The morning sun shines through the tall windows of Hexham Abbey. It illuminates the rich blue and green of Saint Cuthbert’s robes and the crimson of Saint Oswald’s tunic. St Wilfrid is shown holding plans for the original abbey he built here in 647 AD, using recycled stone from a Roman fort.
Opened again after being closed for the first time since the Black Death, the abbey is full of sculpted faces and painted medieval panels showing golden saints and dancing skeletons. But I turn my back to its golden stone and an hour or two later I walk among the autumn woods and waterfalls, the city far behind me and the open moors ahead.
I spend four days on one of the Northern Saints Trails, a new network of six long-distance spider web trails across the North East of England. Inspired by ancient pilgrimage routes, they were to be launched in March 2020 and showcase regional, divine and secular attractions. The Way of the Angels runs past Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, the Coastal Sea Way starts at Warkworth Castle, and the Urban Way of Learning runs from Venerable Bede’s Monastery near Jarrow. I read Bede’s Story on my match; he often mentions generalized plagues.
The 45 mile path of light from Heavenfield to Durham seems suitably uplifting for dark times and far enough away for a year of plague. Like three of the other routes, it is magnetically drawn to Durham’s Norman Cathedral, ending at the candlelit shrine of Saint Cuthbert. A 7th-century hermit and bishop, Cuthbert is a favorite of the Saints of the North: eagles fed him, otters dried him with their fur (after spending a night at sea praying), and he was home to the eider ducks of the Farne Islands (nicknamed Cuddy ducks after him).
My walk officially begins with a six mile cab ride north of Hexham (where I stay overnight) to Heavenfield, a battle site near Hadrian’s Wall. I explore the small hilltop church dedicated to Saint Oswald, who won a battle here and reunited Northumbria. The views of the Tyne Valley are wide as I walk back down the road, and as night falls the bats twinkle in the yews by the side of the road and the lighted abbey impresses.
The next morning, I buy an apple, flapjacks and a wodge of Northumberland Nettle cheese at the Hexham Tuesday Market to eat later on a log in the forest, and continue south. The route is easy to follow: although it is marked only sporadically, detailed instructions are available online for download. The landscape changes as I walk: there are fields bordered by bluebells and hawthorns, woods full of ferns, falling streams and waterfalls of green-gold beech trees. It’s a few miles along Devil’s Water, a tributary of the Tyne, rusty brown rapids, a waterfall, and the elegant ruined arches of England’s largest 17th century lead foundry. The sighing evergreens of Slaley Forest abruptly give way to the heather of Blanchland Moor and the resinous darkness is replaced by a wide, wild sky and slanting bands of rain. The curly-horned sheep look curiously at a disheveled passer-by.
Tonight’s hotel, with its log fires and deep baths, is a perfect nod to the Windy Falls. I have found inexpensive B & Bs for other nights but, in secluded Blanchland, the luxurious Lord Crewe Arms is the only option; it serves hot homemade sourdough and roasted local partridges. Philip Larkin dined here, WH Auden played Brahms on the piano, and a Jacobite general once hid in the fireplace.
The next day is even more spectacular, with immense views and a miraculous sun. The square in the idyllic village of Blanchland is the monastic courtyard of a former abbey, now with a post office in the former gatehouse and chickens in the cemetery. It is surrounded by the North Pennines AONB, an area I have rarely visited before but will definitely return to. I cross the Derwent in County Durham and climb the moors. Yesterday I only saw two distant dog walkers on a 12 mile walk. This morning I’m completely alone with caving rabbits, growling grouse and a lone hawk circling.
As I stumble over swampy tufts on cloud-covered slopes, I realize that a well-worn boot has started to let water in. Carrying everything I need and walking for several hours a day is both liberating and tiring. The trail narrows down to a path that turns into a stream, and I almost slide springboards into the rapidly flowing water.
At lunchtime, I head to Edmundbyers, with its popular village pub and youth hostel. After another cascading burn and a climb through moist, aromatic ferns, there’s a faster section along country lanes, winding through Derwent Gorge Nature Reserve and ancient oak forests. Gold leaf silver birch trees line the tracks to the village of Castleside, where I spend the third night.
The first hazy glimpses of Durham Cathedral come on the epic last day, near a village called Quebec. It is a viewpoint devoted to pilgrims and the alleys and fields nearby bear names like Laude and Salutation. Nearby, the historic houses, chapels and gardens of Ushaw once housed a Catholic seminary. Now they are a creative hub, open to visitors, with the Path of Light following permissive paths through the park. At their heart, the Saint Cuthbert Chapel, originally designed by Augustus Pugin, shines like a gem. After coffee, I left through a plantation of marshy willows towards the city. As I limp around the glowing cathedral a few hours later, I see a Saint Cuthbert stained glass window surrounded by ducks. My holed boot looks like a badge of honor.
More information on thisisdurham.com and northsaints.com. Use OS Explorer OL43, 307 and 308 cards. Accommodation was provided by the Lord Crewe Arms (double from £ 159 B&B). Rail travel from King’s Cross to York was provided by Grand Central (advance tickets from £ 13.30 one way)