For Plodders & Pilgrims – St Cuthbert’s Way

Head of statue of St CuthbertSt Cuthbert’s Way has a new look website.  This popular, 62.5mile (100km) long distance walking route, runs from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Holy Island in Northumberland.  The new website  makes it even easier for visitors to plan their journey and find out more information about the services along the route. The site is mobile friendly and includes mapping of accommodation and food and drink establishments.   The official guide and other books related to St Cuthbert’s Way can be ordered through the online shop. You can also order your free completion certificate online as well as  provide feedback on the route.

Here’s a previous post about walking part of St Cuthbert’s Way, at Lilliards’ Tomb.  If you don’t want to walk 62.5 miles in one go, then I find this book most helpful in breaking down the walk into manageable chunks.

St Cuthbert

St Cuthbert’s Way follows the scenic route, taken by the seventh century St Cuthbert, who died more than 1300 years ago.  He was born around 634 near Melrose and after seeing a vision of St Aidan’s death, he entered Melrose Abbey as a monk. Cuthbert was Prior at Melrose from 622 and at Lindisfarne from 665.  In 676, after 12 years of hard work, he longed to devote himself fully to God, and retired to Inner Farne as a hermit.

On Inner Farne he built a cell from turf and stone and a larger guesthouse for visitors.   Craving for isolation he insisted on growing his own food. He formed a close relationship with the birds which bred on the islands, especially the Eider Duck – still known locally as ‘Cuddy’s’(or ‘Cuthbert’s) Ducks.  Nothing remains of St Cuthbert’s original shelter but there is a chapel built around 1300, with beautiful stained glass by the Gateshead artist William Wailes (1844).

In 684 King Egfrid of Northumbria persuaded Cuthbert to leave his island and become Bishop of Lindisfarne.  After 2 years, Cuthbert resigned and retired to Inner Farne, where he died in March 687. He spent just over 8 years of his life on Inner Farne where he found the closeness and communion with God he so longed for.  After his death St Cuthbert would become one of medieval England’s most famous people, and one of her most significant saints.

Miracles of Healing

St Cuthbert was buried on Lindisfarne.  People came to pray at his grave and  stories grew of miracles of healing. This was a clear sign to the monks on Lindisfarne that Cuthbert was a saint.  They decided to wait 11 years for his body to become a skelton and then elevate his remains on the anniversary of his death.  During the 11 year wait the monks created  The Lindisfarne Gospels, now in British Museum.   You can see facsimile copies in Lindisfarne, Chester-le-Street and Durham Cathedral.  In 698 the monks opened Cuthbert’s coffin and found his remains to be perfectly preserved.  A sign of very great sainthood.   A new  coffin was made from English oak from Lindisfarne, with angels, saints, runic and Latin inscriptions carved into the oak.

Fleeing the Vikings

He did not rest in peace however. When the monks fled inland to escape Viking raids, they took their treasures with them, including his body and his possessions. In 995, after wandering for a century, they settled in Durham where his shrine became a major pilgrimage site.

Durham Cathedral records show that the coffin was regularly opened for important visitors.  The  keeper of the shrine (Alfred Westou), used Cuthbert’s own scruffy comb to tidy up Cuthbert’s hair and beard. The shrine was destroyed during Henry V111’s dissolution of the monasteries.  By the 19th century his body was described as just bones with some skin and ligaments attached.  In 1899, his body was reburied for the last time, in an elaborate new coffin.

At rest in Durham Cathedral

St Cuthbert’s eventual resting place of Durham Cathedral became a place of great significance to medieval pilgrims, leading to the formation of the cult of St Cuthbert in the twelfth century.  Thousands of people seeking his aid, visited his tomb up until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s.

Today his coffin features in a new display at Durham Cathedral and is regarded as the most important wooden object surviving in England from before the Norman conquest. Historian Janina Ramirez describes it as “the Tutankhamun’s tomb of the north-east”.  Around his coffin are Cuthbert’s personal possessions.  They include his portable altar, a gold and garnet pectoral cross damaged and crudely repaired in his lifetime.

Cuthbert’s legacy is found on the Farne Islands in the  flourishing bird populations and wildlife in the sea around.  The unique atmosphere still draws many people to the islands seeking to follow his footsteps.  During March each year Durham hosts a St Cuthbert’s day walk to remember St Cuthbert.

How to Find Durham, Lindisfarne & Farne Islands

Durham Cathedral

The easiest way to access Durham is by train from North Berwick.

LindisfarnePriory/Holy Island

You can access the tidal island of Lindisfarne, across a paved causeway, when the tide is out.  The North Sea covers the causeway twice in every 24 hour period.  Make sure you check the tide tables before crossing.

Farne IslandsThese rocky  islands lie scattered a couple of miles northeast of Seahouses.    Inner Farne  is closest to the mainland and is of most interest to visitors.  Boat tours stop at Inner Farne.  Walk round the island, to the breathtaking sight and sound of tens of  thousands of puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes and guillemots.

2 lighthouses still operate on the Farne Islands  both dating from the early 1800s.  The  red and white beacon on Longstone is the Grace Darling  lighthouse.  Grace and her father, the light keeper rowed from Longstone into a storm in 1838 to aid survivors of shipwreck.  You can visit the Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh.

Getting to Inner Farne, 

From April to October 4 private companies sail to the Farne Islands from Seahouses on the Northumberland Coast. There are a range of different trips to suit all tastes.  P lease have a look at the following websites to help decide how best to experience the Islands.  Round trip stopping off at Inner Farne is about 3 hours.

Glad Tidings – landing on Inner Farne and on Staple island

Golden Gate – landing on Inner Farne,  Staple island and Longstone Island (only company licensed for landing on Longstone).  This trip offers access to Longstone lighthouse, former home of Grace Darling.

Serenity – landing on Inner Farne and on Staple island

St Cuthbert – landing on Inner Farne and on Staple island. There is a charge for the trip, payable to the boat company, varying depending on which trip you choose. The National Trust charges a landing fee per island.  If you are a National Trust member, it’s free, but you do need to present your membership card.


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