“I walked six miles this morning,” messaged BordersCrone a couple of weeks before our proposed hike, “and I’m completely knackered.” “My podiatrist said I’d hold out for five weeks,” replied BucksCrone, “but it’ll be fine in a boot.” DevonCrone’s hip hurts (I do) but she decided not to say anything. After all, the die was cast with the three Old Crones bound to walk the 97 mile St Oswald’s Way in Northumberland.
As a group of friends – two octogenarians plus a youngster of 78 – we keep each other motivated for our weekly Saturday parkruns, but this would be much more challenging. We didn’t mean to get that old before we tackled it: 2019 was the plan but then came the lockdown. We enlisted the help of Mickledore Holidays to work out a not too strenuous itinerary for us and sort out the accommodation. The longest day would be 11 miles, which we thought we could do. Only.
Saint Oswald’s Way starts in Lindisfarne (Holy Island) and joins the Hadrian’s Wall route on the last day. Beautifully scenic and varied, it follows the Northumberland coast past two ruined castles, then turns inland along the River Coquet to the historic town of Rothbury, up and over the Northumberland National Park and into the terrifying Harwood Forest, from which you may or may not emerge to complete the walk in a couple more days.
Lindisfarne reminded me of Lundy, where day visitors are known as bluebottles because they buzz in, buzz around and then buzz off. Here they are controlled by the tide, and most cross the causeway at low tide in the morning and return in the afternoon. Those lucky enough to stay overnight, as we did, have the place more or less to themselves, and there is much to see. The castle, defensive for many centuries but modernized by Edwin Lutyens in the early 20th century, provides a dramatic backdrop to the Gertrude Jekyll garden, designed by the architect’s friend to replace the original vegetables with flowers. Genuinely ancient is the ruined 11th-century monastery, its sandstone weathered into Henry Moore shapes.
The first day’s walk was enough to make us doubt the wisdom of this undertaking, enticingly called the Pilgrim’s Way and probably a thirty-mile walk across the sand. We battled an intense headwind as our bare feet snarled against the rippling sand, mini creeks and black, ankle-deep mud. But there were distant views of gray seals and a moving wave of sands that seeped across the foundation. We stayed in a pub in Lowick. The next day, while looking for red squirrels in Kyloe Woods, we met two rangers who advised us against taking the official route through the trees because “it’s cozy and you’ll trip”. So we took a longer, safer route along a rocky track, where I tripped, hit my head on a boulder, and carried a phone-shaped bruise on my hip for the rest of the walk.
Day three, after a night in Belford, offered styles. Crones don’t do well with styles. “Can you lift my leg up?” Fields of yellow wheat and oats sloped down towards the distant Bamburgh Castle, hazy in the sunshine. A man walked towards us, arms outstretched to embrace the view: “You don’t get this abroad!”
Dunstanburgh Castle, always in sight the following day, was our favorite ruin, its silhouette changing as we passed close to its walls through harebells and cranesbills. If anything illustrates the futility of great wealth, this castle does. Built in the early 14th century by the outraged Earl of Lancaster and covering 4.5 hectares (11 acres), it was intended as a retreat from his enemies. However, he forgot to avoid making more enemies and started a rebellion against King Edward II, which failed and resulted in his execution – so he never actually lived there.
By now we were following the coast, motivated by the promise of a dip for kipper-scented Craster, as the route crosses a wide sandy beach. A family was playing cricket – the adults with great enthusiasm, the children grumpily. “They wanted to do it on their computers,” we were told. Two large women opened a bottle of prosecco. “Well, we’ve been in the water!” they explained cheerfully. That I had.
Kate (BucksCrone) left us in Alnmouth for some family errands, leaving the two octogenarians, Roz and I, to complete the remaining six days. We got lost almost immediately. Warkworth to Weldon Bridge should have been 11 miles, but ended up being almost 14. Not our fault – a recent building spree has changed the route and obscured the track markers. Walking up a farm track across a plowed field, I anxiously saw a tractor bouncing towards us. Would we be told off for trespassing? No, this was Northumberland, not the South, and all the farmers we met wanted to talk. “Yes, this is my land – and it’s my new house and all this will be a wildflower meadow. Expensive, mind you. The seed costs £500 per sack. You have missed the way,” he added as an afterthought. Not wanting to backtrack, we used a compass and guesswork to get back to the trail and eventually arrived exhausted at the Anglers Arms.
Still tired from the previous day, we trudged sourly across huge, lumpy meadows in relentless rain, to the River Coquet and into Rothbury, a substantial town and our base for the next three nights – and the best and worst day of our walk. First the best: living in Devon you’d think I’d be spoiled for heather, but I’ve never seen a purple like the one that greeted us the next day in Northumberland National Park.
Even in fog and drizzle, it made our hearts soar and our legs feel strong. Then we came to Harwood Forest, 13 square kilometers of densely packed, hostile conifers, networked by newly laid forest roads. With no trail markers to help us, and nothing matching our map or directions in the guidebook, we plunged into the heart of the forest in a roughly reasonable direction. If we hadn’t met a couple who had downloaded the OS map onto their phones, we’d probably still be there. They put us right, but right isn’t necessarily nice: already tired, we were confronted by a mix of boringly straight rocky tracks and squishy bog through chest-high wet bracken. A total of 12 miles and I have rarely been so pleased to see a waiting taxi.
After that it had to get better. It did. The road became clear again, through sheepfolds with chatty farmers. “I’m 85. Just do the sheep and cut the grass these days. Been here 70 years,” said an old boy on a tractor. We were on the last stretch, definitely better – no more ‘oofs’ over styles – and experienced sheep turners .Three times we found a ewe struggling on her back, weighed down with all her wool. One looked near death, her eyes glazed and no movement, but when we got her to her feet she trotted off as if she had just been disturbed from a place to bask.
The last day was along the Hadrian’s Wall path. Joining the trail, we stopped to greet a man dressed in running gear getting out of a car. He was about to do a recce of Saint Oswald’s Way, he told me. I warned him about the poor road markings and especially the challenge of Harwood Forest. “Very hard to find your way,” I told him. “It won’t be easy to run.” He interrupted me. “I don’t want to brag but actually I’ve already done Saint Oswald’s three times without stopping. I hope to beat my best time, which was 23 hours 8 minutes. I walk through Harwood Forest at night – and it’s the darkest place in Britain.” I kept my mouth shut.
Standing outside Saint Oswald’s Church in Heavenfield, the designated end of the trail, we felt the wonderful complacency and relief that walkers can only get after reaching one of Britain’s long ways. A bottle of champagne and a greeting card from Kate awaited us at our final B&B in Humshaugh. We sat on the balcony in the sun sipping our bubbly and discussing the next Old Crones challenge. After all, Kate will soon turn 80.
Mickledore Holidays supported travel and has itineraries to suit most levels of walker, including the St Oswald’s Way