Cuthbert’s Way: two Australians tramping 96km from southern Scotland to northern England, midweek in mid-November. The trail opened in 1996, a rare joint effort by local bureaucracies. They all wanted tourists to visit the Borders, a barren region outshone by the Highlands to the north and Yorkshire to the south.

Rodney and I begin in Melrose, where Cuthbert, seventh-century monk, began his ministry. As we set out, I consider what this man might teach today’s rambler. He was a tireless missionary who roamed far and wide. He loved nature and solitude, took life at a slow pace and never liked being far from the sea—which is where we’re headed. He befriended animals, a skill that might be worth our acquiring, and at times slept rough in the hills, which might become unavoidable.

On the pilgrims’ path we encounter a surprised and lonely housewife who takes one look at us on the doorstep and orders our clothes off—to wash them. Well off the path, we stay with a married couple who talk to us incessantly. We suspect their marriage is boring them both. And, unlike Londoners, they are remote enough to still find Australians exotic. Finally, for real exoticism, we stay with a Gypsy woman in a place called Romany House. In the morning we grill her on her Eastern ancestry until she gently boots us out.

We detour around flooded valleys that stink of rotten hay. The water theme climaxes with our set piece finale—a five-kilometre walk to Holy Island at low tide. It’s a nervous exercise in timing, but at sunset we arrive where Cuthbert, now Bishop of Lindisfarne, ended his career. We stay at the local pub, in whose dining room we order multiple main courses and leaf through Country Life magazine. After four days on the road we are bit over one another’s company. After all, we hadn’t met a single other walker. 

Martin Elliott is a freelance writer.


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